Martin Kippenberger

Martin Kippenberger: “The Problem Perspective”
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles CA
September 21, 2008 – January 5, 2009

Originally published in ArtUS 24

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In 1997, shortly after Martin Kippenberger’s early death at age 44, Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times: “Kippenberger’s refusal to settle, his determination to keep on moving regardless of the odds, may cost him a permanent place in history, and I say this thinking that he is one of the three or four best German artists of the postwar period.” While his historical importance has since seemed to solidify, it has taken more than a decade for Kippenberger to get a large-scale U.S. retrospective. Organized by MOCA’s Ann Goldstein, “Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective” comprises 250 works covering the entire 20-year span of his practice, which ranged from painting, sculpture, performance art, installation, and photography, to music, curatorial work, books, and even a stake in an L.A. restaurant. For Kippenberger, self is art and art is self, so the idea of editing down one’s work, of showing the world only one’s most successful efforts, was as wrongheaded as refusing to go outside unless one was in the best possible mood. In principle, he believed in acting on every idea and leaving it to others to sort out the value of the results, keenly aware that the worth of art, in a critical sense as well as a monetary one, is always relative.

The amount of work in the MOCA exhibition is sufficiently overwhelming, representing lesser-known works as well as all of Kippenberger’s major series, from the 1980s Peter sculptures to the Die I.N.P. Bilder (The Is-Not-Embarrassing Paintings, 1984); to the Lieber Maler, male mir (Dear Painter, Paint for Me, 1981) series in which Kippenberger commissioned a commercial sign painter to render images in a slick, realistic style; to dozens of drawings made on the hotel stationery Kippenberger collected during his frequent, extensive travels; to the renowned self-portraits depicting the artist in hiked-up underwear resembling those worn by Picasso in a studio photograph; to the late series Das Floss der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa, 1996), which riffs on the well-known 1819 Géricault painting; to the sprawling, hyper-detailed installation The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika” (1994). Housed at the Geffen Contemporary, the latter is a veritable masterpiece comprising dozens of “interview” stations, inspired by a scene in Kafka’s unfinished 1927 novel. Laid out on a floor painted like a soccer field, it includes repurposed Peter sculptures among its bizarrely mismatched examples of furniture—a big plastic egg yolk on a pedestal, a high chair, a wicker swing, industrial desks, café chairs. It exudes a haunted, sinisterly playful, and somehow tragic aura that exactly captures Kafka’s dark, absurd scenarios and fascination with labyrinthine rules.

Kippenberger was almost pathologically social as an artist, a quality that is responsible for much of his work’s intrigue, even if it has a downside. Predictably, works that consist mainly of a web of references, many of them obscure or based on anecdotes known chiefly to Kippenberger and his inner circle of assistants, friends, and colleagues, are difficult to parse and don’t make much impact beyond their aesthetic strangeness—though that strangeness can sometimes be delightful. A number of the Peter sculptures, for example, fall into this category. From a contemporary standpoint, they seem less like realized artworks and more like artifacts of Kippenberger’s collaborative, spontaneous, discursive method of working.

By contrast, pieces that incorporate some universal element, notably pathos—the hotel stationary drawings, The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika,” the painted and sculptural self-portraits, the Dear Painter, Paint for Me and 1980s No Problem series, among others—provide an opening and are more readable, and thus usually more likable, though it should be noted that with Kippenberger, pathos is often at least part phony, or, more accurately, simultaneously insincere and sincere. Lying at the opposite end of the spectrum from the more abstruse “Peter” sculptures and conceptual paintings are his Raft of the Medusa series and the unappealing, pointed Zuerst die Füsse (First the Feet, 1990) sculpture, depicting the artist as a frog on a cross—which are steeped in pathos in whatever dubious form.

Kippenberger’s range of tone is striking. Few artists can be said to swing between conceptual and expressionist, even Romantic poles to such a degree. Of the many boundary crossings Kippenberger made in his life, this is among the most peculiar and daring. It makes more sense, however, when you consider that at his core, Kippenberger was concerned with what it meant to be an artist in the real world, with reconciling to the fact that art making is, on the one hand, an embarrassing, humiliating enterprise demanding self-exposure, and on the other, a lofty, honorable one concerned with exposing large-scale truths.

It’s a question that has always plagued artists: Are you being serious, or not? The answer, Kippenberger knew, changes constantly, and depends almost entirely on one’s perspective.