Josef Kramhöller

Between Bridges

The colors in Josef Kramhöller’s photographs are gorgeous: Deep reds, golds, yellows, they hold the promise of something very special—if only one could get things in focus. Even the blacks are luscious, but everything is a blur. In one photograph, there’s a hint of a jewelry display, but other than that the eye finds little to grasp. A closer look, however, reveals that the center of each photograph is, in fact, precisely in focus: a single fingerprint left by the artist on the window of one of London’s more exclusive West End shops. Laid out before us, the goods on display nevertheless remain unreachable, behind the transparent glass that denies taste, smell, and touch. A paradigmatic representation of the desire that fuels contemporary consumerism, the series “Untitled (fingerprint on window of luxury boutique),” 1995, also resembles a sequence of crime scene photographs, as if recording repeated attempts to violate the pristine established order. Sullying the windows, these absolute markers of identity provide traces of Kramhöller’s movements within a compartmentalized social space.

In 1999, the year before he committed suicide at the age of thirty-two, Kramhöller published Genuss Luxus Stil (Pleasure Luxury Style), a collection of his writings on art, space, and freedom. The book was here exhibited alongside a small selection of his artwork, together with some of the handwritten manuscripts. “Ich hasse Angestelltenkultur” (I hate white-collar working culture), we read at the top of a page on which Kramhöller describes life as a postgraduate art student in London during the mid-’90s. This hatred of office culture was not the expression of idle disdain—Kramhöller had worked his share of such jobs—but rather another formulation of the question he poses elsewhere in Genuss Luxus Stil: “How to colonize colonized spaces?” The fingerprint photographs, insistently stating, “I am here, forever isolated by the prior ownership claims of others from the possibility of satisfying my desires,” pose a similar problem: how to be oneself without violating the integrity of others.

A photocopy of a felt-tip drawing, Untitled (Gherkin), 1999–2000, anticipates Norman Foster’s then-unbuilt addition to London’s skyline at 30 Saint Mary Axe. Not realized during Kramhöller’s life, the planned tower had nonetheless already become an image powerful enough to infiltrate and impose itself on his idea of the city. This interplay between fact and imagination adds another level of complexity to the difficulty of differentiation, seen in the “fingerprint” photographs, that Kramhöller referred to as Abgrenzungsprobleme (problems of definition or delimitation). If the city is a colonized space, so, too, is the field of art. Kramhöller’s drawings, texts, and collages concern themselves not just with the possibility of finding an authenticity of experience within a largely predefined social space but equally with the task of establishing an artistic voice of one’s own. If, say, Martin Kippenberger and Isabelle Graw already command the spaces of practice and criticism, where does a young German artist stand at the beginning of the twenty-first century? A large painting, Untitled, 2000, includes among its nearly abstract assortment of elements a southern German scene, a reclining figure, animals, and an opaque form that might be a table, a glass, or a mirror. In the center is a stage on which a discussion is taking place. Among this mix of cultural cliché and human and nonhuman life, even inquiry and analysis are apparently a performance. If authenticity is to be found anywhere, it seems to tell us, it will be less in the particular roles we adopt than in the inescapable fact that we must adopt some role, any role, in order to exist at all.

Michael Archer