It’s plain to see what Martin Kippenberger (1953 – 1997) did, judging from MOMA’s fairly comprehensive overview of this German artist. The question is, what didn’t he do? At various stages of his sadly brief life, he had the ambition to be an actor, writer, musician, and artist. He met each with varying success, but surely it is his body of artwork that best reflects the larger-than-life man who seemed to view the world as his playground and art history as his palette. He located his place in the universe for us by attaching tangents to other artists/artworks or historical items.
Subtitled The Problem Perspective and assembled by Ann Goldstein, senior curator at MOCA in LA, with Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, the centerpiece of the show is an installation that sums up Kippenberger’s madcap vision and breadth of ambition. Located in MOMA’s cavernous atrium space, entitled The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika,” it is the ostensible set for a scene from Kafka’s unfinished book. On an artificial turf football field sit dozens of seating/table arrangements of every stripe, each unique unit a stand-alone artwork—a setting for so many simultaneous interviews made into a spectator sport by bleachers at two ends.
Kippenberger’s paintings, sculptures and smaller installations occupy the sixth floor. The lobby space houses Spiderman Studio, featuring the artist as superhero, and a wall of posters whose bold designs encapsulate message and form. Kippenberger’s work is not so neatly packaged. In several paintings he compares himself to Picasso, whose prolificness and stylistic experimentations might have inspired Kippenberger (although it’s shocking to realize the Spaniard lived more than twice as long as the German). His wildly varying oeuvre reflects his addictive, rebellious, reportedly delinquent behavior. He was frequently the subject of his own painting—in his underwear like Picasso, but rendered in a brutal expressionist style reminiscent of Max Beckmann. He also scolds himself in a self-portrait mannequin titled Martin, into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself.
Many of Kippenberger’s works refer to subjects or artists that help to shape his identity as a German and an artist—museums and festivals, Joseph Beuys, Géricault, Nazism. It is understandable if Kippenberger’s reacted to Beuys’ dogmatic, deep impact on German identity and (well, all) art. Beuys—the soldier, near martyr, and intellectual whose materials themselves were symbolic of life and/or death—could easily have elicited from the next generation a polar reaction.
Kippenberger’s most poetic paintings include Not Knowing Why but Not Knowing What For, from 1984, featuring geometrical shapes overlaid with the title’s script written in clear silicon. His self-referential character, Fred the Frog, often holding a stein of beer, became the subject of a series including a crucifixion that was, hilariously, condemned by religious leaders. His witty sculptures that often take on the guises of furniture or crates connect him to Fluxus. A relatively delicate series of drawings made on hotel stationery balances out these bulky constructions and visual one-liners. One of his last projects, based on Gericault’s Raft of Medusa, is egomaniacal, elegiac, and cognizant of mortality. On purpose or by accident, Kippenberger certainly covered his bases.