In Arthur Danto's book Nietzsche as Philosopher, he discusses the concept of idempotency, the idea that every cell in the human body, not just those in the brain, retains memories, both individual and collective. As these cells replicate, the new cells also retain these memories.
Such was the catalytic being of Martin Kippenberger (1953-97), a man in whom every object and experience was individuated as the cell system of his art. He was a man whom many people called "friend," yet who died alone of a liver drowned in excess and whose every work seemed to celebrate his oncoming demise.
The ideal show from Kippy would consist of nothing but self-portraits, and these are included in a needlessly exhaustive retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. These kind of comprehensive trunk shows, vomiting forth every piece and expert on a particular artist, have become a regular irritant at the new MoMA, bludgeoning the public with too much information. At least when the late Bill Rubin presented a comprehensive treatment of, say, Picasso and Braque, a sadistic rigor was at work. Now, MoMA's shows are often a hungupsidedown mess. Better to fill the second floor atrium with a permanent Pipilotti Rist installation than to pack it with Kippenberger's deliberately ridiculous furniture. Truth be told, old Kippy was really only good at recreating himself, cell by cell, as a self-sculpture banished to the world's corner or the ultimate fighting warrior emerging from a steel cage.
His self-portrait paintings are worthy of Ingres. Kippenberger is a massive, brooding, sly, mildly dyspeptic yet mirthful beast, both shamus and shaman. To look at his hirsute mug is to imagine a thousand others like him; to me, for example, he resembles Rod Steiger, Saddam Hussein and Bill Arning. All the other stuff at MoMA, posters, books, jokes in German, magnifying glasses (everything but his crucified frog) really held Kippy back from major success during his brief life. Many did not regard him as a truly serious artist.
Now, of course, Daniel Loeb owns 240 of these pieces at last count and the tumbling art market will bring most of them back to the modest price points they enjoyed while Kippenberger lived. Still, I give you the self-portraits, remnants of man who was both master and victim of his own life. Someday someone will organize an exhibition of just them.
"Martin Kippenberger," Mar. 1-May 11, 2009, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).