PRINT October 2005

Jessica Morgan

In his characteristically evasive fashion, Michael Krebber used his solo exhibition at Vienna’s Secession this past summer to launch two books and present what appeared to be an addendum of just twelve framed works and a single slide projection of a pink sea anemone. The two publications—a catalogue following the Secession’s classic template designed by Heimo Zobernig and an artist’s book reflecting on the subject of dandyism—seemed to take pride of place. At least that was the impression I gained from a conversation with the artist, a sense that was reinforced on being offered both catalogues before entering the show itself. But then a practice of avoidance and deflection, of postponement, is precisely what one has come to expect from Krebber, an artist who has studiously resisted identification with any apparent aesthetic, style, mode of production, or, for that matter, even the appearance of studiousness itself. That the exhibition should take a backseat to—or at least share the wheel with—the printed material was entirely in keeping with Krebber’s approach.

For an artist whose work is so much concerned with diversion and lack of fixity, Krebber currently seems to hold a remarkable position of influence for a generation of younger European and American artists, an imprecise group that stretches from Samara Caughey in Los Angeles to Hayley Tompkins in Glasgow, from Wade Guyton in New York to Kalin Lindena in Cologne, and from Enrico David in London to Katja Strunz in Berlin, among many others. His work, or its affect, has been cited as the guiding force behind recent group exhibitions such as last year’s “Formalismus: Moderne Kunst, heute” (Formalism: Modern Art, Today) at the Hamburger Kunstverein and “Deutschland sucht” (Germany Is Searching) at the Kölnischer Kunstverein. Krebber featured prominently in both exhibitions and was hailed as a source of inspiration by their curators and some of the younger artists they chose. The fascination appears to be mutual: In Frankfurt, Krebber’s keen interest in the next generation has made him one of the most sought-after teachers at the Städelschule. Indeed, Krebber has possibly replaced his friend Martin Kippenberger, for whom he once worked as an assistant, as the current reigning reference of choice among a particular group of followers. Which leads one to ask, why Krebber now? He has, after all, been exhibiting for some two decades, though arguably he only broke free from the Kippenberger association and established an independent presence in the past four or five years. Even now, one suspects that for many he still carries the appealing glow of proximity to the dearly departed antihero.

Like Kippenberger’s, Krebber’s work functions as a seductive accumulation of corresponding activities or production (books, paintings, postcards, posters, and titles) that operate on near-equal footing as mutually affirming, complicating, and even negating chains of reference. For Kippenberger these multiple formats were among the many ways to practice his signature method of expressing simultaneously both ambition (to compete on a critical and art-historical standing with the legendary figures of his time and those of the recent past) and failure (in the face of an already-bankrupt notion of the avant-garde and originality). Although failure is also a trope for Krebber, the multiple elements of his practice perform at a considerably quieter pitch. Rather than wrestling noisily with issues of painting, historical relevancy, image production, and innovation, he carries out acts of subtle reversal, contradiction, repetition, alteration, and contextualization that require careful analysis in order to be deciphered or even discerned. And it is these observational riddles—posed by the various interrelated aspects of his work and its installation—that seem to hold the key to is appeal for the current generation, a generation under the sway of what has loosely been referred to as a return to formalism.

For the Secession exhibition, Krebber delivered precisely the type of exercise that has made him such an apposite father figure for this younger contingent. The thirteen pieces in the Vienna show comprised just six images, one of which was the slide of the sea anemone, taken from the cover of the artist’s book and apparently chosen as an approriately dandyish hybrid or hermaphroditic creature. The remaining five images, drawn from the Web and Krebber’s archive, included a fashion photograph of a woman smoking, a book titled Athen (apparently a study of ancient Greece that might also serve as a reference to the place where Krebber and Kippenberger exhibited together), a skyline, a butterfly, and a picture of Saturn. Each image was presented between one and three times, framed, and in various states of reproduction. These versions included a print of the “original” found image downloaded from the Internet scuffed and worn from its life in the studio; a photocopied duplicate; a photographed copy; an inverted image; and so on. The Secession’s massive main hall was occupied only partially by these duplicate images, with more than half of the space remaining almost entirely empty aside from the hutike open cubicle that housed the slide projection. After crossing the imposing expanse of the Joseph Maria Olbrich–designed hall and moving gradually from image to image, noticing over time the slight shifts in appearance among the multiple prints of the same subject, viewers were ultimately faced with the choice of retracing their steps across the fairly ominous empty space to confirm what appeared to be the slight differences in presentation, or trusting their questionable memory of images that were now too far away to discern in detail.

Was this some kind of observational test for lazy art audiences: three points for noticing that the images were variously reproduced; three more if you could recall the different modes of reproduction, etc.? Perhaps the repetition of the images, seemingly chosen for their relative facileness, was in fact intended to expose their import (Athens=historic significance), or the opposite (Athens=empty signifier), or both? Or perhaps Krebber intended to expose the institution itself, to make one aware again of the Secession’s commanding architecture and the inevitable necessity for any artist exhibiting there to respond to it.

Such formal, but also potentially critical, qualities are those cited as reasons to hail Krebber as the precursor and exemplary figure of the new formalism, one that is supposedly dialectically engaged with content or context. As Yilmaz Dziewior, curator of “Formalism: Modern Art, Today,” contends, Krebber’s work has always questioned how to achieve the “‘right form,’ albeit in full consciousness of the likelihood of failure in such attempts.” Dziewior then goes on to state that Krebber’s work “functions as a reference for a thematically oriented strategy whose visual results do not at first sight betray the fact that they are analyses of context.” Following Krebber’s example, then, this younger generation of artists approaches formalism as a type of discriminating connoisseurship that enables not only feats of perceptual acuity but also their extension into a work’s institutional, critical, or architectural surroundings. This reading of Krebber’s work, however, can be rather superficial, more reflective of a general tendency among many artists today to search for meaning in minute gestures of alteration and placement, sly or obscure references to modernist antecedents, and a hope that an awareness of these “subtle” gestures will constitute a critical apperception extending to the work’s (and the viewer’s) physical surroundings.

Krebber’s installations have, of course, always been characterized by a heightened attention to what might be deemed formal issues: Walls intentionally left blank become as significant as those occupied by work; paintings are installed abutting each other at various heights or are carefully draped with the poster for the exhibition in which they hang. But some admirers might miss the fact that such deft attention to structure is only the underpinning of Krebber’s broader conceptual approach (this is an artist, after all, who once devised an exhibition improbably pairing an empty gallery space with a postcard of Laurel and Hardy). Perhaps more important still for an understanding of Krebber’s work is the artist’s deep entrenchment in a particular historical context, that of the Cologne art scene. Krebber has, fairly uniquely, bridged the two most recent incarnations of the city’s art world. In addition to the time he served with Kippenberger, Krebber was also an assistant of Georg Baselitz, a student of Markus Lüpertz, and a fixture on the gallery-dominated Cologne circuit during the time of Max Hetzler and Paul Maenz. Following the decline of this generation of painters and dealers, Krebber continues to hold a central position in the new Cologne nexus consisting primarily of the Christian Nagel and Daniel Buchholz galleries and their respective stables of artists.

Though not evident at the Secession, Krebber’s work typically reveals his formidable knowledge of painterly practice, summarizing in a few lean strokes much of the medium’s recent German past, doubling and multiplying his voice with those of his predecessors, and toying with the idea of painting’s endgame. Indeed, the codes and signs, the references and allusions, and, in particular, the “secondary” material (the posters, invitation cards, and books, which play a significant role in Krebber’s exhibitions) are utterly steeped in a nigh-folkloric Cologne tradition. Yet, viewed from the outside, this quite-specific tradition can border on an elaborately constructed private language or world fortified by an erudite barricade of knowledge, ultimately suggesting an obsessive-compulsive self-referentiality. For those in the know, this interpretive game acts as a reassuring affirmation of one’s world, and as the identification of what is “Krebberesque,” an adjective that seems to have materialized as part of the Cologne dialect with the artist’s first show at Christian Nagel in 1990.

Although his formalist acolytes may be wrong, at least partially, in citing Krebber as their antecedent, the current critical appraisal of both the “new” formalism and Krebber’s work is ultimately even more troubling. In an art world bereft of easily identifiable or radically innovative strands of practice, there is a tendency to exaggerate the significance of superficial similarities. While the artists so often brought together under the rubric of formal or modernist affiliations may be engaged in worthwhile individual pursuits, they often have little in common, and, like Krebber, are more accurately (and perhaps more interestingly) placed in the context of their historical moment and immediate environment—be it Warsaw, Manhattan, or Glasgow. But either way, I would not go looking for salvation in any of these places. After all, Krebber himself has remarked, “I do not believe I can invent something new in art or painting because whatever I would want to invent already exists.” Krebber’s own practice could perhaps stand as both an example and warning to others. While a consummate knowledge of his immediate cultural context protects him from any accusations of naïveté or misguided notions of originality, the weight of his inheritance leaves room for just the slightest of activities.

Jessica Morgan is curator of contemporary art at Tate Modern.