I am alone, I put the ash flower
in the glass of ripened black, sister mouth,
the word you speak lives on before the windows
and silent climbs me, just as I had dreamt.
I stand in the full bloom of the faded hour
and save a resin for a bird delayed:
It hears the snowflake on its life-red feather,
the ice-grain in its beak, and gets through winter.
– Paul Celan
The seascape is terribly wild. I’m arrested by its nine-foot girth, which fills my field of vision and overwhelms my senses with a howling wind and tearing sky. The violence of its making is palpable. The surface tells its history in scars, burns, gashes, hemorrhages.
What keeps me looking, as the ocean roars before me, are the layers that Kiefer has laid. His paintings are thick with old tales, ties to his other works, and histories of the lands he depicts. Somehow, subtle story arcs and fine lines of poetry survive in his leaded swamps. The title of this painting comes from Paul Celan’s poem above: “Aschenbume” or “ash flower.” Celan was a Jewish Romanian poet who lived through and lost most of his family in the Holocaust. The flower that sprouts from the mouth of the dead girl carries a word that survives her.
Ash Flower has taken many incarnations over the course of Kiefer’s career. The pieces by this title vary wildly, but each gives rise to some dark growth. Often, Kiefer uses a real sunflower stalk and tills actual ashes into the surface. Here, he uses paint to the same earthy effect. More than a painting of a charred form, we feel that the paint itself is burnt and shredded.
In this avatar, the flower seems to have swollen and risen. This bloom is less of a blossom than a bacterial or algal growth, feeding off the cotton fabric of the sky. It is flourishing yet sick. And is there still a stalk? Does that thin thread, like the tail of a tornado, keep its grip on sea and sky?
Sunflowers grow to face the sun, their energy source. Kiefer makes a point of having many of his ash flowers turn downward or grow upside-down. But this bloom seems to have merged with the sun. It’s become a dark light, an obscure claret. It’s not the first time he’s transfigured flowers into celestial bodies, “The relationship was clear between the flower with its black seeds and the night with the stars. The seeds were the stars, and when I put them on the white canvas, they became inverted stars – black on white, like a negative.” When the sky flips, our dark energy source becomes negative space and gives way to the night sky, or the cosmos beyond.
Below, the churning sea reflects the bloom. I marvel at Kiefer’s alchemy, fashioning a surface that is at once water and scorched earth. The sea evokes the powerful swelling, cresting motion of waves that drown and flood. Yet, just I am about to dive in, my mouth goes dry as if I haven’t had a drink in days. I realize that if I reached out my fingers, the surface would crumble at my touch. A dead sea. It’s simultaneously a ravenous ocean and the desert crater it will become, holding multiple eras suspended.
The overlaid grid is our sectioned, rational lens. It could even be the stretcher bars of a canvas, hanging improbably on a closer plane (although, closer in time or space you couldn’t say). It’s clearly inadequate, framing little of the scene. In fact, the scene frames it, running far and away to every side.
This massive painting is large enough to fall into. I like my art to be consuming and this piece will swallow me whole. It’s stunning but not hospitable terrain. Standing in front of it the body imagines, unbidden, what it would take to survive it, to keep upright like the black blossom.