And then leave me to the common swifts
Kai Althoff Appropriates MoMA

Works like these have probably never been included in a MoMA retrospective: children’s pictures with handwritten inscriptions such as Bazaar at the Montessori School on December 8, 1974. Or a colored pencil drawing of a woman who, as the title reveals, is buying her first eggplant in the Kalk section of Cologne in 1975. Kai Althoff has accomplished this feat: artistic productions from his childhood and youth are juxtaposed with recent works. And he has done so in the revered halls of a museum that has influenced the canon of twentieth- and twenty-first-century art more than any other institution. Kai Althoff, who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, has always broken rules. He has created installations that looked like drug dens, teenagers’ rooms, and the display windows of a high-end London boutique from the 1920s. No matter whether he drew, painted, performed, designed fashion, or made records such as Fanal oder Ashley’s with his band “Workshop,” Althof has always dissolved borders between biography and invention, life and art. Ever since he began his career in the 1990s, his artistic cosmos has been considered extremely German, full of references to his home city Cologne, to Germany’s National Socialist past, to krautrock and 1970s and 80s youth subcultures. At the same time, Althoff repeatedly questions gender roles and sexual pigeonholing, shows friendship and community as well as latent violence. It has often been said that he has a nostalgic, eccentric attitude to life.  

With Kai Althoff: and then leave me to the common swifts (und dann überlasst mich den Mauerseglern), MoMA is showing how complex Althoff’s work is, both thematically and formally. The exhibition is not a classical retrospective with works displayed in chronological order. Althoff deconstructed work groups, painting series, and installations from three decades, recombined them, and enriched them with found objects important to him: ceramics, fabrics, feathers, jewelry. He leaned some of his most well-known paintings on the wall, and didn’t even unpack others. In this convoluted arrangement, it is often hard to tell what is a found piece and what is an artistic work. 

Visitors move through a choreographed obstacle course in which the colors, shapes, and draperies elicit certain sensations. The show is akin to a spatial collage that the artist arranged himself. “The Museum of Modern Art granted me all freedom in using the gallery’s space and the Museum’s profound resources to present my work in the manner that I deem appropriate at this time of its existence and my life,” writes Kai Althoff in the press release on the retrospective. But he adds that his confidence is “terrifyingly wobbling,” that there is “no reason really why my things are exhibited in a museum and others are not.” Consequently, he did not only incorporate collaborative works, but also works by craftspeople. The result is an exuberant all-embracing work that illustrates Althoff’s virtuoso handling of painting and drawing as well as the critical potential of his work. For ultimately and then leave me to the common swifts (und dann überlasst mich den Mauerseglern) unequivocally examines the issue of whether the canon of art really has to look the way it has been written. 

Kai Althoff
and then leave me to the common swifts
(und dann überlasst mich den Mauerseglern)

until 1/22/2017
Museum of Modern Art, New York