Michael Krebber, MP-KREBM-00095, 2013, spray paint on pegboard, 39 1/2 × 69 3/4".

Michael Krebber, MP-KREBM-00095, 2013, spray paint on pegboard, 39 1/2 × 69 3/4".

Michael Krebber

Michael Krebber, MP-KREBM-00095, 2013, spray paint on pegboard, 39 1/2 × 69 3/4".

“What a painting cannot do.” So ends the short poem with which Michael Krebber opened his recent exhibition of abstract paintings and drawings. Krebber is often referred to approvingly as an artist’s artist, and his background as an assistant to Martin Kippenberger and the various conceptual and material conversations his work stages with the recent history of German art are frequently offered up as critical pieces of information for those keen to understand his oeuvre. Since the 1980s his work has developed to encompass a range of diverse practices and media, from Conceptualism to painting, although it is the problem of painting—of how to paint, and why—that has long preoccupied him.

Representation is important for Krebber, if only as something to be thwarted or rejected. Dark squiggly lines threaten to find figurative form before either petering out to nothing or bumping into a few fat brushstrokes that stop them in their tracks. These abrupt about-faces bring us back to questions of painting, of abstraction, and of all of the historical weight these two terms carry with them. The titles of his paintings aren’t much help for viewers trying to make sense of the ostensible subject matter to which the occasional brushy line or doodled form alludes. Those in this show had names like MP-KREBM-00087, 2015, the gallery’s inventory codes having become a readymade system for titling.

Krebber has always been pretty clear about the limits and possibilities of his chosen medium. He knows painting can’t reinvent itself or its forms: It’s all been done before. Painting can’t straightforwardly figure the world but only work its way toward it, one reduction, one brushstroke, one line at a time. But as this series of bright, spare paintings made clear, Krebber is not given to myopic, inward-looking resignation. Despite his apparent mistrust of the medium, Krebber persists in testing its boundaries, whether he is reducing it to its barest means or pushing it to its formal limits. Large white paintings carry barely a russet-toned brushstroke on their pristine surfaces, while others are saturated in overlapping blocked-out, gestural areas of hot pink and egg-yolk yellow.

In Krebber’s hands, things are kept light and punchy—funny, even. This is not as easy as it might seem, now that art audiences are so familiar with the various endgames of painting. One work, MP-KREBM-00091, 2015, all squeegeed swipes of lime green and daisy blue, recalls Gerhard Richter, while a quartet of deliberately underwhelming Klee-like doodles in ballpoint pen—just a few lines marked on the page—may or may not owe their pared-down form to some other readymade or figurative imagery. MP-KREBM-00095, 2013—a huge, apparently preloved and scuffed hole-punched sheet of board, on which Krebber spray-painted two enormous stains of dark brown and jet black—filled one wall. Its perforated surface appears to let in pinpricks of light. But it’s an optical trick—we’re just seeing the white wall behind. Before applying the black paint, Krebber placed a couple of objects on the surface, producing a crude photogram (faux-togram?) effect.

The larger paintings were the simplest: a few marks and squiggles, often pushed to the edges or placed just off-center, in order to catch the viewer unawares, MP-KREBM-00087, with its few licks of deep purple barely framed by some startling blue brushstrokes, recalls all sorts of other paintings, even as it is also, entirely, its own thing—although I’m not sure yet what that thing is. It lingers, though. Painting has not always been Krebber’s chosen medium, and one senses that he could just as happily be doing something else altogether. But for now, as this complicated, vibrant show made clear, Krebber seems to be sticking with painting as he tries to work out what it can, and cannot, do.

Jo Applin