Mark Rosenthal's Anselm Kiefer, the catalogue to the Art Institute of Chicago's 1987 Kiefer retrospective, is an average exhibition catalogue--and in its unexceptionality it fails to rise to the challenge of the artist who may well be our greatest living painter. (As I've written elsewhere, I consider Kiefer the only living painter to whom the adjective 'great' can be unhesitatingly applied.) The reproductions in this book are very good. My only complaint is that they are not larger and there are not more of them. (Cost considerations doubtless limited the volume's size.) With Rosenthal's text, however, I have some major quarrels. Most of them stem from his overly archetypal understanding of Kiefer's work. Drawing upon the writings of historian of religion Mircea Eliade (the University of Chicago's favorite Romanian fascist), Rosenthal's interpretations construct a Kiefer who is far too otherworldly, an alchemical-spiritual seeker of transcendence who concerns are increasingly divorced from historical and political reality. The most obvious problem with this 'Kiefer' is that he is not the artist who created most of the works reproduced alongside the text. The real Kiefer is an emotionally--indeed, furiously--politically engaged artist whose images deliberately and provocatively call up the reality of the present and the recent past. A single example of authorial misreading can stand as a synecdoche for the entire catalogue: Kiefer's 1986 painting Iron Path shows railroad tracks moving through a blasted gray-white landscape. Upon first encountering the image, most viewers will immediately understand it as a reference to the Holocaust. Not so Rosenthal, whose transcendental orientation forces him to interpret the tracks as an image of otherworldly connection, a kind of Jacob's Ladder. Almost perversely, his brief discussion of the painting fails to mention the image's most immediate historical resonance. Fortunately, Kiefer's art is strong enough to blow away Rosenthal's hackneyed ahistorical interpretations. Just turn to page 149 and spend a while looking at and thinking about Kiefer's Osiris and Isis (1985-87), a huge painting of a vast pyramidal monument to which Kiefer has attached a TV circuit board from which emanates a network of wires connected to ceramic shards. Think about the implications of Kiefer's surrealist collision of the ancient sacred and the technological sublime, and you will come to know the artist's work more deeply than does the author of this catalogue.
Having read many recent exhibition catalogues, I almost want to congratulate Rosenthal for not interpreting Kiefer's work in terms of some trendy critical theory du jour (Foucaultian, Lacanian). But unfortunately he feels compelled to embrace a hermeneutic dustier than the collected works of Northrop Frye.