Tremendous wings span 30 feet; at their epicenter, an open book sits atop a soaring column. A snake is wrapped around the supporting post, at the base of which more books lie. This is Uraeus (2017-2018), a monumental lead and stainless steel sculpture forged by the prominent multidisciplinary artist Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945) for the New York City public.
One of postwar Germany’s most influential contemporary artists, Kiefer delves into the darkest recesses of history, engaging with timeless philosophical lessons and ancient mythological themes. Uraeus simultaneously references German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1891)—a fictional narrative musing on the importance of human willpower and positing the ideal of a morally-centered, superman-like “Übermensch”—and ancient Egyptian iconography.
“The sculpture’s cryptic title…refers to the erect shape of the Egyptian cobra, associated with the serpent goddess Wadjet and a symbol of power and divine authority,” according to the project’s press release. “The wings evoke the headdresses and necklaces worn by Egyptian royalty in homage to the vulture goddess Nekhbet.” Thus Uraeus nods to the boundless potential of moral strength and creativity, whilst warning against the deadly pitfalls of vice.
Kiefer, who is known for employing unusual materials in his lofty oeuvre, utilized lead for its “soft, fluid properties traditionally associated with alchemical transformation, especially its second stage: dissolution.” He has referred to alchemy as “a symbol for the artist,” in that the ashes of destruction may give rise to creation. Likewise, wings have figured prominently throughout Kiefer’s four decade career for their layered symbolism and aesthetic versatility.
“Anselm Kiefer is an artist with a singular vision and the courage to look history in the eye,” said mega-art dealer Larry Gagosian. “His resulting paintings, sculptures, and drawings are as powerful as they are poetic and timeless, striving to reconcile human reality with divine promise. Nowhere has this been made more clear than in New York City.” Indeed, amid the surrounding depictions of larger-than-life figures—Prometheus, Atlas, Mercury—Uraeus will be in good company in Rockefeller Center.
“A public commission several years in the making, the iconography of Uraeus evokes classical mythology, soaring with possibility, yet bound by the weight of history,” said Public Art Fund Director and Chief Curator Nicholas Baume. “Today, the digital age proliferates and democratizes knowledge as never before, while the very idea of truth is questioned and debated. One of our most literary artists, Kiefer returns to the symbolism of the book: elevated and powerful but also dangerous and vulnerable.”
Anselm Kiefer: Uraeus is the artist’s first site-specific outdoor public artwork commissioned for New York City.
Anselm Kiefer: Uraeus will be on view from May 2 through July 22, 2018 at the Fifth Avenue entrance to Rockefeller Center’s Channel Gardens between 49th and 50th Street, New York, NY 10020.