By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
Martin Kippenberger seems to have been a bit of an asshole. I’m not making a judgment, just an observation. Some of my best friends are assholes. I never actually met Kippenberger during his fabled L.A. sojourns in the early ’90s, but, given his epic drinking and insatiable anti-authoritarianism, we probably wouldn’t have found much to argue about. And Kippenberger’s assholism is no secret — in fact, it was central to his oeuvre, as well as being the reason his work hasn’t received as much attention as it merits. When you do stuff like buy a gray monochrome painting by one of your former art heroes, screw legs into its stretcher bars and display it as a coffee table — as Kippenberger did with a Gerhard Richter in 1987’s Modell Interconti — feelings are going to get hurt.
Since his untimely death from liver cancer at the age of 44 just over a decade ago, Kippenberger’s iconoclastic persona has gradually acquired a patina of respectability, culminating in the artist’s first North American retrospective, organized by MOCA’s Ann Goldstein and currently occupying half of each of the museum’s Grand Street and Geffen Contemporary facilities. A truly comprehensive exhibit would be impossible, since Kippenberger churned furiously during his short time among us, spraying the landscape with his archly journalistic, formally devastating effluence. But there’s more than enough effluence to chew on in this wide-ranging sampler.
Kippenberger is most renowned for his seminal role in contemporary “Bad Painting,” his sprawling sculptural installations and such quirky projects as his unfinished fictional global Metro Net system (with “entrances” on the Greek island of Syros, in the Yukon’s Dawson City, and at the MAK Schindler House in Hollywood), but I’m particularly stoked about the emphasis Goldstein places on Kippenberger’s most mundane area of production — his poster, invitation and book designs.
A sleazy trickster version of German multidisciplinary “social sculptor” Joseph Beuys, Kippenberger seems to have been always on, treating all areas of his life as opportunities for creative disturbance — including everything from barroom brawls to, well, graphic design. When painters are annoyed by the deliberately confrontational awkwardness of Kippenberger’s oil paintings, I point out the formal elegance and spontaneity of his design — a formal elegance that underlies all of his work, no matter how superficially repugnant.
This is probably due to graphic design’s relative lack of academic baggage and vastly lower threshold for visual osmosis when compared to the Fine Arts of painting, drawing, sculpture and printmaking — to whose conventions Kippenberger regularly administered vigorous corrective debasement. Recent papal bulls concerning Fred the Frog notwithstanding (in early September, Pope Benedict reportedly condemned Kippenberger’s 1990 statue Feet First, which depicts the artist’s totem amphibian crucified but clinging to his mug of beer, and which is currently on display in the Italian city of Bolzano), it seems unlikely that any young folk are going to see anything more outrageous in the artist’s provocations than a catalog of the dominant experimental strategies of the last decade.
It may be less a question of influence than of prescience — Kippenberger’s relentless skepticism, globetrotting career, impatient and idiosyncratic social/political engagement, and refusal to disavow poetics and beauty (however stripped down or wonky) were all a few years ahead of the curve, but his reputation as a boozy, ridiculously macho troublemaker made him a difficult role model in the go-go ’90s. Many stylistic facets of his all-encompassing Euro-slackerism have since found their way piecemeal into the mainstream of contemporary art in the hands of more compartmentalized (and socially presentable) practitioners. But encountered as a totality, the singular stylistic innovations of his work become secondary to their unifying underlying identity as outbursts of creative insurgency — an example much harder to follow than, say, making funky furniture out of weird shit and calling it art.
Still, getting to that big picture is a lot of fun. After the design ephemera, the most visually generous works are Kippenberger’s hotel-stationery drawings, which range from scribbled engineering notations for larger works and detailed (and frequently bawdy) figurative renderings to carefully composed collages but share a sense of easy playfulness less apparent in his more ambitious projects. Or rather, its equally apparent but shot through with mind-altering doses of charisma and rage.
Kippenberger’s great gift was his instinct for capturing and orchestrating public attention. The unironic advertising posters and intimate hotel drawings stand at opposite, relatively peaceful poles of the spectrum of propaganda. But in between these is a hurricane of virtuosically realized righteous indignation, laced with profound humor and a transcendent sense of self-loathing, which collectively constitute an unassailable critique of the gap between Art and the Art World.
The problem with unassailable critiques of the gap between Art and the Art World is that a lot of the time nobody gets it. How would anyone know that that coffee table was made out of a Richter painting if it didn’t say so in the wall text? And how many people are even going to read that wall text? And how many will know who Richter is and what he represented to an ambitious second-generation post-WWII German artist? Or care? Kippenberger tailored his paintings to get the attention of painters, his sculptures to infuriate sculptors, and his persona to lodge a spanner in the works of the Art World’s star-making machinery. Good try, Martin.