Installation view, Kai Althoff: and then leave me to the common swifts (und dann überlasst mich den Mauerseglern) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 18, 2016–January 22, 2017 (photo © Kai Althoff)

“Other people are telling me I am an artist, but I think I am doing things the same way I did them when I was a child. Only others are looking at it with notions, ideas, and views, and knowledge of some kind.”

—Kai Althoff in conversation with Laura Hoptman

Kai Althoff’s current exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is an astonishing experience, one that fills the viewer’s mind while simultaneously emptying it out.  The show is situated within a white, diaphanous, circus tent–like structure. Filling the space are Althoff’s paintings, drawings, sculptures, and a multitude of what appear to be his own artifacts, giving the viewer a sense that she has entered the artist’s home. This curatorial style is reminiscent of Martin Kippenberger’s installation “The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika’” (1994), which was included in Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective, also at MoMA, in 2009.

They are not, of course, the same — the two artists’ work and lives are different, but their trajectories are similar. Both Kippenberger and Althoff were musicians in punk bands, both have resisted the system of the art world while, at the same time, working hard to find a place for themselves within it. This dichotomy, the resistance to the system while also participating in it, played a large part in Kippenberger’s work. He played the “bad boy,” making “bad” paintings of himself, for instance, “Untitled (Ohne Titel)“ (1988), in which he presents himself as grossly overweight in giant white underpants. Althoff takes a different approach with a similar outcome. In an interview with Laura Hoptman (included in the catalogue for the MoMA show), he states:

Indeed, I am like a child. As you know, I wanted to ask many people of different occupations and origins, including children, teenagers, about what they think and feel when looking at my things. But because this is an art institution, I was encouraged to ask people who went to academies to work with and for art. I am very sure that I would have cherished quite some of what the former would have told me, and held it in my heart forever—like a true revelation.

Also … I know of beauty. I want to make beautiful things all the time.

Kai Althoff, “Untitled” (2015), pencil and colored pencil on paper, 15 9/16 × 14″ (39.6 × 35.5 cm), collection the artist (© Kai Althoff)

That Althoff, who collaborates with Cosima von Bonin and Isa Genzken (both well-known German artists who have crossed over to the New York art world), is somehow unaware that what he’s making is art for the art world seems particularly unbelievable. Yet this play at naiveté is a distant relation to Kippenberger’s anti-establishment stance. Though we may not swallow Althoff’s claims as reality, they are part of his artwork, in that they are part of the larger package of the artist named Kai Althoff.

This paradox of resisting the art world and simultaneously courting it is evident in the very way Althoff’s work is presented at MoMA. When I entered the gallery, I asked if there was a catalogue or any information on the show. The attendant told me “no” but offered a printout on pale green paper; I was told I had to return it when I exited. Within the exhibition, there are no wall texts, no explanations for the disparate items displayed throughout the rooms. That much of the work includes text in German without translation is another form of defiance. The handout offers the only form of description for each artwork and “environment,” but not much more than could be ascertained, generally, by looking.

Installation view, Kai Althoff: and then leave me to the common swifts (und dann überlasst mich den Mauerseglern) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 18, 2016–January 22, 2017 (photo © Kai Althoff)

And what you see is beautiful. Althoff’s work is haptic in that it’s textural. Much of what’s on view consists of textiles and fabrics, costumes and hand-made dolls. In addition, his paintings are rich, multilayered, and figurative. The paintings could be defined as “bad” in that they incorporate elements of a childlike hand and what might be called “outsider” or “folk” art. Althoff’s art here appears to be rooted in a specific time: the mid 1970s, when he would have been a child. Much of the work is whimsical, with a kind of fairy-tale aspect. The colors throughout the show are consistent: pale pinks, whites, browns, and lavenders appear over and over. This is a feminine hand, but with a mean streak threaded through.

Kai Althoff, “Untitled” (2000), watercolor on paper, 11 13/16 x 12 5/8” (30 x 32 cm), private collection (© Kai Althoff)

Althoff’s collection of photographs — showing instances of reality, contemporary people in contemporary situations — breaks the dream-like aura of the show, as do the fuck-you, punk-rock gestures. One such example is his painting “Er will alles sehen” (He Wants to See It All, (2002), in which a woman walks by what appear to be two leacherous men, one nude and wearing a crown, with his hands placed near his groin. The woman’s head is cut off by the top of the painting, and she is gesturing with her middle finger. The colors are muddied: brown and gray, black and crimson, yellow and blue. Much of the painting is taken up with clothing: the woman’s dress, the outfits of people dancing in the background, and the garments of the one clothed man, his hands on the crown and shoulders of the other, nude one. The work is constructed in swaths of color, and in this way it’s almost abstract — and yet, there are figures, though they’re mostly cut off.

The painting, though not a collage, creates a similar reading: it reveals a myriad of moods and meanings by placing seemingly disparate images and symbols alongside one another. This is also what the show does overall. The presentation of the works in an archival manner recalls the installations of other contemporary German artists such as von Bonin, Hanne Darboven, and Rosemarie Trockel — and such a display resists reduction while insisting on a multiplicity of meanings, the richness of complexity. One way artists can help usher such work into the world is by refusing to provide context or by providing conflicting context. Althoff does both, in the process insisting that we, the viewers, make our own experiences from his work.

Installation view, Kai Althoff: and then leave me to the common swifts (und dann überlasst mich den Mauerseglern) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 18, 2016–January 22, 2017 (photo © Kai Althoff)

It is a generous and risky operation: more and more viewers today prefer art that either fits into concepts we’re already familiar with or is framed clearly by the artist and curator. Althoff, on the hand, defers. He insists on beauty and backs away from the art world’s slickness by making and exhibiting work that appears not quite finished, work that incorporates materials — cardboard, colored pencils, blood — which relay a similar message of undoing. Althoff’s work exists inside a space between, in a place of not knowing, of providing questions rather than answers. A very good place, I would say, for many of us right now.

Kai Althoff: and then leave me to the common swifts 
(und dann überlasst mich den Mauerseglern) continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 22.

Cynthia Cruz’s poems have been published in the New Yorker, Paris Review, Boston Review, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, and others. Her first collection of poems, RUIN, was published by Alice...