The following is a feature article from the summer issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books: Magazine. Click here to get your subscription today.
I advocate site-specific optimism. Hope for a better tomorrow is delusional, but we can still look forward to the next few hours with a high heart. I may have sinned flagrantly in the past, broken your heart last year, and inadvertently betrayed a trust four hours ago. Our planet may suffer an asteroid impact tomorrow afternoon, or I may keel over in a shopping mall. I may even forget today tomorrow, but there is nothing prohibiting us from having a lovely lunch at Robuchon this afternoon, gobbling calamari, gossiping about Junior League lesbians, and telling jokes about radioactive art dealers. If things get dire, we might emulate the French dandy who began reading the Illiad in Greek on the night before he went to the guillotine. I have no doubt that he folded down the page as he laid the book aside, just to make a tiny point about slaughtering knowledge.
— Dave Hickey, Pirates and Farmers
LOOKING FORWARD to the next few hours — even minutes — is apparently Anselm Kiefer’s modus operandi in Volume 1 of his Notebooks. His primary subjects are imminence and immanence, and the way in which they, as abstract concepts and active tactics, keep us in the present tense and quell fears of annihilation.
Kiefer is firmly canonized — widely considered one of the best artists in the world, a contemporary Picasso. His sculptures, installations, architectural endeavors, and artists’ books pack astonishing talismanic charge, yet the Notebooks do not have that same charge. Instead, they reveal an associative mind that bends everything into metaphor.
Many of Kiefer’s diary entries, covering March 1998 through December 1999, are terrifyingly current. Take his trip to India on January 28, 1999, during which entries on a single day clock in at 10:45 am, 10:55, 11:15, 11:25, and so on. These posts, which read like erudite, metaphysical Facebook blurbs, report immediately on scenery and experience. One has to wonder if the man is capable of living any moment without critical scrutiny. Is this deep level journaling total Buddhism, or consummate narcissism? Both, I suppose. Those boundaries blur, and the confusion keeps us reading.
Here is Kiefer pondering his ejaculation into an artist’s book, 20 Years of Solitude (1993):
Another example of how enormous concepts like destiny, fate, art and life are handled in the most metaphorical way is on pages 184. There is an account of the ejaculate that was intended for page 184 (=destined, destiny or fate), but squirted too far, missed the book and landed on a photograph that happened to be lying there and so had nothing to do with the book. This spatial “miss” is seen from this point on as the part of life that passes alongside one’s work on a book, a painting, etc., as that which isn’t transformed into the book, painting etc., on page 190 there is even a mention of jealousy for that which occurs alongside the painting or book. In other words the discrepancy between art and life.
This kind of pretentious navel-gazing could really turn someone off. Chronicling his petites morts, snooze; but there is so much more here. These Notebooks, which also often remark upon his burgeoning computer skills and how it takes up to “25 minutes to upload a file to the floppy disk,” are eerily all-too-contemporary when it comes to that existential angst that drives some social media fixations today — again the fine line between BE HERE NOW and LOOK AT ME. These journals are a reminder that our obsessions with staying occupied and proving we are real (i.e. selfies for some; jerking off for others) are not dictated by technology but rather are innate human traits expressible across behaviors and mediums. Kiefer’s art and writing remind us that these compulsions have driven artistic practice since the dawn of time, not only in time-specific mediums (like narrative writing and music) but also in textual and visual mediums (like poetry and painting), which are arguably less tethered to time. See John Berger’s essay “Painting and Time”:
The language of pictorial art, because it was static, became the language of such timelessness. Yet what it spoke about — unlike geometry — was the sensuous, the particular and ephemeral. Its mediation between the realm of the timeless and the visible and tangible was more total and poignant than that of any other art. Hence its iconic function, and special power.
Kiefer, a German artist, has been living inside his Gesamtkunstwerk La Ribaute for over 20 years. The 200-acre artist’s compound outside Barjac, France, is an architectural wonder, and the subject of a feature-length documentary Over the Cities Your Grass Will Grow. Kiefer famously studied under Joseph Beuys, and early on was (erroneously) categorized as a German Neo-Expressionist. Starting out in two-dimensional mediums like painting (especially watercolor), drawing, and wonderful collaged artist’s books, he has long since moved on to monumental works excavated into museum installations, especially using lead and plaster:
Bulldozers, overhead cranes, cherry pickers, trucks, steamrollers… as a painter and sculptor, Kiefer long ago stopped working with brush, spatula, chisel, and pencil; his utensils include construction equipment as well as axes, picks, and flamethrowers, everything or almost everything else a man needs to turn a piece of land into his land and the world into his world.
Kiefer’s expertise lies in expressing how objects accrue symbolic value; as revealed in his notebooks, much of this is worked out in his writing practice. See his letter to Daniel Arasse after reading his book, The Guillotine and The Terror:
I particularly admire how you were able to gather a multitude of ideas around a single object (the guillotine) thus creating a symbol that is at once simple and infinitely complex, which is what artists attempt to do in their work.
It is also fascinating to learn about how he metaphorically considers his signature materials:
With a substance like lead, you start from an assumption of abundance, an abundance of meaning, and this abundance calls to you when you manipulate this substance in certain ways, it calls forth even more; a photograph doesn’t speak to you at all. On the contrary, it’s eloquent in its very meagerness. It’s diaphanous, thin in its poverty. It emits no call, but you still manipulate it, “work on it,” you don’t want to leave it as it is, so transparent, so invisible, so insignificant. That’s what’s decisive: you don’t want to let it remain so insignificant. With other substances such as lead, for example, the significance is already there before you. You only need to find it.
The Notebooks remind me of one of my favorite stories, Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols.” In it, the protagonist hopelessly (and a bit satirically) suffers from “referential mania,” reading too much into everything without a filter; he is overwhelmed by input from his surroundings. He is institutionalized, and his mania vanquishes him. Every event, object, and behavior has colossal symbolic value. I do not make this association as an insult to Kiefer; rather I admire him for being so self-aware that he constantly writes about tempering these tendencies. Some of the most trenchant passages reveal the intellectual processes he self-prescribes in attempt to tame his romanticism:
You would like to cool this indeterminate, consuming, boundless emotion by thinking, and so you begin to question, although this questioning is equally boundless (it may well get caught in the same endless loops emotions do.) but the process of questioning and the resulting answers create a skeletal structure, which you can’t claim about this emotion. This ‘structure’ is merely provisional, of course, because there is no end to the questioning, a new question lurks behind every answer. In this play of questions and answers, you can’t make any real progress (can you make progress without emotions?). You don’t advance, as it were.
In some of these confessional passages, he discusses how painting and writing fulfill different functions for him, satisfying different aspects of his yearning to track feeling versus thinking:
There was a point this afternoon, while painting the yellow flower, when there was a reason to write something down, something that came to mind while painting the flowers but wasn’t directly related to the flowers, therefore couldn’t be painting but could be written about. Now, however, it’s gone, forgotten. The laptop was then turned on, no doubt to see if there were any traces of what had been forgotten. Once it’s clear there are no traces, it will be turned off again.
Kiefer can find symbolism and romance in a doorknob. It’s a joy to read. For example, he takes up journaling again because he is preoccupied with a mosaic project “Les Reines de France:”
A MOSAIC THAT HAS LOST ITS TILES
The question that has preoccupied the painter today is: how many tiles can be lost before it’s no longer a mosaic? (8)
A truly romantic mosaic is one that is missing as many tiles as possible. (9)
Most of his entries thematically mirror the preoccupations in his artwork, namely his adamant belief in emptiness as an infinite aquifer. These passages are my favorite because he shares with his readers how he generates ideas out of thin air; it’s a great inspiration to know that someone this prolific is not simply constantly blessed with genius. His discipline alone is humbling:
Sitting with my laptop, waiting. For what? What differentiates this waiting form waiting for a train or a flight? In both cases you wait until something arrives. In the case of waiting for something to write, the waiting is already a part of what is to be written down. Because something is already ‘at work’ while you wait, which could end the wait.
As he says, EMPTY SPACE IS NOT NOTHING, NOR IS IT A VESSEL.
That Kiefer’s notes have a spatial component speaks to his sculptural affinity for books. Books contain content-knowledge but as physical objects they also literally house or encase knowledge; they function as both concrete and ephemeral recordings. His expanded definition of books and their material possibilities is what originally drew me to his art in my youth. For Kiefer the “craft of bookbinding” is thematically tied to the layering of time, making his Notebooks an invaluable insight into his work. He claims that an empty book “reveals an obvious horror vacui” — because it is “bound and empty,” it calls for something. Later on, he reveals his oscillations between thinking and making a book in detail, collating plans and action into what he calls “population”:
POPULATING (the studio)
How is it with clothing in books? Clothes hardened in plaster as book pages. Cardboard covered in a thin layer of plaster, on which the wet plaster clothes are laid? That’s probably the best way, will have to try it tomorrow. You could also write on it later.
It has actually been a month since anything was written. Also nothing next or next to nothing in the notebooks. It’s difficult to create a new file on this new laptop. But now it’s done…
Now there are books with plaster pages. These plaster walls that are empty. Strangely emptier than blank pages. Why? Stood before them for a long time, leafed through them as if looking for a particular page since each page is different…it’s a sensation to run your fingers over the pages of the plaster books, to see them disappear into the white. And longing, as it is behind the mountains, under the stars, by the sea. The insistent, endless, insatiable longing that accumulates before emptiness. You have to take a pencil, take graphite to these white pages. Should you do it without direction, without an idea, just listening to the sound the graphite makes on the plaster?
These Notebooks are finely edited, focusing on artistic practice and process over juicy personal dirt. No gossip in here, except for the discovery of his grueling travel production schedule and intense traveling for exhibitions (one itinerary goes: France, London, New York, Caribbean, Barjac with over a month on the road). It also details the physical symptoms of career stress and his treatments.
I appreciate these few personal tidbits as roadmaps for emerging artists who might someday grapple with the success Kiefer has learned how to navigate. Many entries too are strictly observational, displaying Kiefer’s keen eye. Descriptions of water and weather: rain, clouds, ponds, lakes, the way sun and moon reflect on water; descriptions of plants in close-up or in passing, colors of plants and the way they change with light and environmental shifts; architecture for its design, function, and symbolism; 11 pages of encyclopedic research for his Women in Antiquity installation. And always, the descriptions return to discussions of loss, absence, void, emptiness, the fertile ground he locates in nullity:
Diary of a fixation, hence the impression of stasis, of endless incantations for the purpose of achieving greater clarity. And yet at the same time beautiful imagery, like the moons going to the beach, damp lips in the sand, etc. strange, the way the spiritual, the intellectual (tzimtzum, etc.) pervades the banal and stagnant, which then leads to new pictures.
I love being in a room with Kiefer’s art — the relationship between the tools he used and his body are always apparent, as they are in this writing. In this, he masterfully brings “work” back to its etymological origins, per David Levi Strauss’s explication of the word in “Laborare Est Orare”:
In its Greek beginnings, the tool or implement was the organon, “that with which one works.” From there we get bodily organs as instruments of sense or faculty, and the organic as the entire category of organized bodies (plants and animals), but always in the sense of them acting as an instrument of nature or art, to a certain end. All this from the root of work.
I crave to know if Anselm Kiefer will dissolve into pure light due to his several hours of yoga per day, copious nature walks and art studio practice, then more mediating at night (nice schedule to counterbalance the stress). Or if this man seriously needs a break from his own overactive brain; a little of both, I imagine. The Notebooks fundamentally call into question the very nature of preoccupation: how it arises, why and how one experiences the need for it, how engrossment affects character and behavior over time. Kiefer seems to be in a panic most of the time, that he’ll cease to exist physically if he’s not reporting in his diary or making art. This anxiety is at the root of writing exercises he uses to face the white page — the metaphysical void that is the heart of his aesthetic. The articulated exigency Kiefer feels and generously documents helps me to understand how he’s cultivated such longevity as an artist. Whether you think Kiefer is the Greatest Living Artist or an Overrated Blowhard (ample critics in both camps out there), I think this book is worth a read. These Notebooks chronicle a rich and wonderful wellspring of textual praxis embracing the cultivation and sustenance inherent to enduring creative processes. In other words, even though in my opinion, Anselm Kiefer is taking life and his role in it all a little too seriously, the flipside is that we as reader and viewers gain immense insight into forging artistic identity thanks to his zeal and perseverance. These Notebooks are a gift.