Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 1 – May 11, 2009
Pretty funny guy, for a German. The curators who put together the current large retrospective of Martin Kippenberger, knowing that his name will be new to almost every visitor, have emphasized that he’s funny. Or, to use their choice of words, hilarious, absurd, all over the map. Without prompting, I doubt that many viewers would think so. Early in his career, which began around 1971, Kippenberger coated a Ford Capri in brown paint mixed with straw and oatmeal. We are told that this is a humorous comment on Anselm Kiefer, the prominent German painter who famously coated the surface of his canvases with straw. Okay. Next to the Capri on the museum floor sits a waist-high wooden box, painted the same dun brown with straw and oatmeal, that Kippenberger dubs an orgone box—in reference to Wilhelm Reich’s infamous contraption that was supposed to trap free-floating sexual energy. Through the half-open door of the box we glimpse some early, rejected canvases of Kippenberger’s, placed there, he tells us, so that they can acquire fresh energy and become acceptable. Not a lot of laughing was going on around me.
Some critics find Kippenberger’s insouciant stance insulting, and the artist, who inherited money, lived a dissolute jet set existence. Yet prankishness is an important part of his ethos, and it has a peculiarly German cloddishness. High on one wall hangs a cheaply bronzed crucifix, not of Christ but of Fred the Frog, a favorite creation of Kippenberger’s, holding a plate of fried eggs in one hand and a beer stein in the other. Roaming through the half dozen rooms of the exhibit, one sees the artist in oversized underpants, referring to some shocking photos of the aged Picasso taken in his underwear (shocking by the standards ofLife magazine). A tall lamp with a curvy pole is called Street Lamp for Drunks. A mannequin faces into the corner with its head bowed in shame. It’s called Martin, Stand in the Corner and Be Ashamed of Yourself (1992), an ironic riposte to a scathing critic who enumerated the artist’s personal and professional faults—the mannequin has a clear acrylic head filled with cigarette butts, atoning for Kippenberger’s chain-smoking.
Yet if you began at the end of the show, with a room filled with canvases entitled The Raft of the Medusa (1996), you’d think of Kippenberger as an exemplary post-modernist of a serious stripe. He has taken stark, horrifying motifs from Gericault’s epic canvas, with its starving castaways adrift in a shark-infested sea, and painted himself, in sketchy, poster-bright colors, as all the characters. There are 17 of these self-referential derivative paintings — MOMA gives us six, along with about twenty lithographs based on the same subject—and they should seem trivial and narcissistic. But they aren’t. Kippenberger is saved by his prodigal generosity, manic energy, design skill, catchy colors, and an imagination that has devoured every post-war art strategy and spewed it back as something personal.
In the long run, maybe Kippenberger will seem like a stand-up comic version of Jasper Johns, who possesses the same saving graces; or Johns may be a sober version of Kippenberger. The American has one huge advantage, however: he didn’t die at age 44 as Kippenberger did in 1997, leaving behind, among many other artifacts, 90 posters for his shows, various installations, photographs, videos, and countless prints and drawings—we get more than a hundred sketches that are united by all being done on hotel stationery from around the world—not to mention the canvases. Looking only at the paintings, one thinks of Kippenberger’s great compatriot, Gerhard Richter, another voracious cannibal of style. But Richter never cracks a smile, so determined is he to play the art icon game, a master who can reliably be placed on the top shelf after pushing aside Picasso and Pollock to make a little room for a newcomer to Valhalla.
Kippenberger was perversely determined to do the opposite, to establish his enormously impressive gifts but then deny us any masterpieces at all. Taken one at a time, Richter’s body of work is stunning piece by piece. Taken one at a time, Kippenberger’s works are brilliant first thoughts, sketches, jeux d’esprits,footnotes, and improvisations. The closest thing to an epic work is a sprawling collection of office furniture and assorted sculptural oddments entitled The Happy Ending of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika” (1994). The coy reference to Kafka’s unfinished novel is unnecessary. Walking around this massive assemblage, a paean to the trappings of bureaucracy, one notices many modernist touches, including sculptural forms and iconic mid-century furniture, that merge social commentary, classic design, and the banality of the workplace. A great deal of the haunted effect depends on emptiness—the space is devoid of actual personnel to man this surreal bureaucracy. And as with much of Kippenberger’s work, the initial impression of color, mood, form, and artistic exuberance, all happy things in themselves, isn’t followed by deeper emotion.
This lack of follow-through would be a fatal handicap in Romantic or religious art, but it’s a hallmark of modernism: distancing. Kippenberger has good reason to keep his distance. He’s German, and the cultural catastrophe of Nazism retains a toxic half-life. In the sixty years since Hitler’s burning corpse was found atop his Berlin bunker, a few German artists have assembled enough shards to form a significant cultural bulwark—Joseph Beuys, Richter, and Kiefer among them. Each had his own strategy, from Beuys’s abstracted surrealism, which enabled him to float off the map, to Richter’s painterly virtuosity, which allowed the visitor to be awed by technique even if the subject was a faded photo of a Nazi uncle. Kippenberger’s tactic is much like a drag queen’s, who pre-empts homophobia by coming at you in exaggerated gayness. Kippenberger comes at you in such clunky Teutonic regalia that he disarms his very Germanness—perhaps.
One of his key paintings is defiantly entitled, With the Best Will in the World I Can’t See a Swastika (1984). It depicts a pickup-stick pile of short bars in black, white, red, and green that reminded me, before I even read the title, of disassembled swastikas. I think it’s meant to: a jumble of bars amounts to whatever the viewer chooses to see, and if he sees shades of Nazism, Kippenberger is denying his own responsibility. But of course, his title firmly puts the idea of swastikas in our head. Kippenberger overall keeps walking the line between the exhausted trope of German guilt and a total freedom from the past that we are not yet ready to grant any German artist, even one who matured three decades after World War II.
The title of the show, “The Problem Perspective,” is taken from a painting that faces the situation head on: You are Not the Problem, It’s the Problem-Maker in Your Head. As an artistic or social credo, these words are facile, ill thought through, hopeful, and defiant all at once. So is Kippenberger’s art. The time will come, as with Jacques-Louis David, when our eyes will see less history and more beauty. Already the problem-maker in most people’s heads has forgotten that David eagerly participated in the Reign of Terror. Kippenberger couldn’t wait two hundred years, so he turned himself into the show-off who says “It’s not me.” He submerged himself so far into flashy anonymity that one series of large paintings based on street photos is not only not painted by him, but he didn’t take the snapshots, either. The series is titled, Dear Painter, Paint for Me, which is literally what he asked a commercial painter of movie posters to do.
In the end, all the jokiness and self-effacement, the clown-bright colors and the deft draughtsmanship, the narcissism and the coy peekaboo delivered a career that speaks for Germany as a whole as viably as Richter and Beuys do. Kippenberger is that rare hybrid, the history-haunted artist whose subject is freedom from history. Whether or not that’s a formula for success or obliteration is a puzzle no one, I think, is qualified to solve. Time alone will tell.