The short-lived German artist Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997) made a rambunctious art that is of a piece with his grandly uninhibited personality. Legendary for a hard-drinking lifestyle that frequently involved singing and stripping to his underwear, Kippenberger somehow, magically, could animate a scene (notably in Cologne, his home base) with a special avant-garde creativity. He took his act around the world, and is now famous not only for an imaginary global subway system but also for artworks made on hotel stationary. The last U.S. survey of his work was held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1991, six years before he died of liver cancer at the age of 44.
The intervening 17 years have rocketed Kippenberger and his art to the top of the avant-garde heap, a fact that is evident in the sprawling retrospective, "Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective," currently on view at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (and opening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in spring 2009). Kippenberger’s louche brand of witty invention -- exemplified, perhaps, by his wavering, "drunken" lamp posts -- has clearly been an inspiration to a host of younger, even more nihilistic artists.
The huge LA MOCA show, which presents 250 works plus several multi-part installations, has the advantage of including the so-called late work, about which there is an astute essay by MoMA curator Ann Temkin in the catalogue. She discusses his mid-1990s paintings based on Gericault’s The Raft of Medusa and the paintings of Picasso’s widow Jacqueline in the series The Paintings Pablo Couldn’t Paint Anymore.
Mockery was at the heart of the Kippenberger method. He mocked himself, he mocked other artists, he mocked the contemporary art world. This undermining spirit is the driving force behind the triumphant moment in the retrospective, a work titled The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s "Amerika." Originally crafted in 1994, the installation completely fills a huge gallery in the Geffen Contemporary warehouse with a Kippenbergerian recreation of a massive job recruitment center in Oklahoma. Dozens of tables and chairs are arranged in a ragged grid, where fictional interviewers and interviewees could sit along with many of his own sculptures and those of friends, all arranged in random order on a simulated soccer field with bleachers along the end.
Each chair takes on a personality of authority or submission, of curiosity or dismissal. The whole takes on the cool, unadorned air of "modern design," but gone a bit barmy, as with the Eames-style chair posed upside-down atop a table with its legs akimbo. There are watch towers and children’s desks and basket chairs, and even a carnival game involving fried eggs. Humble furniture is wildly altered or repurposed. In ambition and intelligence, Kippenberger never does better.
The rest of the retrospective is on view in MoCA’s more refined galleries on Grand Avenue, where one finds evidence of the origins of Happy End in Kippenberger’s consistent pursuit of sculpture as a site for a thorough investigation of everything from style to social order, largely through his appropriation of elements of contemporary architecture and design.
For Kippenberger, buildings were "everything that was embarrassing, unintentionally funny, and tortured by intentions and grotesque conventions, but also what was daring and successful, brilliant, brash, perverse," according to the German art critic Dietrich Dietrichson, writing in the exhibition catalogue. Worktimer (1987), a cart-like metal framework bearing two old briefcases, is an emblem of futility.
Snow White’s Coffin (1989) is a large rectangular plastic container as long as a day bed, containing a white foam mattress and two cylindrical pillows, inspired, with typically Kippenbergian obscurity, by the shape of a 1956 Braun turntable design. As part of a large series under the inclusive moniker "Peter," these works are visually ingratiating while challenging the ideals of industrial sculptors like Donald Judd.
Kippenberger’s book of photographs of wacky structures was called Psychobuildings, while his paintings of modern institutional buildings for the rehabilitation of alcoholics, for pregnant mothers and for a Jewish school are reduced to Three Slot Buildings.
Always a larger-than-life personality, Kippenberger initially planned to be an actor, an inclination that may have been a factor in his constantly shifting approach to making art. Working in nearly every conceivable genre, his art was made by himself, his friends and his assistants in disparate styles and with a boggling range of ideas.
Despite the chaos of intention and execution, a philosophical cohesion emerges in his intentionally "bad" painting, and in the appropriation and defiance that defined much of the art and music of the late ‘70s and ‘80s. In Berlin in 1978, as manager of the club S.O. 36 in the Kreuzberg district, he showcased early punk bands like Adam and the Ants, Lydia Lunch and the Automatics. He recorded a few records of his own and embraced the punk attitude that can be summarized in his remark, "If everything is good, then nothing is any good any more."
Raised in a middle class family in Dortmund, he studied at the Hamburg Art Academy but quit before graduating. After his mother was killed in an accident by a truck carrying loading palettes -- items that he would later use to make sculpture -- a small inheritance enabled him to move to Florence to pursue acting. Instead, he completed a stack of grisaille paintings based on postcards and photographs that, when stacked atop one another, would equal his height, though he never made enough of them to accomplish that feat.
A few years later, in the series "Dear Painter, Paint for Me," he hired a professional poster artist to paint 12 canvases of his ideas, including a less-than-flattering self-portrait in a fur-collared coat standing before the Berlin Wall. The comic self-portrait would become another one of his reoccurring motifs.
In the U.S., John Baldessari is celebrated for adopting this conceptual strategy in 1966, hiring professional sign painters to make a series of word paintings (named "National City," after the California town where the artist lived). Nevertheless, Kippenberger made the method very much his own. He consistently took on artists who had become part of the contemporary canon. He bought a Gerhardt Richter painting and added legs, turning it into a coffee table. He sold the work for a price that was much less than the value of the Richter.
In 1982, he collaborated with his friend Albert Oehlen in covering a Ford Capri car in brown paint and oat flakes, a droll riff on the highly serious brown paintings embedded with straw by Anselm Kiefer. Panels cut out of a blue car metal imitate monochrome painting, specifically that of Gunter Forg, though the color refers to Blue Lagoon, a movie in which a Ford Capri was featured.
Much of Kippenberger’s paintings, witty though they may be, are ham-handed and, dare one say it, not pretty to look at. He strove to avoid developing the sort of signature style that he perceived as being a marketing tool. Whatever his reproach to the very notion of esthetics may be, the show is never boring.
Kippenberger even has his own roots in Los Angeles, which date back to 1989-90, when he lived in our fair city. He exhibited with Luhring Augustine Hetzler Gallery, which was then located in Santa Monica, and became part owner of Capri, a restaurant in Venice. He befriended artists like Mike Kelley, Stephen Prina and Christopher Williams, who is married to MoCA senior curator Ann Goldstein, who organized the Kippenberger overview.
Goldstein’s personal relationship with Kippenberger and his associates helped her to decipher and decode the output of two decades. If a viewer comes away overwhelmed but smiling, then she has triumphed, and so has Kippenberger.
"Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective," Sept. 21, 2008-Jan. 5, 2009, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The exhibition subsequently appears at the Museum of Modern Art, Mar. 1-May 11, 2009.
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP writes about contemporary art in Los Angeles.