Michael Krebber Catalogue Raisonné Vol. 1 by Michael Sanchez

Greene Naftali

First of all, to "review" the book (I got a review copy so now I'm making good on the review), it's lovely object, beautifully designed, well-researched, and absolutely worth the money if you can afford it. There's not a ton of text, as to be expected from a raisonné, but the commentary on particular bodies of work are thorough and helpful, and the intro essay does a very good job of outlining the fundamental mechanisms of Krebber's career and practice. That's about all I have to say about the book as an object, it's great. Second of all, I didn't really know that much about the fundamental mechanisms of Krebber's career and practice before I read the intro essay. I'd seen some work here and there and knew he was a famously "bad" painter, worked for Kippenberger, and that everyone loves him, but that's about it. I usually assume that reputations are justly earned, and his work never seemed bad or exaggerated in merit, but it just seemed wry and funny; good, but I didn't know what aroused so much passion in so many people. Or, to put it another way, Krebber seemed able to pull off what he was doing, but I couldn't say what it was that separated him from his hordes of imitators, most of whom can't.

Krebber's own body work is a self-reflexive knot of self-conscious helplessness, elevated from the art student's sense of inadequacy to the mock-heroic by the willed adoption of a constant "puberty in painting." His stubborn avoidance of overcoming his anxieties of influence, that he could not be Polke, Baselitz, Lüpertz, Kippenberger, or Oehlen with their technical mastery and artistic potency, led to eventually turning the inertia of artistic immaturity into a sort of inverted art practice. As I looked through the raisonné I kept thinking of Marx's "first as tragedy, then as farce," which is probably more of a clever quip than a deep insight (I'm not a Hegelian), but it works as a convenient schema: If the great German painters born around the time of World War II are the products of a "tragic" breakdown of modernity, then Krebber is the farce of that tragedy, and his fanboys are a farce of Krebber's farce. Or, to attempt a clever quip, Krebber is instead a travesty, neither tragedy nor farce but a point between the two, which makes more sense, because Krebber can't be a farce of his contemporaries in the doubled sequence of world-historic figures. He is part of the tragic generation but set apart from it by not adhering to their rules, something like the (debatable) idea that Duchamp and Cage were driven to innovate because neither was conventionally gifted at painting or composition, except that Krebber does not move the goalposts of artistic success. Instead, he holds the conventions of great art firmly in place, stubbornly repeating his failure to achieve them. These failures nevertheless develop an odd momentum of their own and hold the obscure appeal of his "badness," that he manages somehow to be a successful failure, a genius of lack as a foil to Kippenberger's performance of art as a strongman's pissing contest. It seems, however, that this failure succeeds precisely because he does not affirm itself as a new kind of success but instead remains self-deprecating. This is what the new crop of "bad" artists does not have, a sense of shame at their impotence. The operation is the usual one; an artist is considered important for making work that was considered illegitimate in their time, which inspires a wave of younger artists to take inspiration from their recently canonized hero. But their hero is no longer illegitimate or cutting-edge, they are the new, up-to-date standard of taste for art students, so what was once a challenging subversion is now a safe, conservative affectation of cultivation and knowingness. Krebber differs again from this conventional avant-garde narrative because he considers himself illegitimate more than his audience does, which is what makes his work impossible to copy: those who copy Krebber consider Krebber good, which preemptively makes them fail at imitating Krebber. He makes a failed painting and sees it as a failure, they see his failure as a success, so they think their own failures are successes. If nothing else, this would simply make it far too easy to make art by negating the inherent ambiguity and struggle of artmaking, which underscores the question of how Krebber's failures continue to succeed.

Without delving too specifically into the specifics of his artistic gestation, his years spent as an unproductive artist, trying to abandon art for theater, the creative breakthrough of working as Kippenberger's incompetent fabricator, etc., the obvious through line of his artistic biography is the rigorous preservation of the conditions of the gestating artist into an active art practice. As evidenced by the title of the first text written on his work, "A Watershed Moment in the Biography of a Criticism Junkie" by Albert Oehlen, this mental state of the ever-aspiring not-yet-artist is a critical one, the neurosis that comes from an overexposure to criticism, both in written criticism and internal self-critique that suppresses the emergence of the conventional artist's confidence in their perspective. What this leads to is a paradoxical complexity in such unremittingly immature painting, failed brushstrokes made with the consciousness that they could have been otherwise, an avoidance of the task of great painting that is so persistent that it nevertheless traces the outline of greatness. Like Cézanne's abandoned canvases and Kafka's incomplete novels, Krebber's paintings become an art of suggesting suggestion, a negative space that points toward a great idea outside the grasp of the artist's abilities, a glimpse of what painting still holds at the horizon of possibility. The paintings themselves are nimble and inventive in their range of approaches in spite, or because, of their lack of technique; sidestepping painterly discipline makes formal ingenuity necessary, and his consistency of reinvention speaks to his earnest investment in this sort of "beginner's mind" anti-practice of artistically moving in place. Otherwise this way of working could very easily fall into the weeds of uninspired offhand repetition, a baked-in risk of any art practice but especially so in case of work that requires so little physical effort. And so it does; to somewhat inevitably trot out Eric Schmid as an example, his show at Triest from 2020 recreated Krebber's 2003 show at Greene Naftali. Krebber's originals are barely painted but develop into distinctive objects by a combination of simple decisions: using fabrics instead of white canvas, leaning the work against the wall instead of hanging them, draping the show's poster over them. But Eric's canvases are blank, which reduces Krebber's system to an empty signifier of art without a signified, his only apparent decision being to hang folded Mickey Mouse blankets over three of the four canvases and a poster on the last one. The presumption seems to be that simply knowing Krebber's work is enough to constitute another artwork, a belief that runs through much of the programming at the gallery: Post-Krebber, toys, garbage, and paintings that can be made in fifteen minutes are the essence of art as long as the artist presents them with an ironic smirk. This misses the point entirely, naturally, because it has always been and always will be exceedingly easy to be a bad artist, and exceedingly difficult to be a good artist. It can be easy to read Krebber's legacy as license for the legitimation of stupidity in art, but he operates on a narrow margin of contradictory intelligence within stupidity, deep behind enemy lines, far be it from opening the floodgates of entitled dumbness as genius. Krebber being a good bad artist is no shirking of the responsibility to be a good artist; good art is always won by the skin of one's teeth from the onslaught of everything bad.