Georges Poncet/Gagosian, Public Art Fund, and Tishman Speyer

Over the past two decades, many artists have made an impact with bold, simple art forms outside the Rockefeller Centre where timeless architecture and art come together.

Anselm Kiefer (left) and Nicholas Baume with Uraeus (2017-18)

Exhibited from May 2–July 22, 2018 is “Uraeus,” by Anslem Kiefer. Kiefer is the most prominent German artist of the generation born in or shortly after World War II, whom recently was awarded the J.Paul Getty Medal in 2017.

The sculpture’s cryptic title, Uraeus, refers to the erect shape of the Egyptian cobra, associated with the serpent goddess Wadjet and a symbol of power and divine authority. The wings evoke the headdresses and necklaces worn by Egyptian royalty in homage to the vulture goddess Nekhbet. Wadjet and Nekhbet were the guardians of Lower and Upper Egypt, respectively, and following ancient Egypt’s unification, became the joint patrons of the civilization. (Rockefeller Centre)

Kiefer has cast in lead a colossal open book, carried aloft by eagle’s wings spanning 30 feet. This is supported by a 20-foot-tall column, encircled by a snake with its head erect and tongue hissing at the book. A number of other giant lead books are strewn on the ground at the base of this theatrical tableau.

The serpent is an auspicious symbol in many cultures, but why the open book which is the centrepiece?

In Kiefer’s imagination, word and image, sacred text and icon, have the power to soar upwards, transcending reality and offering hope of redemption. Uraeus is both gigantic lectern and altar. The presence of the snake (The Rod of Asclepius) insinuates itself at the foot of the column introduces an element of danger and death, as if the monument is being undermined. Yet in more than one mythology the serpent is a creature of wisdom and secret knowledge. Kiefer’s wide-ranging art, which embraces historical memory, politics, religion, and myth, is layered with such multiple meanings and paradoxes.

It clearly references a pursuit of knowledge (that’s perhaps under threat) by the digital age and a reclamation of the book as a liberating force. Along with the central figure, other large-scale lead books appear haphazardly strewn on the ground, their pages, like the creature’s feathers, appearing as if they could flutter.

Keifer’s inspiration for the sculpture was a passage from Nietsche’s description of Thus Spoke Zarathustra: This book, with a voice bridging centuries, is not only the highest book there is, the book that is truly characterized by the air of the heights—the whole fact of man lies beneath it at a tremendous distance—it is also the deepest, born out of the innermost wealth of truth, an inexhaustible well to which no pail descends without coming up again filled with gold and goodness.”

Narrative is an essential element to Kiefer’s work, and his fifty-year oeuvre is filled with a broad range of cultural, literary, and philosophical references. Kiefer recently said, “I was always fascinated with books, and I have made a lot of books: they are more than half of what I make.” He found formal cues in the many allegorical figures embedded in Rockefeller Center’s classical Art Deco architecture, such as the gilded, winged figure of Mercury located in the decorative details above the Channel Gardens on Fifth Avenue.

For over forty years, Kiefer has referenced wings in his work, building on his interest in technologies of flight: from the natural wings of the bird, to the man-made engine of the airplane used in warfare, to the spacecraft launched to explore our solar systems and universe.

Since 1969 Anselm Kiefer has consistently returned to the book as subject matter. As a primary source of knowledge and a repository of world religions, books are a powerful and paradoxical symbol for the artist.

Uraeus was commissioned by the Public Art Fund and the real-estate company Tishman Speyer.



The Modern

Rockerfeller Centre

Photographs: Nick Knight. Courtesy of Gagosian, Public Art Fund, and Tishman Speyer