IT'S entirely possible that West German artist Anselm Kiefer may be 20th-century modernism's last major master. If so, he will bring to a dramatic conclusion what such pioneers as Picasso, Matisse, Nolde, and Kandinsky set in motion 80 years ago. Just as important, he may well be the last artist sufficiently powerful, committed, and drenched in modernist ideals to respond to the dread cry of alienation, anxiety, and despair sent forth into this century by Edvard Munch's soul-searing 1895 lithograph, ``The Cry.''
That cry heralded mankind's rude awakening to an age of starker and more awesome dimensions of awareness than any it had known - dimensions that would lead either to greater spiritual enlightenment or, as would happen too often, the kind of despair that seeks refuge in sensationalism, totalitarianism, and oblivion.
This soul-cry of the century was heard in no-man's-land during World War I, in Guernica, Dachau, Hiroshima, Vietnam, and Cambodia. It is heard in Harlem, Ethiopia; among the homeless on our cities' streets, in our prisons, hospitals, and mental institutions; in political torture, drug addiction, and indifference to others.
It found its way into art not only in the tragic, compassionate, or violent images of Rouault, Kollwitz, Picasso, and Beckmann, but even in the abstractions of purists like Mondrian and Brancusi, who responded to the nihilism and despair around them by fashioning icons of irreducible and unarguable perfection.
Formalist theory could neither diminish nor deflect the cry, however, as Pollock proved in his huge, labyrinthian canvases, and as other Abstract Expressionists like Kline, Rothko, and de Kooning, proved in theirs. Not even Warhol's studied avoidance of its implications nor the New Realists' insistence on its irrelevance could suppress it.
Despite everything, the cry persisted and was addressed, directly or indirectly, by almost every artist of note during the past two decades, from Joseph Beuys and the Neo-Expressionists to such recent ``post-modernists'' as Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Eric Fischl.
None of the latter, however, is quite capable of engaging it in depth. Compared with Munch's original print or Picasso's ``Guernica,'' their work appears flaccid and culturally two-dimensional. The passion and conviction simply are not there, to say nothing of the vision needed to engage so awesome and final a perception.
Only Kiefer seems sufficiently prepared for the task, sufficiently blessed with the requisite vision, skills, imagination, and depth. But more important, he also projects a mystique or charisma that causes others to sit up and take notice.
Some say that special quality is genius; others call it merely shrewdly packaged talent. (I'm inclined to think it's the former.) One thing is clear: It's extraordinarily impressive. It's so effective, in fact, that first-time viewers have been known to gasp as though physically assaulted when confronted by one of Kiefer's gargantuan efforts - and then to accept both the work and its implications without further ado.
That kind of response stems from the sheer size and aggressive physicality of many of his pieces. A canvas roughly 12 by 18 feet - covered with heavily encrusted mounds of paint, clumps of real straw, sheets of gouged lead, bits of porcelain, sections of copper wire, olive branches, and huge, blown-up photographic images loosely overpainted - is bound to have a powerful effect. Add to that the fact that Kiefer's paintings project an aura of grave, almost mystical solemnity, and the depth of character and seriousness of the artist come through.
But that's only the beginning. Because Kiefer's imagery is so provocative and he's so wholeheartedly committed to his themes, he is able to draw us in and challenge us to decipher the complex, multi-layered, and frequently disturbing symbols that dominate, and give meaning to, his art.
This brings us to the heart of the matter. Like Picasso, Beckmann, and Bacon, Kiefer communicates and convinces through complexity and ambiguity rather than clarity. He relies on a contrapuntal manipulation of symbols rather than a simple presentation of them.
Elusive and enigmatic
No matter how logically one attempts to ``explain'' his paintings, they always remain partly elusive and enigmatic. One can go into the greatest detail about his primary themes - the perversion of national identity; Nazi Germany's guilt and responsibility for those it destroyed and brutalized; the saving grace of literature and art; the value and significance of myth and religion; the importance of the artist as cultural and national redeemer - and still not pinpoint what he's all about.
For that we must go to the work itself and experience it in all its complexity, as a dynamic fusion of object, sensory device, symbol, and metaphor.
As art that makes its point by allusion rather than exposition and that aims to be more redemptive than beautiful or entertaining.
Only then will we begin to understand what Kiefer has accomplished, and why he appears to be the only painter today capable of responding to Munch's anguished cry of a century ago.
Theodore F. Wolff is the Monitor's art critic.