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In the United States, Kiefer has been hailed as a brilliant neo-Expressionist painter. But in his native West Germany, some critics label him a neo-Nazi. This charge stems from photographs Kiefer, 43, took of himself in the 1960s dressed as a Nazi officer. Kiefer said he donned Nazi clothes to understand an experience many Germans have preferred to bury. "I do not identify with Nero or Hitler," Kiefer said in a rare public statement. "But I have to reenact what they did just a little bit in order to understand the madness." Don't expect a further explanation. For the first American retrospective of his work, now at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, he laid down strict ground rules—no interviews, no photo sessions. But even though Kiefer, living quietly in Buchen, West Germany, avoids celebrity, his art speaks powerfully.
This is a mysterious, disturbing exhibition by a major painter whose works transcend national boundaries. Kiefer is a fervid intellectual forager, and references to the Bible, alchemy, Wagnerian opera and Norse myth turn up repeatedly in his paintings. Yet he can create distinctly German art, with charred landscapes and vast architectural spaces suggesting buildings that were constructed during the Third Reich and are now crumbling under the weight of history. Some of Kiefer's monumental canvases (as large as 12 feet by 18 feet) seem to exude the stench of suffering that rises from a burning land. In "Iron Path" (1986), railroad tracks rise vertically toward a grim sky. Like the waters of a stormy sea, the earth has been churned into an impasto of mud-colored oils. Do the tracks lead to the Nazi death camps? There are no signs, only symbols. Two golden orbs hang in the shallow sky; iron shoes used to scale telephone poles and decorated with olive branches are attached to the tracks. To create this piece, Kiefer adapted a photograph he had taken of a switching yard in France.
Typically, Kiefer uses a free range of materials. Besides oils, he applies photographs, woodcuts, lead, steel, copper and wire to his surfaces. To the despair of art conservators, Kiefer even uses straw in some works. In "Nuremberg" (1982), rows of straw lie scattered across a painting of barren, scorched earth. (Kiefer singed the canvas with a blowtorch.)
The Kiefer show also features booklike creations the size of Gutenberg Bibles. Page turners wearing white gloves rhythmically turn the heavy leaves of such volumes as "Thorough-Glow" (1985-87), in which 12 pages are scarred with clay, shellac, copper wire, lead and porcelain to suggest scenes of devastation in a nuclear reactor meltdown. The exhibition—16 books and 76 paintings and watercolors—was mounted by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is at the Museum of Contemporary Art through Sept. 11, then moves to New York's Museum of Modern Art on Oct. 17. A fine catalog by Mark Rosenthal, a Philadelphia Museum curator, accompanies the show.