In Kai Althoff’s painting Untitled (2013), two women pass each other on fire escape ladders. They stop to greet one another, or to share a secret, or perhaps even to kiss. The nature of their encounter is ambiguous, but emphatically intimate. As in many of Althoff’s paintings, these figures are caught in a moment of rich and unresolved contact.
Althoff was born in 1966 in Cologne and lived there until 2009, when he moved part-time to the Crown Heights district of Brooklyn. Untitled depicts Brooklyn’s ubiquitous ladder escapes, often places of neighborly chatter. Althoff shows his figures in one such exchange. Their body language is familiar and their expressions are relaxed, like friends in ordinary conversation. But their encounter suggests a special affection. The women meet on the ladders, not the landings, as if sneaking between floors. They seem to speak secretly, in hushed tones. Their faces are on the verge of touching, drawing our attention to the space where their cheeks meet in a blur of pink and grey.
Intimate encounters of this kind—private exchanges infused with erotic possibility—pervade Althoff’s paintings. Figures lie on top of one other, sit shoulder to shoulder, or stand in tight clusters. “The notion of bodies is so beautiful,” Althoff told curator Jennifer M. Volland, “Whatever I may be attracted to is on the scale of physicality”.1 Intimacy here is a matter of bodily interaction.
For Althoff, however, bodily interaction is dubious. Untitled could easily depict prosaic conversation—its intimacy may very well be a factor of Althoff’s angle and our insinuations. In a number of the artist’s best-known paintings, the ambiguity runs deeper: groups of men converge in wild contact that appears at once tender and threatening. Scenes of bar fights and rough-housing are laced with homoeroticism. Althoff’s paintings depict the uncomfortable process of establishing intimacy and the moments when it runs amok. They remind us that close encounters are often the most awkward—unexpected eye contact, brushing limbs, and first kisses. Althoff recasts physical closeness as something shapeshifting and mysterious.
“I have always thought that what I do cannot be cherished the way I want it to be loved unless something within a body turns towards it—to present all open tissue to its membrane,” Althoff told Volland (Ibid. 19). The erotic charge of Althoff’s paintings elicits this close, embodied inspection. Untitled’s mottled surface has the fleshy quality of a human body—it begs to be touched. The figures’ faces are so close that we imagine how they might lock together, as the hatted figure’s shoe locks around the ladder’s step. But their features slip into uncertainty, imploring us to approach the canvas, view it from different angles, and move our own bodies in a search for understanding. In other words, we are compelled to have our own intimate encounter with Althoff’s painting.
At a time when conceptual art was reaching new, broader audiences, Althoff emerged with a body of work that favored the narrative and the affective. While many artists were asking their viewers to think critically, Althoff was asking them to imagine desirously. Untitled arouses simple human questions: what are these women doing, and how do they know each other? Such inquiries might appear straightforward, but in Althoff’s universe of abstruse eros they take on worlds of possibility.
- “In Conversation: Kai Althoff and Jennifer M. Volland” in Kai Althoff (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery), 2008, 19, 29.