Anselm Kiefer’s painting, Palette 1981, depicts a traditional artist’s palette suspended between two strands of burning rope. Seven flames are depicted on each strand, spaced at regular intervals along the rope’s length. The palette lies at the very centre of the composition, while the ropes span the width of the canvas. The palette and ropes are painted in black, while each of the fourteen flames are painted in white and overlaid with translucent flashes of red and ochre. The warm tones of the flames contrast with the cool grey, blue and purple tones of the composition’s background. The fluid, gestural brushstrokes of the background imply space but do not refer directly to an identifiable setting.
The picture was made in Germany during Kiefer’s residence at the Hornbach studio in the Oden Forest in 1981, a year after the artist’s first major international exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Palette combines oil paint, shellac and emulsion applied in both liquid and stiff impasto to create a complex visual effect. The raw materiality of the canvas is further emphasised by the application of sand. A paper interleaf technique has also been used, which involves temporarily adhering flat or rolled pieces of paper to small sections of the canvas at various intervals during the painting process. Kiefer applied the rolls horizontally and later peeled them back to reveal a layering effect, further enhancing the surface texture.
Kiefer began exploring the motif of the artist’s palette in 1974. The closest visual relation to the work within Kiefer’s oeuvre is Palette on a Rope (Pallete am Seil) 1977 (reproduced in Rosenthal 1987, p.66), which presents a direct compositional comparison and employs the same materials. Kyffhäuser 1980–1 (reproduced in Rosenthal 1987, pp.84–8) also shares connections with Palette. The work is a twenty-three double-page book of photographic plates. The final double page features a black and white photograph of a barren landscape over which Kiefer has painted a palette suspended by burning ropes.
Kiefer has said of the palette, a motif that recurs in many of his paintings:
The use of the palette represents the idea of the artist connecting heaven and earth. He works here but he looks up there. He is always moving between the two realms. The artists are like the shamans, who when they were meditating would sit in a tree in order to suspend themselves between heaven and earth. The palette can transform reality by suggesting new visions. Or you could say that the visionary experience finds its way to the material world through the palette.
(Auping 2005, p.171.)
However, the suspension of the palette by burning ropes in this painting could be read as signifying the threatened status of this aspiration in post-war German art. That the ropes are alight in seven places may recall the seven flames of the menorah, or seven-branched lampstand, a symbol of Judaism. In Palette Kiefer may thus be referencing the Holocaust and continued difficulties surrounding the creative act in the post-fascist world.
Mark Rosenthal, Anselm Kiefer, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art 1987.
Michael Auping, Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art Fort Worth 2005, reproduced pp.78–9.