New York

Michael Krebber

Ten years after his last New York solo show, Michael Krebber returned with an installation called Flaggs (Against Nature), 2003, that might have been a bit perplexing for an audience unfamiliar with his work. Krebber has been well known in Germany since the mid-’80s as an erstwhile assistant to Martin Kippenberger; he might even be considered the latter’s alter ego. If Kippenberger was the brash, satirical commentator on art-world politics, the description goes, then Krebber was the quiet but influential Conceptualist behind the scenes. But as Merlin Carpenter, another former Kippenberger studio hand, has recently written, Kippenberger cribbed some of his best ideas from Krebber. One hopes this new work will be the first step in convincing a US audience that Krebber needs to be taken seriously as a subtler but truly engaging alternative to his alleged mentor.

Part of the difficulty posed to an American audience might be that the system of codes embedded in Krebber’s practice is deeply attuned to specifically German histories of postwar painting. He studied with the painter Markus Lüpertz, though after early experiments with a neo-expressionist aesthetic, the artist quickly shifted to a less seemingly anachronistic mode of painting, one that rejected the bravura brushstroke in favor of ironic manipulations of high and low sources. “Painting” requires qualification here because Krebber has reached a point in his ongoing deconstruction of the medium at which the notion of the painterly has been left behind altogether. In Flaggs (Against Nature), no paint was to be found on canvas; rather, the images came premade as bolts of check-patterned fabric and fuzzy bedspreads printed with pictures, and these had been stretched on stretchers and hung on the wall in an orderly fashion. Krebber thus makes reference to German artists such as Sigmar Polke, Rosemarie Trockel, and Cosima von Bonin, who have similarly employed found and manufactured textiles that evoke bürgerlich domesticity.

As if to temper the savvy postmodernism, Teutonic tradition rears its shaggy head in the single iconic image-on-bedspread that was repeated throughout the space: a white horse prancing in the moonlight, a not-so-subtle hint at German Romanticism. Friedrich’s misty nightscapes provide the ground over which hovers the animalistic energy of Dürer, Marc, and Beuys. Yet for Krebber, it’s all a matter of perspective. Taking his cue from Georg Baselitz, Krebber presents the negative of the image in some works as well as turning one on its head. He phrases the question that Baselitz first formulated in the ’60s: Can a simple gesture reinvigorate a discipline? Krebber’s own move is to reassert modernism’s representation-abstraction dichotomy by sandwiching the horse pictures (given the variety of treatments, one assumes they are not store-bought) between the panels of checked fabric: Max Beckmann meets Anni Albers. The viewer doesn’t have to choose one over the other but can have it both ways.

The gallery was installed in such a manner that several empty walls ended up resonating almost as strongly as the works themselves. This inserted a distinct air of iconoclasm: Images had been made to suggest the impossibility of creating more images. Individual titles such as Regarding Other People’s Pain and 4 Nights of a Dreamer introduced an incongruous poetics that countered the severe minimalism of the ensemble. The “paintings” gradually revealed themselves as linguistic components in what is essentially a rhetorical debate about the continuing relevance of painting as conceptual sport. Encountering Krebber’s latest work, you recognize that the game is clearly still in full swing, simultaneously exhausted and endless.

Gregory Williams