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And It’s Schnabel by a Hair : Kiefer is edged out in the continuing face-off of contemporary art’s hotshots

Once the pinnacle of the contemporary art world was high and populated by a small, exclusive band of Olympian talents. But today the top is no higher than an overpopulated swamp where artistic stature rarely rises higher than bubbles bursting from the ooze.

In such an environment, the West German Anselm Kiefer and the American Julian Schnabel pass for giants. When a Kiefer retrospective wound up a tour of the States in 1989, he’d been praised as the most original artist since Jackson Pollock and celebrated as the first painter to reveal the haunted conscience of post-World War II Germany.

An earlier Schnabel retrospective at Manhattan’s Whitney Museum revealed an artist of grandiose ambition plagued by perversity of imagination and sloppiness of execution. If the arena of art is, as some see it, a field of slow-motion gladiatorial competition, Kiefer came out of that one ahead on points.

Now another less definitive but urgently timely round is afoot as the artists update their fans in separate commercial gallery exhibitions.

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Kiefer’s uptown show at the Marian Goodman Gallery (through June 16) includes eight large recent works, one of which is as strong as anything he’s made. Called “The Breaking of the Vessel,” it consists of ceiling-high shelves of bolted-metal struts that house sheets of lead and glass rather like a bookshelf or a painting storage rack. Violently shattered panes strew the floor. The work is both bracing and sobering in its evocation of cultural destruction. It could as easily be an angry poem about present American congressional undermining of the National Endowment for the Arts as the Nazis’ book-burning or window-smashing anti-Semitic orgy on Kristallnacht. Not that the two things are comparable.

It could also be about something completely different.

When Kiefer plays it in his familiar manner he remains at his best. “Zim Zum” is a landscape whose firmament is formed from horizontal strips of rumpled, corroded metal--rather literally a leaden sky. The ground is painted with a fallow lake in the center. It so exactly reflects the gray ether it looks like a hole in the Earth. It’s wonderfully brooding and heroic.

The problem comes from another sort of reflection--that of the balance of works in the exhibition. Most are devoted to the symbolic persona of Lilith, the biblical Adam’s failed first wife. In the Hebrew Kabbalah she became an important symbol of destruction--a rapacious seductress and child-slayer.

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Works on the Lilith motif use various combinations of women’s and girl’s dresses covered in deathly, dun-colored earth juxtaposed with tangled wires, gritty depressed surfaces and a toy-size model airplane that resembles the old Stuka fighter-bomber. Some observers immediately associated these symbols with Holocaust victims. Which brings us to one of the central problems of Kiefer’s art.

His revelation of the German conscience has been intensely moving, but it is in some ways an extra-artistic issue. To go on appreciating him primarily in this way is a subtler version of falling into the ancient trap of liking art for its subject matter. That painting of Rouen cathedral is good because it reminds me of my trip to France. That nude is good because I find the figure sexy.

Viewed artistically, Kiefer’s use of dresses and toys links him to the art of assemblage with its heavy freight of nostalgia and autobiography. It provides ground for viewing these works as intensely and narrowly personal broodings rather than the mythical generalities they pretend to be. The little airplane, for example, might refer to the shooting down of the fighter plane his mentor Joseph Beuys crashed during World War II. In one work the plane is making a nose-dive into the top of Lilith’s dress, which could as easily be a metaphor of personal sexual anxiety as anything more universal.

Led to the suspicion that the Lilith compositions are confessional rather than epic, we suddenly notice how weak they are artistically. Scattering of form and excessively heavy reliance on symbolism reveal them as lugubriously self-indulgent. It is as if Kiefer, the champ, bumbled into the shortcomings of his imaginary rival, Schnabel.

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At first gander Schnabel’s show at the new Pace Gallery in SoHo (through June 29) is nothing short of awesome. The large gallery is punctuated with behemoth bronze sculpture that loom up to 14 feet tall. It feels like something between the intimidating grandeur of the Assyrian monuments in the Louvre and the temple of an imaginary tribe of primitive Cyclopean giants. Whatever may be said hereafter, this guy really knows how to make an impression.

He also knows how to be idiotically perverse. Here is someone who clearly has the talent to turn from painting to sculpture and invest it with the solemn power of ancient cultures. Four big angled T shapes called “Tomb Panels” run along one wall with the ceremonial solemnity. Perhaps the single most imposing work here is “Golem,” a huge hatchet-headed abstraction in which seems to lurk the spirit of a pre-Columbian deity. Not only terrific in itself, the story of its making shows Schnabel’s alert inventiveness.

It seems he had taken another work, “Gradiva,” to a bronze foundry for casting. It stands nearby, is clearly weaker than “Golem” and is supposed to be (wince) a self-portrait. Anyhow when he saw the mold for it with its rough surface and metal struts he decided to have that cast too, resulting in what is arguably the shows strongest work.

The trouble is Schnabel seems incapable of distinguishing between his creative flashes and his silliest whims. Two works that stand on tables incorporate trashy versions of New Guinea shaman figures. One in which the figure is smashed Ozymandius-style is titled “Physician Heal Thyself.” A few feet away a tall, leathery funnel-shape stands on stilts topped by a cast parrot. It is called “Barbara Bush Skipping Down the Champs Elysees.” A leaning pole bearing a small carousel horse is called “The Only Really Nice Thing He Had Was His Linens.” Sounds like a bad joke from “Brideshead Revisited.” Then there is the fetish-bag shape topped with a rough torso and dubbed “Self-Portrait With Champagne Glass.”

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An argument over the significance of titles is as old as art, but in the end the artist has to take responsibility for them along with the rest of the work. At best Schnabel’s silly characterizations of his efforts are a distraction. At worst they are an insecure rejection of his own worth or an arrogant unwillingness to let his art be more important than his zeppelin-sized ego.

So who wins the round--the muscle-bound heavy from New Yuck or the incumbent champ from Deutschland? Schnabel picked up points for widening his repertoire. Kiefer held steady but lost a few for dropping his guard.

This round to Schnabel, but the match goes on for a lifetime. And it’s a fight both can win.


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