nselm Kiefer was born in Germany in 1945 during the final days of the collapse of the Third Reich. The country had been all but destroyed by Hitler’s war, and Kiefer was raised in the physical and ideological ruins left in its wake. The absence of structure underlying his young existence led him to have a tenuous, skeptical relationship with institutional belief. Though raised a strict Catholic, Kiefer was wary of dogma. He witnessed firsthand what can happen when an edifice of principles gives way.
In 1969 Kiefer staged Occupations, a series of self-portraits featuring the artist in front of various European monuments with his arm raised in the Nazi salute. Far from the provocation it was perceived as, Occupations was an effort to plumb the dark depths of memory and symbolism, to comprehend some aspect of the incomprehensible by occupying the same physical and emotional space.
His early work was an exercise in alchemy as Kiefer sought to transmute German allegory into a bleak universal truth. Fecund forest appears in his paintings as scorched black earth, the once dense and fertile landscape littered with ember and ash. He is preoccupied with the image of flame and with the faint line that separates fire’s power to purify or destroy.
Later in his career, Kiefer turned his attention to towers, to precarious vertical expanse. Jericho, a temporary installation erected in the courtyard of the Royal Academy in London in 2007, exemplified this theme. Two towers reached haphazardly for the sky, their construction serving as a study in instability: both their own and that of the institution surrounding them. The jagged concrete structures looked ready to collapse at any moment, imparted a sense of insecurity and foreboding. But despite their dark, almost nihilistic aesthetic, the towers, Kiefer insists, represented growth and renewal. “My thought,” he says, “is vertical.”
And perhaps it is with this upward, rather than linear, mode of thought that we will transcend old truths and achieve new perspectives. Perhaps in the next era, all thought will be vertical.