New YorkGagosian Gallery
May 3 – June 8, 2013
With the words “The quality of mercy is not strain’d,” Portia lays out the principle that mercy is a one-size-fits-all concept; that charity and forbearance are to be shown to innocent and guilty alike; that mercy, like justice, is blind. In his newest cycle of paintings, Morgenthau Plan, Anselm Kiefer lets the gentle rain drop on the fields of our worst intentions and insists we welcome our onetime aggressors into the fold. Based on a short-lived strategy devised in 1944 by America’s Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, one that would have parceled out Germany’s industrial regions to the victors and removed any vestige of industry from the Fatherland, the plan would have caused massive famine throughout the country and deprived Europe of the industrial dynamo that it so desperately needed after the cessation of hostilities. In fact, the only one who seems to have benefitted from the plan was Goebbels, who was able to use the dire threat posed by the universally unpopular American plan to rouse the German nation to defend itself with renewed vigor.
The paintings, with their wedding-cake-icing-thick impasto brushstrokes, illustrate a German pastoral countryside that fulfills two nightmarish visions: the romantic/nationalistic imagery conjured up by the National Socialists, and the impracticable and cruel scenario of the New Germany, a nation of farmers, emptied of much of its population through starvation and forced migration. The paintings oscillate between these two poles, between cobalt blue skies scudded with cottony clouds and white fields punctuated by close-ups of Queen Anne’s Lace shimmering in the breeze, such as in “der Morgenthau Plan” (2012). “Oh Halme Ihr Halme, Oh Halme der Nacht” (2012) is a gritty black-and-white expanse of dry pale field, overwhelmed by darkness and overhung with skies full of chalky skeletal white text, crowned by the leaden wing of a fighter plane. The images and ideas are interchangeable; it is impossible to tell whether the bright sunny landscape is a result of the pastoral post-1945 repurposing of German land, or if the airplane-wing bedecked canvas is a paean to Hitler’s credo of endless war.
Kiefer has never steered clear of an altercation with his viewers, and Morgenthau Plan follows this path, though admittedly with a lighter, gentler tread—more of an Eroica than a 5th Symphony. With the provocative exhibition Next Year in Jerusalem in 2010, he laid claim to Jewish biblical imagery that was perhaps deemed off-limits to a Catholic-born German painter/sculptor, and his seminal early photographs, “Occupations” (1969), though meant to re-educate a public to the crimes of their past, also delved into an aspect of human nature seduced by the pomp and flag-waving of nationalism, one that revels in conquest and aggression. Previously, he has demanded that we acknowledge these darker angels but in Morgenthau Plan, he presents his case for forgiving them.
Along these lines, Kiefer is unabashedly critical of the plan. The sculptures in the show, both titled “Der Morgenthau Plan” (2012–13), feature two plots of wheat made of re-bar, painted and festooned in clay and cotton with a concrete base, which give cover to a cast-metal snake in the grass, a clear gesture towards the vicious and insidious nature of the plan. But the viewer must take pause for a moment at Keifer’s uncompromising criticism of the American approach to Germany: for a moment there is the need for punishment and revenge. Perhaps 23 million dead is a fair exchange for all those who died because of Germany’s unprovoked aggression on the rest of Europe. But this is not the answer, and like Lincoln, who urged leniency towards the Confederate states or John Maynard Keynes in his “Economic Consequences of the Peace” (1919), in which he argued for a less usurious settlement than the Versailles Treaty, the solution, both economically and morally, is never vengeance.
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William Corwin is a sculptor and journalist from New York who has exhibited at The Clocktower, LaMama and Geary galleries in New York, as well as galleries in London, Hamburg, Beijing and Taipei. He is the editor of Formalism; Collected Essays of Saul Ostrow, to be published in 2023.