Kai Althoff's career seemed to take off in a big way, at least in New York, after his 2001 exhibition at Anton Kern Gallery. In 2002, a suite of watercolors was exhibited to great acclaim in Laura Hoptman's "Drawing Now: Eight Propositions," at the Museum of Modern Art. With the exception of a passel of photographs and one offbeat sculpture at Kern (an agglomeration of two chairs and a sword), both spotlights on this hitherto relatively obscure German artist--obscure stateside, that is--gave the impression that his metier was painting and works on paper. Nicholas Baume, curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston's retrospective, "Kai Kein Respekt (Kai No Respect)," does a superb job of rectifying this skewed perspective: The show includes sculpture, photography, video, installations, music, and text pieces. For those who admire Althoff's "traditional" works but remain unaware of his German exhibitions or his jumbled and messy 1997 US debut at Kern, the ICA show was revelatory. It may also have spawned doubts: How, for instance, can one reconcile the Althoff of the often delectable paintings and drawings with the other artist, who seems indifferent to facture, or even legibility, in so many of the works on view? A rift opens between Althoff's mostly two-dimensional "commodity-fetish" art and everything else he does. Comprehending this extreme diversity as a unified practice isn't easy. The displeasing question is whether a detailed, highly nuanced understanding merits the trouble. The answer is yes, but the reward is an evolving picture of the artist that disintegrates at every turn--not Dorian Gray, but his portrait.
Certainly Althoff isn't the first to exploit a radical dispersion through ever-multiplying themes and media. The Dieter Roth retrospective recently on view at MOMA and P.S. 1 amplifies the historical context for Althoff's oeuvre. But with Roth's vast Gartenskulptur, 1968-96, in mind, Althoff's installation of a destroyed room at the ICA looks rather meager. (Still, who doesn't love a destroyed room?) Kippenberger's initial reception in the States is roughly analogous, as is his unmistakable non-signature signature style: Love the paintings and hotel-stationery drawings, but why should we endure the insistent drunken boorishness and his exorbitantly contrived persona? What's the point of the spoiled-brat contrarian stance for its own sake? Kippenberger's Cologne-based claque can serve as models for Althoff's musical pursuits, especially his band, Workshop; the same goes for his avowed attraction to "collectives." The abundance of works ranging from 1970s-type homespun stuff (felt banners, clay sculptures, very awkward drawings, virtually scribbles) to many species of eldritch crud counters his reception in the US as, pretty much, a highly marketable new German painter. Indeed, it usually takes more time for a pile of lurching, vaguely anthropomorphic carpeting to achieve the high-dollar visibility of an artwork that can be framed.
Althoff has been praised as a "history painter" delving into the collective unconsciousness of Germany. (And as he's a fashionable artist now, one can already anticipate the backlash that will revile him as aesthetically and politically retrograde.) The argument that Althoff is echt-Deutsche harks back to the worst of 1980s neo-expressionist blather, even as it offers a dicey refuge from the tedium of globalism. Yet not every practice can be so hyperefficiently rationalized as to effortlessly travel from Cologne to Gwangju without encountering a few interpretive speed bumps. That the artist's first large-scale exhibition should be in Boston, not Germany, itself strikes a discordant note; showing his idiosyncratic works on foreign ground further estranges them. There's something dandyish in this gesture of apparent refusal, given that Althoff appears keenly attached to Heimat. Jerry Saltz remarks in his Village Voice review of the 2001 "Impulse" show at Anton Kern that "from canvas to canvas, a flawed but exquisite family tree arises, real and illusory ghosts of the fatherland emerge, and the frightful Nazi motto 'Blut und Boden'. …