For a long time, I wasn’t sure I could write about Kai Althoff. He was born in a country that no longer exists, though I have spent a lot of time in its successor’s capital, Berlin. Afternoons swimming in the Teufelssee, nights cruising the ping pong tables in the Tiergarten, the smoky machine-made warmth of the U-Bahn in winter, the crumbling apartments facing bicycle-cramped hofs, the rainbow-coloured neon lights that crown the station at Nollendorfplatz – scenes both familiar and also belonging to a place just beyond my grasp. In trying to describe Germany or Kai Althoff, I often worry I might make a fool of myself, romanticising or misunderstanding my subject, even if the late nights I have spent among gaunt boys and distinguished women have felt dreamily adjacent to the imagined worlds of Althoff’s paintings and sculpture.
There is this history, the history of a demolished world partly reconstructed of fragments. It is a palpable feeling in Althoff; it is everywhere in the paintings and installations. Not only Weimar and the catastrophe of the two wars, the division between a gilded West and steel-plated East, but a spooky mood that emanates from something awful and old – damp ashen earth smelling strongly of Goethe’s hair.
I presented my problem, which is a personal and a professional problem, to another German painter, Thomas Eggerer. We sat at a gay bar in New York in the first of spring of what was then called the post-pandemic. I was visiting from London. When I lived in New York Thomas was my near neighbour and I have known him for many years. Like Althoff, he lives in Brooklyn. I tend to consult him whenever I am unsure of the direction of my writing or my life – often the case – and I admire most his forthrightness, which is a quality I associate closely with Germans, especially Bavarians. (Thomas is from Munich.) He is always showing me where and how I have slipped, and then advising next steps. He never minces words.
Had I failed as a critic, in my struggle with Althoff? I wondered aloud to him over watery tequilas served in scuffed plastic glasses. Was my desire to fall back onto personal experience – because that is very much what I wanted to do, as I am doing now – a sign of intellectual frailty, the need to ‘write what I know’ since I otherwise seemed to know so little about my subject? Thomas had met Althoff. But his knowing him would be of no help to me, he said. I retrieved from my bag the Museum of Modern Art catalogue from Althoff’s 2017 show and then leave me to the common swifts. We flipped through the pages, giggled about the combative exchange between him and the show’s curator, Laura Hoptman, whom he openly disdains.
‘I think you are blind,’ Althoff tells her. ‘You prefer to look at things… in constraints, which fulfil a boring notion of these ideas, you know, violence and beauty…’ She replies, ‘I am most certainly not blind: I am just emphatically not you.’ (Why do I immediately side with Althoff over Hoptman, who is only trying to do her difficult job and, in attempting to do it meaningfully, attracts the ire of a man set on controlling exactly how he is seen?) We read passages from personal interpretations by Althoff’s friends, including Rabbi DovBer Naiditch, as well as other art critics. These writers admit that they don’t always understand the art they are tasked with explaining to readers.
Robert Storr: ‘There are some artists whose work compels us to do research, and others whose images prompt us to speculate.’ He continues: ‘All we can do, long to do, is fill in the blanks from memory or from our own imaginations – in other words, dream.’ Tom Holbert, writing for Artforum fifteen years earlier than Storr, sees the act of dreaming as part of Althoff’s self-conception, his ‘self-abnegating’ approach to art-making whereby the artist can be many at once: ‘Althoff is everywhere and nowhere, speaking in tongues, drawing as if he were someone else, as if the other, invented (dreamed?) person had taken control of him, if only temporarily.’ This never-quite-knowing what is happening (or between whom) in an Althoff painting or sculpture is preferable to the over-confidence of critics who have attempted to explain his practice with reasoned dispassion. A Texte zur Kunst review of a recent exhibition promises to ‘decode’ the ‘mystery’ of Kai Althoff. The writer leaves that mystery wholly intact, concluding that Althoff’s glut of curious signifiers, including his problematic Orientalist imagery, results from an obsessive mind. But obsession is a quality found in most artists, and so for me this is an insufficient reading of his work, both in terms of its artistic achievements and its political failures. Mystery may be the point, a mystery that cannot be penetrated. Naiditch suggests that Althoff is a kind of prophet: ‘Prophetic visions, too, are unclear.’
The bar was nearly empty, so no one asked about what we were reading or splashed their beers flirtatiously in our direction, as sometimes happens in such places. Two men danced to a jukebox blasting at top volume. Thomas and I could hardly hear each other.
He searched for one of his favourite paintings by Althoff, though it hadn’t been included in the catalogue I had with me. He called it up on his phone, an untitled painting from 2007. It depicts a man, two women, and a boy you might not notice at first. They sit on a bright yellow couch. The red wall behind them, almost the colour of grapefruit flesh, bright, sour, contrasts with their purple skin and, together with the sofa, hints at the tricolour German flag, its missing black bar having dribbled down to form the man in the middle of the painting.
The woman to the right leans forward in her knit pullover, her head turned away, as if she has caught sight of someone else at the party. It is a party, I think, though there is no evidence to suggest one within the painting itself. Was it painted from a photograph? There is something photographic about it; the figures pose in that falsely un-self-conscious way we do when a camera has been trained on us and we want to appear as if we haven’t noticed. That is why I think they are at a party, and why an implied fifth figure, a photographer, is standing where we stand when we look at the painting. Thomas projected further, drawing on his own youth in Bavaria in the 1960s and 70s, when couples and families gabbed and partied in their newly rebuilt cities and towns. Thomas is Althoff’s near contemporary (they were born three years apart) and the woman looking away reminds him of his chemistry teacher – so much so that he feels she must be his chemistry teacher, though of course she is not. She is just someone in a painting and therefore no one, whatever her likeness to a real chemistry teacher in Munich. This painting, even when viewed on a phone, lifted us both out of our seats, into the dense, smelly air of the bar on Second Avenue. I thought of a too-small couch in an apartment in Berlin where I often lay with someone with whom I was once in love, my head resting in his lap and our feet awkwardly stretched over its wooden armrest as he stroked my hair. We used to smoke rolled cigarettes and stare at the pigeons cooing on the windowsill in the morning.
I asked Thomas whether he and Althoff might have gone to school together. He scoffed, returning to his senses. That was impossible; Althoff was from Cologne. No, the woman in the painting with her knit sweater and huge glasses is simply a painterly iteration of a woman who would have been common in the affluent West. She was everywhere then, as were the other two adults. They are rich Germans who have forgotten what happened. They are rich Germans for whom the squid ink of history has been washed from their clothes. I was reminded of a line by the poet Kevin Killian, from his debut collection of poems: ‘I saw something important I can’t remember.’
The boy, though. What does he remember? He lies with his head gracing the thigh of the man, and the man’s hand – it is so heavy-looking – rests on his face. It is a gesture you might easily miss, nearly outside the painting. But as soon as you see it, it is the painting; the whole picture hinges upon this touch and you realise that the strangeness of the people in the frame is heightened by, totally dependent upon, that weird fatherly tenderness, that weird fatherly dominance, which is both familial and sexual. He saw something important. You can’t remember. Thomas, when he draws my attention to this detail, is uncertain of his interpretation of it. Or else he does not tell me what he is thinking because he recognises how evocative it is, and what it solicits in him, as in me, is hard to put into words.
The young men in Thomas’s paintings are so different from the one in Althoff’s Untitled. They tend to be more anonymous, boys who disappear into urban landscapes, street protests, the sea, sometimes alone, other times with friends and lovers. They are like dreamers to me, youthful escapees from the middle-class, reformist reality that has seemingly subjugated Althoff’s boy, the reality embodied by the older man – perhaps the reality of Thomas’s Germany. When I ask whether he has ever painted the gesture found in our favourite Althoff painting, he says no, it is nowhere in his work. Thomas’s figures arrive at the sea, on California’s highways or the streets of New York, or in no-places of splashy colour, often without faces, their bodies half disappeared or incomplete; they arrive with a sense of unfinished business, which is one way to describe the liberation expressed – or even granted – by their anonymity. In Mint Ozone (2015), a shirtless boy wades through the green-and-purple haze of a bar or nightclub (I am assuming he is in a nightclub, and in assuming, with Thomas, you sometimes find yourself in trouble). The boy’s arms are spread out as if he is feeling his way through darkness, toward others like him. He looks for a guiding hand, a hand that I suspect will never clasp his.
What unnerves me about Althoff’s painting is how much I see within it my own scarcely acknowledged desires. To be touched by someone who is seemingly not paying attention to you at a party is the gift of an almost unbearable secret, the secret that the person who is touching you has divided into two selves: the self who sits between two women, paying you no mind, and the self whose thoughts concern only you. You are the whole room, though he cannot admit it. I wish I could be one of the figures in Thomas’s paintings, carrying in my heart the independence they seem to retain when stumbling or marching or swimming among others, others they may nevertheless love and want; this, I believe, is their secret power. No, I am much more like that young man in Untitled. I do not want to float away; I want to be held down by someone who isn’t paying immediate attention to me. Press me into the sofa, please.
I did not say anything of this to Thomas. Like him, I kept my reasons for loving this boy – and I think he loved him too – to myself.
There is something I do want to give away. I once tried to sketch Althoff’s figure into a failed novel called Soft Landing. It was both an exercise in autobiography and an exercise in ekphrastic writing, an attempt to merge parts of my life, the parts in Berlin that confused me (there are many things there that confuse me), with this boy in Untitled. I hoped my novel might culminate in a recreation of the scene from the painting, with me seeing the boy at the party, lying down with another man’s hand resting on his cheek. Developing this moment in prose, as a fiction, might elucidate the painting’s content, if not its form. The man on the couch would remind the protagonist of the wild pigs that run in great packs through the Grunewald, sometimes tormenting bicyclists, hikers and swimmers. The man might even be a pig in disguise, like something out of a Miyazaki film; this might trigger a succession of transformations in my book, leading the protagonist to become a pig too. The first date between the protagonist and the boy – you can call him Paul – would be set in the forest, where they would pilgrimage to the grave of the singer Nico, who is buried in a plot beside her mother. This would take place several days before the party, and over those days the protagonist would steadily fall in love with Paul.
After the party, the protagonist – you can call him Andrew now – would be unsure as to why the boy had allowed the older man to touch his face. What could he say or ask? He would be too unnerved. They would visit the Teufelssee again before Andrew flew back to London.
They arrive late after a picnic in the Tiergarten, but, since it is summer, the stretch of afternoon into evening is long, the trees swathed in a dim blue twilight that seems to scrim the whole world with the promise that night will never really come. There are a hundred or so bathers still at the lake, some standing in the shallows, some on the floating dock, others sitting on the grass, dancing, taking pictures of one another, drinking and eating, Germans and foreigners. Most of the foreigners are speaking English, though Andrew guesses from the accents that the language is their second, third, fourth. The principal bond between everyone is the water, dense and cold.
Boys covered in tattoos cannonball from a barge in the middle of the lake. Mosquitos skim the broken surface of the water, sometimes catching on stray branches and plantstuff that has collaged into drifting islands of fragmented forest. Some bits cling to Andrew’s arms, legs, and shoulders before sinking into the green darkness when he bats them away. He tries not to swallow any lake water when he dunks his head, and instead – because he can’t resist tasting this place – licks his wetted lips. Minerally, but also like nothing. He looks up, at the jagged oval of blue formed between the surrounding forest, a sky hued pinkish and soft at the corners. At the edge of the trees a white dome atop a tower peers down upon the lake, eye-like, bright as the moon – some menacing element of an unseen military complex. Paul says, ‘It’s a C.I.A. listening station. Or was.’
Whoever was once in the tower isn’t listening to them now. The technology was meant for greater distances than the unimportant lake below, where hikers and teenagers and sun-stroked bicyclists swim naked and drink beer on the slope of grass. Instead, Andrew thinks of the mythic catfish rumoured to rule Berlin’s lakes, giant maneaters, half asleep in the cold muddy trenches far below his kicking feet, the sound of everyone’s voices carrying down to them as a puttering hum of a dying surface world. Soft Landing takes place during the hottest summer in European history, after the coldest spring in a century. Andrew hears that the snails are boiling on the sidewalks in Sicily, small deaths that bloom in his mind to quiet the larger terrors they suggest. In Athens, a thousand people perished from heatstroke the week before he arrived in Berlin. Yet here, the water is cold, and the boy from Untitled is shivering.
Paul climbs onto the barge and stretches his arms. His face is serious and concentrated while he considers how and where he might dive. Andrew wonders how much of him Paul can make out without his glasses, whether he is more than a shadow among the gentle waves produced by the barge, more completely himself, Paul’s lover, however briefly. If Paul’s vision were better, he would see how much Andrew adores him as he stands shaking in his underwear on the barge, trying to catch his balance, how much Andrew craves another day with him. Within twenty-four hours Andrew will be on an EasyJet flight to London, and the boy will be in his room on the sixth floor of a walk-up in Schöneberg.
American boys clamour around him, scurrying in a time their own, quicker than his. They leap in and shout to one another as they swim to buoys that mark where you are permitted to lap. Their movement pushes the barge this way and that, so that Paul floats suddenly close by, then is several feet away again.
Andrew thinks of the pig on the couch, his hand on Paul’s face. He says to himself, I can become that pig if I allow myself. But really, he wants to be Paul, and for Paul to be the pig – somehow an impossible arrangement between them, he suspects.
Paul swats at the mosquitoes that seem to adore his pale skin. His hesitation seeps over the lake, slowing Andrew’s perception of everything except him. He leans forward, then steps back. He twirls his arms.
A wind blows from the C.I.A. listening station and rustles the darkening trees.
The barge drifts toward the shallows, where three naked women stand in conversation, their hands resting on their hips. The bright tips of cigarettes hover over the distant grass like fireflies. Then a large man, the last of the swimmers besides Paul, jumps into the water. Everyone is heading home before it is too dark; there are no lights in the forest. As the barge floats closer, Paul tenses his body, crouches, whispers to the count of three, then somersaults into the lake, surfacing beside Andrew with a shudder.
A painting sometimes causes us to wish for things that are not real to come true. It also causes us to wonder how much we should trust the purported reality it does strive to represent. Did she really dress like that? Did anyone ever smile so awkwardly? For a long time, I worried about imagining myself in paintings or bringing figures within them to life. Later I understood that, at times, it is the only way to know why you feel the way you do about it, why a painting was made the way it was, in a time so far from your own, aimed at a future that sits like an apple on your head.