Breakfast With Anselm Kiefer, Who Made That Flying Lead Book at Rockefeller Center

Anselm Kiefer, Uraeus, 2017–2018. Photo: Nicholas Knight

Anselm Kiefer is one the most serious and successful artists in the world, making work as thunderous with erudition and mythic allusion as Wagner (Simon Schama once said that he is “incapable of making trivia.”). He’s said that art is, and perhaps should be, “difficult” and “not entertainment” and has declared — rightly, of course — that “buying art is not understanding art.” His 200-acre studio near Barjac in the south of France is a kind of Marfa for those whose aesthetics run more toward Albert Speer and Steampunk folly.

So perhaps it’s not that surprising that he just simply could not abide the fact that the high-tech cappuccino machine at the Four Seasons hotel, where he was staying and where we met for breakfast, printed, on that floating surface of foam, a cloying Good Morning.

“I don’t accept this,” he tells the waiter, insisting, when my cup arrived at the table bearing that intolerably pointless message, that I destroy the words with a clinking swish of my spoon. I do as I’m told.

Kiefer was already a bit on edge this morning because, since he was last there (some years back since these days he tends to stay at the Mercer in Soho), the 33-foot-tall limestone lobby of the hotel, which looks a bit like an Egyptian temple (“I like Egyptian temples,” he says when I make that observation) and was designed by I.M. Pei and opened in 1993, had been undermined by plantings and lights and other, to his mind misbegotten, attempts to soften its austere monumentality. “I never will go, come back here, because it’s so horrible. This is decoration, I cannot have it, you know?” he says. “I hate the writing on the coffee that they put there and all the flowers and all the nonsense.”

This is why he likes Speer’s architecture, as well as the earlier version of this lobby. “I want to be overwhelmed,” he tells me. “I’m overwhelmed by music, by poetry, and if I’m no more overwhelmed, I die. You know what I mean? It’s important to be overwhelmed.” In conversation, he makes passing reference to the “Black milk of morning” image in Paul Celan’s poem Fugue of Death, which was composed in a concentration camp and has inspired many of Kiefer’s works, but it’s also a kind of double entendre about our cappuccinos. His German deadpan humor is tuned black and bleak, but, realizing that, he’s also impish. Like, for example, the project which put him on the map as a 24-year-old art student in 1969, Occupations, which consisted of photographs of him giving the “Sieg Heil” salute outside prominent buildings in France, Switzerland, and Italy. Many people were outraged by it. “Germans are afraid of taboos,” he says. But it was a kind of joke, I venture. “It was funny, yeah,” he agrees, then adds: “I was in some ways naïve.”

To be honest, I’d been worried about meeting him: In previous interviews I’d read, as well as just in his work, Kiefer seems like he’d be quite a dour character, heavy with his chosen burden of the tragedy of history. “I thought that too,” says Manuela Luca-Dazio, his girlfriend and a curator of the Venice Biennale, who’d joined us for breakfast.

“You thought that?” Kiefer said, turning to her. “It happens. People think I’m a monster, you know?” But he’s both serious and sees the bleak humor in everything. “It’s desperate in the world. So you have to be funny, you know? Otherwise, you cannot live.”

Kiefer was in town to erect his first site-specific outdoor public sculpture in the U.S., called Uraeus, at the top of the Channel Gardens on Fifth Avenue: a great big lead book with eagle wings perched atop a staff with a serpent twined around it. It’s 20-feet tall, with a 30-foot wingspan, with a pile of other, flightless books, broken and defeated-looking, scattered about its base. Tourists gather, smartphones raised in awed obedience to its Great Somethingness.

Okay, so what might it be trying to tell us? As Nicholas Baume, who runs the nonprofit Public Art Fund, which brought Ai Weiwei’s Good Fences Make Good Neighbors project to town — all over town — last fall, and commissioned this work too, tells me: Kiefer’s “not a kind of elevator-pitch artist, this means this.” And if you press him, “he’ll also say things to kind of throw you off.”

Baume says Kiefer did, at one point, show him a couple of different designs for it, including one where wings were turned down, rather than taking flight — which would give it a different feel for sure.

Here’s a quick unpacking: Its title comes from the ancient Egyptian erect-cobra power motif (see: King Tut’s forehead), and the rod and snake are a variation on the Rod of Asclepius (the Greek god of medicine). The book, or pallette, with wings is an image that Kiefer has used in his paintings since the mid-1970s. The lead it’s made of references alchemy.

At breakfast, as Robin Vousden, his representative from Gagosian Gallery, showed me examples he’d Googled up on his phone of the motif, I told Kiefer that one tourist I overheard on the sidewalk had mansplained to his girlfriend that it was celebrating the triumph of literacy. That seemed to be a somewhat too optimistic read than he’d readily get behind, as was my venture that it was perhaps somehow in conversation with the inscription on the admittedly rather distant façade of 30 Rockefeller behind it (“Wisdom and Knowledge Shall be the Stability of Thy Times”), which he said he’d not noticed.

Kiefer noted that that it combined the snake-god of upper Egypt with the vulture-god of lower Egypt (although he often referred to the wings as those of an eagle to Baume). “So that’s one allusion,” he allows. “But you know the exodus. When they were going out of Egypt — they had a problem with snakes, they were biting,” he says, and Moses had his magical snake-on-a-staff which healed bites by looking at it. “The snake is everywhere a big, important symbol,” he says.

I ask him what’s up with the books on the ground. “Are you Catholic?” he asks. “Jesus says to the disciples, ‘You’re all vocated. But only a few are chosen.’” And this is the chosen book? Yeah.”

The piece has been eight years in the making. “He really fell in love with one of the piers on the Hudson,” Baume told me. “Which was almost a Kiefer before he had gotten to it, a kind of ruin with layers of history.” But then Hurricane Sandy finished it off, so it couldn’t be the site of a sculpture.

“Then the next idea was to have barges going up the Hudson River and coming down the East River,” circling continuously, says Kiefer, with one of his house sculptures on it. “Why we didn’t do this, I forget. It was too complicated, I think.”

How would you be able to find it?

This was not my problem, I don’t know why it didn’t work. Wait a moment. It was something about permission, you know? I don’t know.”

Which eventually brought them back to Rockefeller Center, which he’d originally dismissed as too obvious and tainted by the fact other artists had been there before him. (Elmgreen & Dragset installed a big sculpture of an upturned, 1950s kidney-shaped swimming pool, titled Van Gogh’s Ear, since it looked also like an ear, there in 2016.)

“I was at first worried because I think normally a work of art has to have its own room, it’s own building,” he says. “You need the threshold to go to it. I don’t decorate.”

He went on: “When I was a kid. I lived in a little village without a radio, television, nothing. I always drew skyscrapers when I was 5, 6 years old.”

Why didn’t you become an architect then, I ask.

“An architect can never do what he wants, no? What I don’t want at all [is] to convince someone.”

Right now, Uraeus looks quite at home in the company of Rockefeller Center’s permanent mytho-allegorical residents, Prometheus and Atlas, but it’ll only be up for Instagramming until July 22.

“Maybe they can make it permanent,” suggests Vousden.

But Kiefer is looking forward to its return to Barjac. “And then I will build, later, the skyscrapers around it,” he says, and laughs.

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