Martin Kippenberger at The Museum of Modern Art

Martin Kippenberger

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The Museum of Modern Art houses the world’s most important collection of twentieth-century art. It owns work without which modernism’s tumultuous and often brilliant narrative is inconceivable. As a result, the museum’s influence has, since its inception, been international in scope and has done much to color the way in which modernism has been interpreted. In recent years, MOMA has equivocated curatorially and been upstaged by the flashy vagaries of the commercial art scene, but its clout is undiminished. MOMA’s imprimatur continues to matter.

It is significant, then, that the museum is giving a stamp of approval to the late German artist Martin Kippenberger. Although organized by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective, a retrospective covering about twenty years, gains credence in no small part because MOMA has decided to host it. A significant amount of New York real estate is currently devoted to the artist’s prodigious output, not least being the museum’s famously inhospitable atrium where you’ll find Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika” (1994), an installation of desks, lawn chairs, coatracks, organic matter disintegrating in jars, bleachers, and sundry other objects. The sixth-floor galleries are less densely packed, but the items in them are similarly various. Among them is a Ford automobile that’s been rolled with oats and painted an unhappy shade of brown.

Kippenberger was, by general consensus, a handful. The curator Ann Goldstein writes how “it is difficult to consider Kippenberger’s enterprise outside of his personality.” Kippenberger was a loudmouth, an exhibitionist, a drunkard, and a narcissist. He tried his hand at acting, opened a nightclub, and started a punk band. He attended art school and dropped out of art school. He kept abreast of the art scene, if only to mock its pieties and reputations—he bought a canvas by the superstar painter Gerhard Richter and turned it into a table. Kippenberger toyed with notions of German identity and did so, at times, recklessly: He was beaten by the clientele at a bar for aping a Nazi. He made things constantly and compulsively. Illness brought on by alcoholism was, it seems, the only thing that could stop him. He died in 1997, at the age of forty-four.

More than troubled but never less than canny, Kippenberger knew of the value of branding and outrage. Vision counted only insofar as it was a coefficient of personality; artistic fact—that is to say, paintings, sculptures, installations, drawings, what-have-you—mattered only as emblems of identity. The work is unimaginable without the example of Joseph Beuys, the Austrian artist who transformed his own dour visage into a grave and noble fetish: the artist as shaman. Kippenberger was considerably more mischievious—nose-thumbing was his specialty—but he, like Beuys, knew the value of a contrived (or an exaggerated) image. Artists from day one have realized the value of packaging and showmanship; it goes with the territory. But strip a self-proclaimed “asshole” from his art and what is left?

The answer is over-intellectualized pastiche for the attention-deficit generation. Kippenberger glanced upon a variety of artistic practices and sociological currents. He was conversant with Pop, Minimalism, Conceptualism, and Neo-Expressionism, Picabia, Picasso, Warhol, and Koons. He alluded to Nazism, Communism, Existentialism, Christianity, capitalism, and Freud. But sound bites are different from art. There’s no Kippenbergian “touch” to speak of—just a hyper-kinetic pushing of stylistic and cultural reference points. The only subject to which his satire was truly invested was contemporary German art. A pseudo-Cubist abstraction titledWith the Best Will in the World I Can’t See a Swastika (1984) takes a poke at the portentous self-awareness of Anselm Kiefer and his bombastic meditations on German history. But how much aesthetic insight can be gleaned from jibes made by and for insiders? The art world is a very small place.

There’s a lot to look at in The Problem Perspective, but not a lot to see. Kippenberger’s knack for marketing didn’t extend to an adept use of materials; stuff abounds, but nothing has shape. Ideas—jokes, really—take precedence. The pictures do evince a certain grim pictorial expertise gleaned largely from Robert Rauschenberg and Sigmar Polke; the innumerable drawings on hotel stationery have a cursory and scrabbled appeal. But it’s all so received and programmatic. Kippenberger’s nihilism is depressingly run-of-the-mill. Sarcasm without compelling body or bite descends too easily into cheapjack solipsism; so it is with Kippenberger’s oeuvre. He couldn’t be bothered to do artistic heavy lifting; he was too busy acting the cliché of an artist—you know, the self-destructive wild man. No amount of theoretical nudge-nudge, wink-wink can make Kippenberger’s absurdism any less self-congratulatory, schooled, or trivial. That a major museum deems this pedestrian achievement worthy of honor is unsurprising and sad.

© 2009 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 2009 edition of The New Criterion.


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