PRINT October 2005

John Kelsey

“Gaps are my starting point. My impotence is my origin.”
—Paul Valéry, Monsieur Teste

Some say Michael Krebber doesn’t translate to New York, but a painter who “prefers not to” isn’t exactly going to meet the demands of a city powered by big dumb painting head on. All the paint in Krebber’s last two shows here couldn’t fill one small canvas by Dana Schutz or John Currin. With “Flaggs (Against Nature)” and then, only six months later, “Here it is: The Painting Machine” (both at Greene Naftali in 2003), Krebber demonstrated here and here again that the proof is not in the paint job but in the idea that puts it at a fresh distance. Just as Paul Valéry called the poem “a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense,” Krebber’s practice could be described as an ongoing hesitation between repetition and interruption (or between having an idea and having no idea). It’s never been a question of how well or hard he labors on a canvas, a show, or a style; it’s all in the ways he uses painting as a strategy for extricating himself from the wrong kind of work—both the bad works that surround him and the bad works he, like anybody, is capable of—or from the demands of work, period. Krebber keeps finding ways of reminding us that it’s not only that artists produce paintings, but that paintings produce artists (and viewers, reviewers, dealers, collectors), and this is the productive relation that must sometimes be interrupted if we too are to have a hand in our own making.

Whatever Krebber’s intentions, his two New York shows and the mere half year between them were like the unfolding of a well-timed joke: the deadpan setup, the awkward pause, and then the offhand punch line. First he came up very short with a series of repeating, ready-made blankets and bedsheets on stretchers—and not a single drop of paint. And then—as if apologizing for this dry spell really come through next time for New York—he returned to the scene of the crime with still more bedsheets, this time barely touched with a few restrained dabs of acrylic. Just before the second opening, Krebber seemed to shoot himself in the foot by draping every canvas with the exhibition’s poster invites, spoiling any easy view or easy sell of his new “paintings.” It was an ambiguous move: at once an expression of shame or self-defense (covering his face) and brazen self-promotion (getting in your face). Also, he didn’t hang the show; he leaned his work around the room so you’d almost trip over it as you came in looking for the products of the “painting machine” advertised on the poster.

Like other machines, Krebber’s repeats and sometimes breaks down. The painting machine doesn’t always move forward, sometimes it only turns around on itself like one of Duchamp’s hypnotically static Rotoreliefs. And by announcing and exhibiting the machine as such, rather than just the paintings it produces, Krebber relocated painting from the place where New York likes to find it (on the canvas, on the wall, in the collection) in order to make it wander from place to place (wall to floor, canvas to poster, blanket to bedsheet) and to show how this nonprogressive movement is what makes the possibility of painting return—differently now—without exactly seeming to arrive. Sometimes the machine stops suddenly, like one of Krebber’s dandyish brushstrokes that travels across a blank surface for a moment and then abruptly quits. But you can’t begin again unless you stop.

Krebber sets impossible standards for himself. He starts against the wall or in a deep hole of aesthetic and historical debt. Known for his vampiric appropriations of other painters (Sigmar Polke’s experiments with readymade surfaces, Georg Baselitz’s inverted figures, etc.), Krebber makes the condition of being stuck a key operating principle. He is a user—primarily of everything that freezes and stops him. Following in the footsteps of so many painter-kings, any Cologne artist is always already made and positioned before even picking up a brush. There is no escape from the influence of a mentor like Markus Lüpertz or an ex-boss like Martin Kippenberger, and Krebber has famously declared his own lack of ideas, since anything good he might think of has already been thought before (his idea is not to have an idea). So he has devised two escape routes: First, don’t escape. And if you do, turn yourself in.

Because it’s not so much by banging your head against a Polke that you’re going to open up some new territory you can call your own, it’s by refusing your own style in advance. Krebber has always been careful to work against himself whenever something too recognizably Krebber begins to take over. The consummate fan and disciple, his vampirism is of an entirely different nature than the appropriations and references by which most artists today position themselves and manufacture their own legible signatures. Krebber’s approach underlines the fact that artists are readymades too, and that readymades can be unmade.

As Krebber’s painting machine stops and starts and displaces itself again, it exhibits its own materials as pure means, endlessly separating them from their normal ends. The canvas, the stretcher bars, the wall, the floor, the title, the exhibition invite, the archival photograph, signature gestures of other painters, the social world that painting serves, etc., are all possible materials—ways into and out of painting. We could say that Krebber is less a painter than a strategist, and that his strategy is to repeat and to stop painting in order to go to work on the wider system that makes painting what it is today, what it was yesterday, and what it might be or stop being tomorrow. We need a strategy if we want art to become possible again, now more than ever.

But to call Krebber a strategist is not to say that he’s jockeying for a decisive, final position either for or against the medium of painting, for or against bourgeois conventions. (If he ever had a master plan he would surely discard it immediately.) An antibourgeois bourgeois, as Carter Ratcliff has noted, the dandy is defined precisely by how he empties out his own position. Rather than wasting his time and energy fighting over property or his own proper place, he gladly wastes them undermining himself. The dandy makes himself static and detached, and his endless decentering of his own identity is the means by which he makes the world around him start to lose its grip. In the same sense that the classic proletarian strike suspends exploitative relations of production, the dandy interrupts the relations that position him as a subject: He wages a subjective or human strike. Like other strikes, this one interrupts a rhythm and opens up a gap. In this gap—in the very moment of interruption—ones own subjectivity becomes momentarily available again.

If, as he did in New York, Krebber sometimes seems to make painting go on strike, it's by no means a total work stoppage, followed by total change. Krebber never stops stopping, always repeats this. His is a provisional suspension of productive norms with no other goal in mind than itself. It is a way of unlinking painting from the paint job (and, if we bothered to extend the analogy, resistance from official politics). It is an art of suspension and—as with repetition—a means of distancing oneself from any ideology of progress, whether bourgeois or radical. In Krebber's case, the important thing is to disconnect materials from functions, means from ends, in order to reconnect painting from its own potential, but differently now . . . for a moment at least. And this moment will have to be repeated.

It is probably less interesting to interpret the meaning of a readymade checkered bedsheet or one depicting a moonlit, galloping horse than to realize that this throwaway image—in its very meaninglessness—is here being reclaimed as pure means. In other words, such a gesture doesn’t care to fulfill any particular end, to succeed in accomplishing some ultimate significance or work. Filling the space as it does, it exhibits the place of painting, and returns this place to its own possibility. When Krebber hangs the readymade horse upside down, we might note that he repeats Baselitz, for example, but the important thing is that this repetition renews the possibility of Baselitz in the present moment, and thus also that of Krebber, stuck as he is. Such an “emptying appropriation” not only captures and claims the stolen gesture or image, it makes it return with a difference. Repetition, as Giorgio Agamben has said regarding both messianic history and cinematic montage, is a strategy of renewing the possibility of what was (“that which is impossible by definition, the past”), of disassociating an identity from its proper place in order to produce a transformation. Sometimes the only way to change is by doing the same thing over and over again.

Looking at a Krebber for the first time—one of those small, washy, “unfinished too soon” canvases—you get the feeling that there is maybe no Krebber behind it. There’s not a whole lot to work with. For New Yorkers, Krebber is first of all something overheard, a rumor—maybe too good to be true. He’s a story told by others (Germans, mostly) to each other. The story has no point and no end. It might begin with Krebber eating a beer glass at another painter’s opening in order not to say something about it, or with him suddenly instructing his students never to paint again. Krebber is one of those artists they call an “artist’s artist,” and when you ask around, his story becomes impossible to extricate from those of the close contemporaries who are somehow or other implicated in his myth (Cosima von Bonin, Josephine Pryde, Albert Oehlen, Jutta Koether, Merlin Carpenter, Charline von Heyl, etc.). When pressed, friends and insiders begrudgingly supply half-answers (“it’s a Cologne thing”), as if unwilling or unable to flesh him out in a decisive way. There are moments and contexts, certain jokes, things that are said to be “Krebberesque,” the precise weight and thickness of a “legendary” opening night in somebody else’s memory. Krebber is like a club you can’t get into, until you realize the club was built for you and you only, and maybe you are in it now, trying to describe the view to somebody back in Cologne.

John Kelsey is a frequent contributor to Artforum.