Gallery 176, first floor
Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter are undoubtedly three of the most important European contemporary painters. Working in Germany after World War II—a historical moment characterized by philosopher Theodor Adorno as marking the death of poetry after the atrocities of Auschwitz—these artists proposed a vigorous reconsideration of the possibilities of pictorial practice. Through dynamically distinctive approaches, they each question the relevance of history painting, examine the relationship between painting and photography, and pursue experimentation to redefine the technical potential of painting. Kiefer, Polke, and Richter have restored a profound significance to the act of painting as a means for individual artists to unearth and transform the collective consciousness.
By tackling the subjects of history and mythology, Anselm Kiefer (born 1945) creates works of imposing fragility that are extraordinary testimonies to the possibilities of lyricism in a European landscape scarred by genocide and war. Sigmar Polke (born 1941) re-actualizes the experimental impulse—the backbone of artistic practice in the early modern period—revisiting and reinventing the explorations of Dadaists and Surrealists like Francis Picabia (French, 1879–1953) and Max Ernst (German, 1891–1976). Gerhard Richter (born 1932), who left East Germany in 1961 for a career in the West, systematically explores painting's relevance in a cultural landscape seemingly dominated by products of popular culture and the photographic image.
"Notations" is an ongoing series of gallery installations named after the 1968 book by American composer, writer, and visual artist John Cage, who was widely celebrated for his experimental approach to the arts. Cage's Notations was an international and interdisciplinary anthology of scores by avant-garde musicians, with contributions from visual artists and writers. At the same time, it was an exhibition in book form—in which the scores doubled as drawings. The "Notations" series serves as a flexible tool to explore contemporary art in the Museum's expanding collection, allowing for experimentation with various exhibition alternatives.
Anselm Kiefer was born in 1945 on the heels of World War II in Donaueschingen, a town in southern Germany. In his art, he meditates on the relevance of history painting after the Holocaust. In the early 1970s, Kiefer studied at the Düsseldorf Art Academy under Joseph Beuys, a World War II veteran who was deeply interested in the power of art and its potential for cultural healing. Under Beuys's supervision and influence, and borrowing from the Expressionist tendencies and raw surfaces of Die Brücke, (a group of Dresden-based artists formed in 1906 who sought to bridge Romanticism with Expressionism), Kiefer sought to exorcize the ghosts of the recent past with the language of contemporary art. Through the operatic scale of his monumental paintings and sculpture, which are rich in lyricism and irony, Kiefer contends that reconciliation of recent history is a necessary condition of the present moment.
With its high horizon line, the painting Nigredo demands confrontation with once-cultivated fields burned and returned to their fallow state under a faint sun. Invoking the alchemical notion of nigredo—a state in which chemical elements are reduced and blackened in order to reach the mythical philosopher's stone, a material that alchemists believed could turn anything to gold—the painting embodies Kiefer's larger ideological and aesthetic view that intertwines destruction with creation. Kiefer layered paint and unrefined materials over an enlarged photograph to create the dramatically dense surface that matches the painting's imposing scale, both reimagining and obscuring the representation of a landscape.
In Kiefer's 1992 book Dein und Mein Alter und das Alter der Welt (Your Age and Mine and the Age of the World), images of ancient pyramid ruins conjure both the grandness of civilization and its vulnerability to disaster. In this work, he exposes a photographic image to his "inverted archaeology"—layering sand and clay atop the image's surface as a paradoxical approach to reinterpreting images of the past. Throughout his extensive body of work, Kiefer continually explores past civilizations such as Egypt, seemingly in reference to Nazi Germany, restoring the tradition of history painting to the contemporary moment that demands new moral and artistic reflection.
Born in 1941, in Oels, Silesia—then occupied by Nazi Germany and now part of Poland—Sigmar Polke smuggled himself into the West at the age of twelve by feigning sleep on a train. In the West, Polke studied at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, where he met the painter Gerhard Richter and the art dealer Konrad Fischer, with whom he originated Capitalist Realism in 1963. Though short-lived, this movement propelled the artist's interest in evoking irony from the new realities of everyday life in Germany after World War II. He often photocopied and projected images from mail-order catalogues, advertisements, and newspapers, in order to incorporate them into his paintings by hand. Reminiscent of early modern artists such as Kurt Schwitters (German, 1887–1948) and Francis Picabia (French, 1879–1953), Polke possesses an experimental spirit that never ceases to push the limits of painting, from its methods and techniques to its expressive possibilities.
Polke's wide range of imagery often challenges the restraints of reason and consciousness. Searching for truth outside the bounds of science, Polke acts as an alchemist-painter—mixing poisonous acids, smoke, and newly created pigments into his paintings. Thwarting modernist concerns for contained forms and permanent objects in favor of testing the mutability of images, Polke commenced his series of experimental abstractions, such as Ginkgo (above left), in the 1980s. In this work, a sensuously amorphous, semitranslucent deluge of color over the canvas cloth subtly reveals the painting's supportive wooden structure, in effect exposing its very physical structure.
Born in Dresden in 1932, Gerhard Richter witnessed the postwar transformations of Europe from the marginal perspective of East Germany, where he trained as a commercial painter. In 1961, he traversed the cultural and political divide to West Germany, where he began to explore the possibilities of painting, influenced by his newfound access to western artistic movements. In 1963, Richter and his German contemporaries Sigmar Polke and Konrad Fischer (1939–1996) staged Life with Pop: A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism, an exhibition in a furniture store that recalled Fluxus happenings in its spontaneous and performative nature as well as Pop Art in its display of everyday objects.
In reaction to the simple visual forms of Pop Art and its interest in advertising and the commercialized object, Richter began to meticulously interrogate the photographic image in the early 1960s. Neun Objekte (Nine Objects) of 1969 embodies his fascination with and distrust of the assumed veracity of images. In these works, he uses offset lithography to capture the perspectival conundrums created by photographing wood strip shapes, further distancing reality from the world of representation.
Throughout his career, Richter purposefully avoided uniformity and simultaneously embraced multiple painting methods. His color-chart paintings—such as 180 Färben (180 Colors) of 1971, seen on the previous page—explore the permutations of primary colors with mathematical precision and exploit the artificiality inherent in any painting. Schwann (2) (Swan ) of 1989 and Abstraktes Bild (Abstract Painting) of 1990 demonstrate Richter's experimentation with abstraction, begun in the 1970s, and are at once lyrical and mechanical, passionate and rhetorical reminders of the possibilities and contradictions embedded in image-making.
Richter's work often seeks to evacuate traditional meaning from the depiction of images. The mirrored, stainless-steel surface of Piz Boval of 1992 seems to reject images rather than reflect them. He dissociates his landscapes, such as Piz Lagrev of 1995, from their heritage in the Romantic sublime by likening them to the triviality of a snapshot. In his 1998 Ophelia (Rhombus I), an enlarged, cropped, and magnified photographic image of a painting challenges the boundaries of both mediums. Taken as a whole, Richter's oeuvre possesses as much depth as breadth and represents the artist's unceasing dual commitment to exposing the potential and the limitations of representation.
Carlos Basualdo • Curator of Contemporary Art
Erica Fisher • Project Curatorial Assistant