Anselm Kiefer, Punctum @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A total of 25 photographic works, generally framed in steel and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the two room gallery space.

The following works are included in the show:

  • 8 gelatin silver print with silver toner, in steel frame, 1988-2010, 1991-2014, 1995-2012, 2010-2013, 2010-2015, sized roughly 41×63, 41×64, 42×57, 56×75, 56×76 inches
  • 9 solarized gelatin silver print with silver toner, in steel frame, 1994-2012, 1995-2014, 2010-2013, 2010-2014, 2010-2015, sized roughly 41×63 inches
  • 2 solarized gelatin silver print with silver toner and silvered glass, in steel frame, 1994-2015, 2010-2013, sized roughly 41×63 inches
  • 1 solarized gelatin silver print, in steel frame, 1975-2013, sized roughly 39×50 inches
  • 1 gelatin silver print, in steel frame, 1975-2013, sized roughly 39×50 inches
  • 1 lead on solarized gelatin silver print, in steel frame, 1998-2013, sized roughly 28×41 inches
  • 1 lead on photograph, in steel frame, 1985-1991, sized roughly 67×95 inches
  • 1 gouache on black-and-white photograph, 1969-2009, sized roughly 34×44 inches
  • 1 glass, steel, lead, and photographic prints on paper mounted on lead, electrolyzed zinc, oil, and acrylic, 2012, sized roughly 64x73x34 inches

A monograph of the artist’s work in photography, titled In the Beginning: Anselm Kiefer & Photography, was published in 2024 by Thames & Hudson (here). Hardcover, 8.2 x 10.5 inches, 208 pages, with 200 color illustrations. Includes essays by Sébastien Delot, Heiner Bastian, Jean de Loisy, and Christian Weikop, as well as a chronology and a list of works. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: Over the years, as we have systematically tracked the results of photography auctions around the world, the work of Anselm Kiefer has consistently frustrated our ability to neatly categorize whether any given artwork is considered a photograph or not. Across his long career, the powerhouse German artist has worked in various mediums, including painting, sculpture, installation, book objects, and even architecture, and photographs have often played an important role in the crafting of those works, usually as a visual ground atop which Kiefer has added any number of expressive additions, including splashed lead, gestural paint, affixed objects, and scrawled poetic lettering, among many other found materials and industrial strength techniques. Whether any of these resulting artworks can definitionally be considered photographs or not becomes hopelessly messy and entangled, to the point that we have generally applied a loose rule of thumb that says if a photograph is included in Kiefer’s mix in a given work, and it is large enough to provide a significant amount of the visual information or narrative taking place, even if it is then obscured by any number of embellishments and additions, we still tend to label such a work a photograph. Practically, such a rule is about as clear as mud, so we do our best to make reasoned judgement about the artist’s likely intent, which is of course a precariously difficult undertaking.

What is clear is that Kiefer has used, and continues to use, photography actively in his multivalent artistic practice, and that it isn’t just a casual visual note taking process or a memory jogger. Going back to his earliest days as an artist back in the late 1960s, Kiefer has made photographs as final artworks, and has repeatedly used them as a starting point for further artistic explorations, essentially “overloading” the original documentary evidence inherently provided by a photograph with interpretive meanings and associations or incorporating the photographs into larger assemblages and installations that intentionally move beyond realism into the realm of imagination. In a sense, the photographs “establish a vocabulary” that Kiefer can then expand upon or rework via various interventions, and over time, he has not only continued to make new photographs, but he restlessly reuses and recycles images from his archive, pushing on their implied meanings and reorienting their symbolic possibilities. From this photographic foundation, he then roughly (and often lyrically) upends what he presents, using that tension and anxiety to wrestle with the unresolved questions and traumas of German history, actively transforming the familiar or recognizable into “something we cannot understand”.

Photographically, Kiefer’s story essentially starts with a provocative project he made in the late 1960s, “Occupations”, in which he staged himself in various locations in Switzerland, France, and Italy, standing and making the arm extended Nazi Seig Heil salute. Needless to say, this set of carefully-orchestrated performances at charged locations (there were ultimately 18 such images made) touched a raw nerve, and very much still does even now, with Kiefer’s efforts to place himself inside the mindset of that moment making viewers intensely uncomfortable. This show doesn’t include any of the original photographs, but instead offers a single example of Kiefer reusing that imagery, in the form of a work that starts with a standing salute, but has more recently been embellished with a swirling cloud of gouache that seems to approximate a cosmic starscape, the title “The Moral Law Within Us, the Starry Heavens Above Us” poetically alluding to a conflicted self-examining existence.

Many of the images on view here have titles that reference Jericho and its fallen walls, as embodied by the monumental architectural constructions that dot the property at Kiefer’s studio at Barjac in France (seen well in the recent Wim Wenders documentary on Kiefer titled “Anselm”). Most feature these concrete towers as photographed in black-and-white on snowy winter days, where the dark geometric forms loom against grey skies like the bombed out ruins of nameless cities. Kiefer has gone on to interrupt these images with splashes and washes of silver toner, alternately adding layers of what looks like choking clouds and ghostly mists, eerie sunbursts and flames, or black sores and seething dripping decay, creating simmering uneasy moods that are evocative of elusive war-time memories but fail to resolve. A few of these works have also been solarized, reversing the tonalities at various edges, creating even further warps of possible emotion. Another group of related images references Merkaba, with bridge and ladder-like structures that enable the ascent of souls; at Kiefer’s studio, these are represented by dark blocky slabs of corrugated concrete that precariously reach from tower to tower, most of which are then depicted with blasts of “flying” chemicals making the journey that much more dangerous.

In several other works, Kiefer places nature at the center of the artistic dialogue, in the form of landscape photographs of nodding sunflowers, furrowed farm fields in winter, and dark trees in forests. Each seems to represent the continual cycles of life and death, or perhaps the invisible memories and historical legacies embedded in the land. A pair of images refer to Operation Barbarossa (Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union), via tonally reversed images of contrasty farm fields with snow in the stubbled furrows, and another snowy image follows the cropped lines of fallow fields, interrupted by splashes of silver toner like silent bomb explosions. Three images of sunflowers look up at the sagging, dried out heads from below, once again decorating them with layers of chemical splatters, some placed on a second layer of silvered glass, creating a front/back overlap that adds to the visual dissonance. While the sunflowers offer a sense of natural beauty, Kiefer’s renderings are consistently dark and foreboding, with skies turned black, flowers turned into charred crusts, and chemical residue choking the air.

This is a relatively small but powerful introductory show of Kiefer’s photography, providing a succinct survey of some of his most prominent aesthetic and conceptual approaches. To be sure, these are dark photographic visions, where histories of violence and trauma take shape as mythologies and allegories, which are then given an intimate sense of physicality with the drips and washes of silver toner that Kiefer has employed. The echoing aftermath of war (both in specific and more generally) lies in all of the images in one way or another, and the steel frames on the photographs are similarly tactile but unforgiving, scarred but still rigid. Seen as group, Kiefer’s photographs leave us with a self-questioning sense of digging in the historical dirt, searching for answers that aren’t entirely revealed. Renewal feels like part of the emotional vocabulary Kiefer is exploring, but his meditative photographic journeys remain riddled with active conflict that still feels acutely personal.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $110000 and $150000 each. Kiefer’s works incorporating photographs in one manner or another have become increasingly available in the secondary markets in the past decade, with recent prices ranging between roughly $20000 and $350000.

Send this article to a friend

Read more about: Anselm Kiefer, Gagosian Gallery

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Articles

Lyle Ashton Harris, Our first and last love @Queens Museum

Lyle Ashton Harris, Our first and last love @Queens Museum

JTF (just the facts): A retrospective exhibition, hung against white and black walls, in a series of three connected spaces (and their exterior walls) on the museum’s main floor. The ... Read on.

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter