It is easy for the visitor to Kai Althoff’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, “and then leave me to the common swifts,” to grow irritated: the long wait for entry into the overcrowded galleries, the admonishment from the well-meaning museum employees about the absolute prohibition of photography, the barely legible checklist available at the entrance, and then, finally, the show. A jumble. The figurative paintings for which Althoff is best known—depictions of small social groups done in a nostalgic manner that blends the Expressionist styles of Kirchner, Schiele, and Dix with references to children’s book imagery and Asian shadow puppets—are scattered around an installation that also includes vitrines of notes and postcards and at least a few vials of what looks like blood; mannequins in nineteenth-century costumes; architectural maquettes of gloomy European villas; snapshots of men hanging out together; Pop-style photocollages; an early twentieth-century gynecological exam chair, among other spooky furniture; more mannequins.
The artist designed the exhibition himself. Worn white wood planks cover the floor, and white fabric draped from the walls gives the impression of being inside a tent. Freestanding partitions at the far end of the gallery, also constructed from wood planks and serving as supports for many of the paintings, are steeply angled at the top, suggesting the architecture of an attic with a pitched roof. More important is what Althoff has left out. He has rejected all the usual means by which the museum provides historical context and analysis of the work on view. Wall texts are absent, but so, too, is any kind of curatorial structure that might guide a comparison of different works or elucidate the significant relationships between different aspects of Althoff’s output. It would be interesting to unpack the idea of “alternative” lifestyles that runs through the show, which includes references to Asian cultures, imagery associated with German communes of the 1970s, and paintings of Hasidic men. But the exhibition is a barely differentiated pile, one clearly intended to be a total work of art, conveying, above all, the sheer immensity of the artist’s creativity.
Althoff made a name for himself as a polymath in the Cologne scene of the 1990s, where he produced dance music and began creating installations that integrated his painting into architectonic structures. He has since embarked on a spiritual journey, living among the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights. In other words, he is an artist who has, in various ways, folded art into life.
Given the anticipation leading to the opening of Althoff’s retrospective and the mystery of its presentation, one might expect to have an encounter with the blood, sweat, and tears of the artist. But the promise of such a major emotional experience is constantly undercut by the pervasive suspicion that only minor feelings are afoot: Is the exhibition architecture mystical and chapel-like, or merely shabby chic? Does the display methodology imply a deep mystery, or needlessly mystify? Does the photo ban, constantly enforced by harried security personnel, guard the sanctity of this work, or simply protect the intellectual property of collectors who own these pleasant and highly sought-after figurative compositions? Is the attic imagery a profound challenge to linear historical narratives, or a ham-fisted haunted house? Am I experiencing catharsis in front of this creepy mannequin, or just feeling annoyed?
Althoff appears to have been annoyed frequently while realizing the show. His dissatisfaction with MoMA and the apparently contentious curatorial negotiation he undertook is a conspicuous frame for the exhibition. Or maybe it’s better to say that Althoff’s ultimate victory in this negotiation is evident. The artist wrote his own oblique press release. A rabbi, DovBer Naiditch, contributed the main catalogue essay, a meditation on the nature of magic and mysticism. The catalogue also includes an astonishing interview between Althoff and the exhibition’s nominal curator, MoMA’s Laura Hoptman, in which they attack each other: he calls her “blind,” and she insists that his unrelenting obscurity is disingenuous.
This dustup is peculiar because, to a great extent, the show does much of the work that a normal midcareer retrospective would, as it mostly cobbles together previous installations. A version of Althoff’s contribution to the 2012 Whitney Biennial—a wooden staircase surrounded by a fabric scrim on and around which colorful paintings on wood panels are piled—is on view, as are many of the elements central to his previous solo shows, such as a cardboard cash register from his 2007 exhibition at Gladstone Gallery in New York and parts of a cluttered 2005 installation at ACME in Los Angeles. He has bent the great MoMA to his will, yet the ultimate payoff from this struggle amounts to little more than a thin mystical gloss on a regular survey of the hits.
Althoff’s individual paintings frequently suggest complex allegories. For example, Naiditch speculates that an untitled 2010 painting, which shows several Hasidic men crowded around a red dog, is a depiction of communism stifling workers. Maybe. Whatever nuance exists in individual works is subsumed by the blunt allegorical content of the overall exhibition, which is all about the conflict between the expressive individual artist and the worldly institution that can only constrain his vision. The unconventional look of this show, in that sense, masks a cliché: the fascination with the exotic, the hints of wild bohemian lifestyles, the ambiguous politics, and, finally, the male artist’s triumph over stodgy academic resistance to achieve creative freedom. Haven’t we heard this story before somewhere? MoMA’s early twentieth-century galleries, perhaps? Given the context, the supposed rift this show caused in the upper echelons of museum management actually feels like a staid throwback to a set of tropes that undergird the myths of male modernist genius that MoMA has encouraged in the past, and that subsequent artists—including many women and people of color—have spent decades working to overcome.
Althoff has effectively mitigated these tropes in the past by making his process highly collaborative. In New York he animated an unruly installation at the small Dispatch gallery through an electrifying performance with the black metal band Liturgy. He worked with graffiti artist Nick Z for the 2007 Gladstone show. Arguably, this collaborative spirit manifests in the MoMA exhibition as a dialogue with the Hasidic community, with a rabbi invited into the process. But while establishing a meaningful connection to a certain spiritual community or a small group of ideal viewers is a totally valid reason to make art, it leads to misunderstandings at a public institution, especially one that was so aggressively barred from any meaningful collaborative role. Althoff used MoMA’s gallery space to construct an inward-looking version of his own career—a distortion that obscures his deep links to subcultures and collaborators. What’s left feels like an odd version of institutional critique, one directed not at examining ideological constructs and challenging potted historical narratives, but at realizing the narrow goal of co-opting the museum to accommodate individual desires.