PRINT October 2005

Daniel Birnbaum

Michael Krebber’s failures have turned out to be his greatest strength. First he failed as an art student, then he failed as an artist. He turned to acting and fell short. Returning again to art, he managed to transform failure, if that’s still the correct term, into his own distinctive and undoubtedly attractive modus operandi. We are all surrounded by people we don’t quite understand. But Krebber, my eccentric colleague since 2002 at Frankfurt’s Städelschule, is a special case: a painter who, as he says, is “fundamentally” no painter, and a teacher who, he maintains, has nothing much to teach. And yet shows of his open around the globe where there are things on display that look like paintings to me. And his teaching—a peculiar mix of screenings, informal meetings, and inscrutable gatherings around carefully selected books, magazines, catalogues, etc.—has become legendary enough to attract aspiring young artists from all over the world. It’s strange. Has Krebber suddenly turned out a success?

Painter or not, there is no doubt about Krebber’s real field of expertise. Hardly anyone knows the recent history of German painting from the inside as he does, having studied with Markus Lüpertz before becoming the assistant of Georg Baselitz (he even moved into the artist’s famous castle) and then of Martin Kippenberger, the most demanding of friends. “A double bind,” Krebber tells me when I ask about this intense relationship: “Dependency in every way—artistically and financially . . . but it was also a friendship.” Krebber is indeed very much a Cologne phenomenon. He still lives in this city on the Rhine with Cosima von Bonin, the artist whom he got to know some twenty years ago. In the 1980s, when Cologne was Europe’s undisputed capital of contemporary art, Krebber occupied a key place in the excessive circles around Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen, the leading lights of the moment. In those days, he was rarely acting entirely on his own. A fifteen-year-old photograph pictures Kippenberger’s inaugural lecture as a professor at the Städelschule. But the man reading the manuscript before the serious-looking audience turns out to be not the master but his compliant assistant. A ruthless operator, Kippenberger had delegated even this symbolic task to Krebber, who, one can understand, needed some years to recover and gain a sense of artistic independence.

Fritz Heubach, founding editor of the seminal German art magazine Interfunktionen, calls Krebber “an inverted Picasso,” one who finds little but who is constantly searching. This untiring quest has yielded a surprising variety of strategies and styles. Krebber’s art is a zone of contagion, a space for conversation rather than a mode of producing objects. In 1987 he showed a series of floor sculptures consisting of children’s clothing sewn together—trios of conservative-looking trousers, a quintet of more-colorful shorts. Although abandoned immediately, this early project—which has been theorized in psychoanalytic terms and compared to the work of Mike Kelley—seems to stress the essential pluralism of his production: There will always be many branching limbs in Krebber’s practice, and he likes to walk with others with whom he bonds in incestuous ways.

Before he could return to painting on canvas, several other moves were necessary. A number of exhibitions toyed with that old Conceptual warhorse, the empty gallery, but with an irreverent and even mysterious twist. In 1987, at Christoph Dürr in Munich, Krebber left the gallery’s exhibition spaces entirely empty and installed in the adjoining office only a postcard of Laurel and Hardy, a photograph of Georges Simenon by Marcel Broodthaers, and the text of an interview that the Belgian Conceptual artist had imagined between himself and René Magritte. For an exhibition two years later at Galerie Isabella Kacprzak in Stuttgart (the last she would present there before moving to Cologne), Krebber exhibited just an empty vitrine and two framed photocopies of works by Daniel Buren and Allan McCollum. To accompany the show, he made an edition of the vitrine and three photographs that pictured Kacprzak’s still-unoccupied new gallery, with only a few black monochrome panels adorning the walls. But, like Broodthaers’s conversation with Magritte, the image of the exhibition was a fiction, the work of a photo retoucher who inserted Krebber’s unmade paintings in Kacprzak’s unoccupied space—making the photographs a somewhat elegiac souvenir from an imaginary future. In yet another twist, for an exhibition the following year at Galerie Christian Nagel in Cologne, Krebber borrowed back the empty vitrines from their owners and filled them (and the walls) with newspaper clippings, catalogues, and other ephemera. These ranged from a stack of Dan Graham catalogues to a picture of James Lee Byars chatting with a dashing nineteen-year-old Krebber, whose natty appearance seems to anticipate both his later writing on dandyism and the often-repeated claim that he was working on his myth long before his paintings. Part Block Beuys, part Warhol Time Capsule, and part Broodthaers’s imaginary museum, the Nagel show would be followed by an even more Oedipal object in the form of the 1991 book Sonne Busen Hammer (Sun Breasts Hammer). Advertised by its subtitle as the “Central Organ of the Lord Jim Lodge” (a mysterious arts society in Graz, Austria), the volume represents a kind of killing of the father: Half of the publication is filled with Lüpertz portraits in various states of deletion, and occasionally a hole cut from the page removes entirely the teacher’s face.

Since the early ’90s, when Krebber made a series of monochromes in oil on canvas, he has systematically turned to painting. But this is not to suggest that he has finally found a technique or subject matter with which he feels authentically at home. “I do not believe I can invent something new in art or painting because whatever I would want to invent already exists,” he has explained. Accordingly, he has created paintings that could easily be misunderstood as decorative Informel rehashes, and his works are occasionally intentionally quite close to those of other artists like Sigmar Polke. Sometimes there are even explicit quotes from specific paintings by Oehlen and Kippenberger. Often his canvases look barely finished, like the series shown at Maureen Paley in London in 2001 where a few lines and economic patches of color make us see faces, hair, or ordinary objects such as shoes. What look like paintings are often in fact altered readymades, as in the case of some naively exotic-looking cheetah pictures from 2003, which are actually found pieces of fabric put on a stretcher.

In order to understand Krebber one has to get a grip on his intellectual cosmos: Herman Melville and Paul Valéry are always recurring references, as are Broodthaers, whom he got to know in 1977, and his friend Oswald Wiener. And then there are artist friends like Stephen Prina and Christopher Williams in the United States and Kai Althoff at home, as well as a long list of artists, literary figures, and musicians known only to the real connoisseur. This is no doubt an exclusive crowd of carefully selected people, just as the singling out of specific references is very much a part of Krebber’s way of working. Quotations and ironic allusions legible only to the insider abound. If you don’t get it right away, you probably never will. “Stupidity is not my strong point,” is the first remark of Valéry’s Monsieur Teste, the antihero of Krebber’s favorite book.

Already as a student Krebber knew pretty much everything, he tells me, but understood nothing. In a way, his studies were one large frustration, like being forced to write with your left hand when you know—and you try to make clear to everyone else—that you are in fact right-handed. I have a sense that much of Krebber’s work is about gaining a kind of lightness. He avoids everything heavy and self-important and prefers subtle, almost invisible, gestures: an understated invitation card or poster rather than a gallery full of works; a display in a window instead of a pompous institutional show. He likes producing for art fairs. When asked about his sources, he refers me to texts he has written about other artists, such as a recent review of a Richard Hawkins show. Krebber writes best when he describes what he likes in other artists’ works, which is basically what he does in most of his texts. And most of the time, he may also be writing about himself. The ambiguities and the sly moments of doubling that he praises in others are what he’s after in his own work. This is not to suggest that Krebber has a particularly developed sense of self. It’s more about seeing something that someone else has seen—and knowing that you both know the other has seen it too.

Daniel Birnbaum is a contributing editor of Artforum.