The Museum of Modern Art, March 1 – May 11, 2009
Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective is the first retrospective of this prolific and controversial German artist, the bulk of whose work was produced from 1977 until his death in 1997 at age 44.
The exhibit has two sections: the first is a giant installation in the atrium called “The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika’”(1994), a universe unto itself that transforms the space into a Dada-esque flea market. Baseball stadium bleachers and TV screens offering faux-live images surround a dizzying array of Kafkaesque objects, such as facing pairs of identical African sculptures and lifeguard chairs, an overturned table with glass and porcelain ashtrays glued to the underside, a giant fried-egg tabletop, dentist chairs with umbrellas, and so on.
Kafka’s Amerika was left unfinished when the author died, breaking off after its protagonist, Karl Rossman, arrives in the United States from Germany and is recruited by The Nature Theater of Oklahoma. In Kippenberger’s installation, the theater becomes a combination office-casino-sports arena, with dozens of reconfigured tables and chairs resting on a sheet of green cloth.
Like much of Kippenberger’s art, this massive work seems at first to be a sloppy, hastily arranged hodgepodge, but upon closer observation, each ready-made appears carefully chosen, reshaped; and painted. His art is a composite/appropriation of Picasso, Duchamp, Picabia, Dieter Roth, and Beuys, to name just a few. Considered neo-Expressionist, taking cues from Beckman with nuances acquired from Bacon, his peers were the likes of Sigmar Polke, Richard Hamilton, Marcel Broodthaers, Wolf Vostell, Daniel Spoerri, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
The second part of the show starts on the sixth-floor landing outside the Special Exhibition Galleries, where the entire left wall is covered with posters from shows “Kippi” participated in, and in the middle of the entrance hall stands an installation called ”L’Atelier Matisse sous-loue a Spiderman” (“Matisse’s studio sublet to Spiderman”) (1996), a small garret with a sink, a bare light bulb, word-paintings, and a crouching wire figure bearing Kippi’s sculpted self-portrait, ready to escape through the window.
Upon entering, one sees 56 black-and-white canvases titled “One of You a German in Florence” (1976-77), a personal diary of sorts that demonstrates the artist’s formidable ability with paint. In the next room, a Ford automobile, “Capri by Night” (1982), has been covered with brownish-red paint mixed with rolled oats; an “Orgon Box by Night” (1982) is painted similarly, slightly ajar, with the artist’s paintings stacked inside. There are also oppressive-looking architectural models, mostly square with small slots for windows or no windows at all, and several sculptures of the artist standing in a corner, his head and hands fashioned from resin-encased cigarette butts, collectively titled “Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself!” (for sexism, arrogance, racism, and an un-inherited shame of Nazism).
Another of the show’s motifs is a street lamp with a red bulb, bent to accommodate a drunkard’s unsteady body. Several of these are placed in a small forest of 29 cardboard tubes painted as birch trees, the floor covered with “fallen fruits”: oversized pharmaceutical pills and capsules bearing words such as Castelli Seltzer, 1 Spalt N, etc. The piece is called “Now I am Going Into the Big Birch Wood, My Pills Will Soon Start Working” (1990).
Kippenberger was “an exemplary alcoholic” at all times—high on drugs, disobedience, compulsive sociability, contradictions, and exotic travel. He was also a performer, an entertainer, a provocateur. At punk bars and biennials, he was the “juiced-up guy” who made scintillating speeches, picked stupid fights, and periodically dropped his pants. Most of his paintings are self-portraits, even if the faces are obscured, such as “Down with Inflation” (1984), a male figure with his pants down, portrayed next to a special sex-chair built to facilitate cunnilingus.
The titles he picked for his posters and cards are short neo-Dada poems, a la “We Didn’t Have a Problem with Mozzarella and Tomatoes, Because We Payback with Tiramisu.” According to Kippi’s artist-friend Albert Oehlen, “often, Kippi made an exhibition just as a reason to make an invitation card or poster.”
It would have been an unfinished art-life if the artist did not foresee his own aging and death, and Kippi did that with a twist. In 1989, near the end of his short, hectic life, the “enfant terrific” moved to Los Angeles and created his alter ego “Fred the Frog,” crucified, tongue sticking out, painted gold, a fried egg in one hand and a beer can in the other. And in the final part of this well-documented retrospective, he appears in haunting self-portraits as an aging Picasso in underwear, unattractively bloated. In addition, several portraits of Picasso’s last wife, Jacqueline Rogue, who killed herself a dozen years after the maestro’s demise, reveals Kippi’s desire to position himself in art history as a post-everything, including post-Picasso. This series is called “Jacqueline: The Painting Pablo Couldn’t Paint Anymore” (1996). The last work on display here is “The Raft of the Medusa” (1996), where Kippi’s image appears as close to death as one can achieve.
He died unexpectedly in Vienna a year later from his self-destructive alcohol intake, ending a dangerous investigation into and active mockery of the overinflated prices, enormous egos, and factory-made, self-aggrandizing packaging that infests the current art world.
The exhibition catalogue features an overview by Ann Goldstein, who curated the show for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as contributions by Ann Temkin, who organized the MoMA version, Pamela Lee, Diedrich Diederichsen, and others.