The Art of Noise: Kraftwerk Comes to MoMA

A one-week extravaganza in the atrium is a curator’s dream come true

'Man Machine' by Kraftwerk. (Courtesy the artist and the Museum of Modern Art)

Many of Ms. Sprüth’s artists are devout Kraftwerk fans. When the German painter Thomas Scheibitz was planning his 2005 Venice Biennale show, Ms. Sprüth asked him if he had any special goals. He wanted to work with Kraftwerk, he said. Though he didn’t know it, it just so happened that his dealer had been friends with them for almost 40 years. The band played the Biennale.

That performance led to more discussions between the group and the dealer. “I was thinking it would be phenomenal if they could get honored in another way,” Ms. Sprüth said, “if they could get recognition at the highest level.” And so it happened that the band is now playing at MoMA.

For American audiences, Kraftwerk seems to embody a quintessentially German aesthetic: precise, cold, rigid. In the “Sprockets” skit on Saturday Night Life that lampooned German avant-garde culture, Mike Myers played a pretentious intellectual named Dieter who dances to Kraftwerk’s 1986 song “Electric Cafe.”

That aside, the band’s aesthetic is not so far from the meticulously constructed photography that emerged from Düsseldorf in the 1980s, in the work of Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, and especially Andreas Gursky, another Sprüth Magers artist and Kraftwerk devotee, like Rosemarie Trockel. And “Klaus was always a big fan, too,” Ms. Sprüth said.

Mr. Biesenbach grew up just a short drive outside Düsseldorf in the 1980s. In 1991, he started the Kunst-Werke kunsthalle—a non-collecting museum like MoMA PS1—in Berlin, to which Germany’s contemporary art world had quickly gravitated after the fall of the Berlin Wall. “That name was inspired by Kraftwerk,” the curator said. “It’s a dialogue.” Kraftwerk translates to power station, while Kunst-Werk reads as artworks.

For Mr. Biesenbach, Kraftwerk’s art is about “mobility, telecommunications, and more and more functions in our life becoming machine-made”—the group refers to this union of humans and technology on  The Man-Machine (1978), the fourth album in the retrospective series. (The complete lyrics of its title track, in English, are: “Man machine, pseudo human being / Man machine, super human being.”)

Kraftwerk’s focus on technology has proved prescient, Mr. Biesenbach argued. They addressed nuclear energy early, the union of man and machine and, on their fifth album in the series, computer technology. “They had Computer World when nobody had a computer and nobody had a laptop,” the curator laughed. “Just imagine those guys. They were the perfect iPhone people.” (These days, Mr. Biesenbach listens to Kraftwerk on his iPhone.)

'TDF' by Kraftwerk. (Courtesy the artist and the Museum of Modern Art)

While Kraftwerk’s influence on pop music is undisputed—it’s hard to imagine what electronic music would sound like without the band’s influence—its direct power on younger artists is harder to ascertain. It’s certainly there in the work of the New York music performance group Fischerspooner, who also appeared in the museum’s atrium in 2009 for a project that the curator organized for Performa.

The Kraftwerk extravaganza comes just two months after Mr. Biesenbach’s enormously popular Antony and the Johnson’s show at Radio City Music Hall. Could a shift in focus be on at MoMA—the curator taking on the role of blockbuster concert booker? “It’s actually a coincidence,” he said of the timing. “Kraftwerk should have been happening two years ago, but we really needed a supporter for this. It’s quite a huge effort.” Volkswagen is helping fund the project.

He compared the Kraftwerk show to Pipilotti Rist’s immersive installation in the atrium in 2009, which blanketed its walls in lush, digital videos, and Marina Abramovic’s exhibition-long performance at a table in the atrium the following year, where she stared down all comers from her wooden seat.

Mr. Biesenback is transporting their studio from Düsseldorf to the atrium, essentially letting audience members in on a studio visit.

“You can see them make art,” he added. “It’s about making art live.”

The Art of Noise: Kraftwerk Comes to MoMA