Anselm Kiefer, White Cube, review: not quite touching the void

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Anselm Kiefer's Der Gordische Knoten 2019
Anselm Kiefer's Der Gordische Knoten (2019) Credit: © Anselm Kiefer. Photo © Georges Poncet, Courtesy White Cube

Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot at White Cube Bermondsey

You would assume that Anselm Kiefer knows what he’s doing. He’s been working since the early Seventies; his profile among contemporary artists is unimpeachably high. He primarily paints and sculpts, and, as with the works in Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot – a new exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey – his canvases often combine the two. 

They’re weighty, in every sense. The largest one here, Ramanujan Summation – 1/12 (2019), is six-and-a-half metres square, its surface a heavy blend of emulsion, acrylic, shellac and oil. Like the others here, it’s a gigantic landscape, harrowed, ashen and bleak, with wooden stumps stretching in eerie rows to something like infinity. Pressed into many of the paintings are objects: branches shaped like runes or axes or stacks of burned books – a Kiefer staple – tied to the canvas by rusting wire. 

When he was young, Kiefer studied in his native Germany with Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), a performance artist who called himself “shamanic” and hoped to enchant rather than instruct his audience. While Kiefer’s art, so heavy and grim, may seem worlds away from that sentiment, it actually works by enchantment too: the disasters are kept obscure. 

And yet everything, as if bent by historical gravity, leads back to one catastrophe. Kiefer’s first works, at the end of the Sixties, were satires of Nazi pretension. He went to former occupied territories and photographed himself, small against the land, making rigid fascist salutes. More than one subsequent painting has been titled Für Paul Celan, for the poet who survived a Nazi labour camp. The Holocaust was a “taboo subject” in post-war Germany, Kiefer complained – time for art to stare into the void.

Ramanujan Summation - 1/12 2019 Credit: © Anselm Kiefer. Photo © Charles Duprat, Courtesy White Cube

And so, 50 years since Kiefer began, I mistrust the title of this show. The artist claims, variously, that these new works are either about runes and myths (though what use is a symbol that few visitors can read?) or about string theory, a strand of theoretical physics that even he admits he doesn’t understand. There are mathematical equations scrawled across the works, especially the 30 vitrines in the central corridor, which are gloomy and brooding, filled with sinister coils of tubes. 

The works have power in spite of these concepts, not because of them. Kiefer has often said that art should be “difficult”, “not entertainment”. If you strip away the symbols, the works here seem of a piece with his existing oeuvre: made to be witnessed, not to be read. In Die Lebenden und die Toten (The Living and the Dead, 2019), for instance, the seared landscape bends upwards into a ghostly amphitheatre – maybe a parliament, or a court – but it’s obscured by a mass of blackened straw, obtruding flatly down the canvas, destroying the neat one-point perspective that the painting strove to have. 

Forget Kiefer’s new interests; they haven’t really made a mark. If these paintings were as concerned with physics as he says they are, they would be energetic but confused. But they’re too potent to conform to theories or tales. These, I think, are still pictures of history; pictures of guilt.

Until 26 January. Info: whitecube.com