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.

What’s really amazing — in spite of this master-debater hermeticism and Kippenberger’s failure to single-handedly redeem this wicked world — is how great the work looks. His assaults on Painting began with Baldessari-esque subcontracted photorealist reproductions of snapshots, followed by parodies of Pop, Minimalism and Neo-Expressionism (specifically superhyped predecessors like David Salle and Georg Baselitz); parodies of heroes like Picasso and Géricault; parodies of himself. But, as we have learned from Spike Jones, Thomas Pynchon and Quentin Tarantino, parody is often better art than the original. (How do you think the current administration came into power? Republicans are better artists. Correction: Republicans can afford better artists.)

Kippenberger’s sculptural jibes are just as specific — and virtuosic; simultaneously puncturing and reinflating the medium’s sacred cows. His “Street Lamp” series (underrepresented here) consists of loosey-goosey surrealist translations of crispy serialist industrial quotation à la Bernd and Hilla Becher. The “Peter” series — including the Richter coffee table — takes the piss on a half-dozen streams of contemporary three-dimensional praxis. But his most epic satirical broadside was his enormous, perversely frustrated social-sculptural resolution of Kafka’s unfinished last novel: an unpopulated job interview meat-market titled The Happy Ending of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika,” laid out in the Geffen space. Amerika transcends its barrage of literal but insular reference (Donald Judd, Jason Rhoades, Charles and Ray Eames …) to offer an appropriately paranoiac, hilarious and ultimately illuminating vision of the human condition: half interrogator, half supplicant. Half prisoner, half guard. Half artist, half critic.

At this point, Kippenberger’s hermeticism is rendered moot. Or rather, its more pedestrian function — as knowing winks and secret signs in a Machiavellian fraternity of academic profiteers whose reputations are built entirely on the obscurity of their references — is superseded. Regardless of the specific targets of his scorn and ridicule, Kippenberger’s volleys were finally symptomatic of a grand vision of the transformational potential of art, in whose service he was willing to play the jester (and court cirrhosis). Hermeticism has traditionally been a symbolic language for encoding and communicating psychologically powerful and politically liberating philosophies. Due to his unfashionable passion, his irrepressible formal chops and his restless invention, Martin Kippenberger imbued even his most sophomoric pranks with this faith in art as a way to awaken from the nightmare of history. Art is the asshole of the Unconscious. Some people are just born without a cork.

Martin Kippenberger: Problem Perspective | MOCA Grand Ave. and the ?Geffen Contemporary | 250 S. Grand Ave. and 152 N. Central Ave., downtown | (213) 626-6222 ?or | Through Jan. 5

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