Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Wandering German:Kippenberger at MoMA 2009

The Wandering German : Kippenberger at MoMA, 2009
by Tom McGlynn

But my soul wanders; I demand it back
To meditate amongst decay, and stand
A ruin amidst ruins; there to track
Fall'n states and buried greatness, o'er a land
Which was the mightiest in its old command

Byron, from Childe Harolds Pilgrimage

Martin Kippenberger, we hardly knew ye. The 2009 retrospective at MoMA attempts to change that. He was born in 1953 in Dortmund, Germany and was dead by 1997 in Vienna of liver cancer apparently brought on by his heavy drinking. The man-child had a wild ride in between, but not so much in the promised land.
Any narration of the post- Nazi era German art generation speaks of a political and aesthetic reaction formation that somehow morphs into contemporary art. Kiefer unfurls his leaden wings of desire over fallow fields of Brandenburg and keeps a flame in elegiac mead halls. Baselitz paints upside- down eagles and agonistics. Immendorf cruises the Reeperbahn for Café Deutschland. These older artists set the model for Kippenberger, that of the artist exiled within the ruins of his own culture.
In my own wandering youth there used to be a common clichĂ© that no matter how remote a place you would up in the world, there also would appear a German tourist. I myself have encountered them on tops of out of the way Mexican pyramids and in the middle of the woods in British Columbia. While not so unusual given these are tourist destinations, it always struck me how often it was Germans I would run into. One of Kippenberger’s much younger fellow alumni from the Hamburg Hochschule Fur Kunst, Franz Ackermann, established his painting career as a peripatetic field correspondent of world psycho geography. The restless urge to leave home pervades much of the Kippenberger show. It’s also evident that no matter how far he ran from Germany, he didn’t hide from its residual cultural influence.
One of the most content rich walls in the exhibition is composed of the artist’s diaristic drawings on hotel stationary gleaned from his rambling ways. Arranged in a rough grid, the drawings graphically capture stream of consciousness reportage, moments of psychic lucidity in spurts of activity and languor. One memorable work has the artist depicting himself pulling on jackboots in a purple Santa suit as if drawn by Tom of Finland! Another, seemingly more personal sketch has the artist sobbing in the arms of a comforting woman friend wearing a Russian fur hat in the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo. These two drawings typify the artist’s swing between hyperbolic ironic self- caricature and his exposure of the real and vulnerable artist’s self. Kippenberger’s obsessive self - depiction never fully falls into the maudlin or solipsistic because of this range of styles and perspectives. He leaves Germany behind and with it to some degree his fundamental self. But like Joyce in self- exile in Trieste, he channeled himself into one of the most eloquent interlocutors of his inherited culture.
There is a large dollop of self -promoting and self mythification in Kippenberger’s work, the lessons of Beuys not being lost on him. What prevents this from taking over the conceptual and formal aspects of his work is that he makes it so obvious as to let the viewer participate in his parody of the auteur. He’s like the friend that we all have or have had who is a major fuck up but you can’t help but love him because of his crazy self- deflating humor.
One of my favorite paintings in the show is entitled “Down with Inflation”. It depicts a man in a suit (the artist?) in a suit and tie, from his waist down in white boxer shorts, with his pants around his legs. This image is juxtaposed with a generic looking exercise machine. Kippenberger simultaneously invokes business economics, slapstick comedy, feminist critique and Duchamp in a painting held together with his idiosyncratic color that is reminiscent of pop streetscapes I have seen in Hamburg and Berlin. A faded purple and a chromate yellow offset a deep blue and red orange. The painting could also be read as an artistic in -joke referring to the mercurial rise in contemporary art prices in the mid eighties.
During that time, in 1985, I recall meeting the artist at a party at Max Hetzler’s apartment in Cologne, Jeff Koons was also there, having recently shown some of his stainless steel kitsch sculptures at Hetzler’s gallery. Their stylistic contrasts were interesting. Koons was in a business suit without a tie and Kippenberger in a denim jacket with a tie. You might call it an aesthetic contest between a stealth bomber and a Stuka. Both artists had a relationship to kitsch that defined them as artifacts of their own culture. One could generalize and say that the (then) West German relationship to the jumble shop of Modernism was more dowdy and fuzzy, more gemutlicht than cold and streamlined American pop. This was just before the world homogenization of pop subcultures via the Internet so there was still an intriguing frisson between the two.
In a lot of his paintings and sculptures Kippenberger revels in this cozy corner of post war design mostly gathered from second hand shops in Europe but also in California where he touched down briefly later in his career. The American West would draw him to pose in one photo included in the show, on an incongruously small pony in Monument Valley, his feet almost touching the ground Buster Keaton-like. His main style, though, might be called West German Post Modern, in the sense of the postmodern being a critique of the Modern, but not actually after. This is a large reason why his work looks so good in MoMA. It is as if the prodigal son had posthumously returned home. Mondrian’s grid, or the scaffolding of classic Modernism, underpins much of his work. The curators seem to have a sense of this since the entrance to the exhibit is taken up with a pseudo artist’s garret a la the reconstruction of Modrian’s studio in that artist’s MoMA retrospective. Along these lines also was Kippenberger’s reference to Picasso (another of MoMA’s boys) in his late paintings entitled The Paintings that Picasso Couldn’t Paint Anymore.
The gesamtwerk of the artist’s sense of ragged modernist glory is the sprawling piece in the atrium gallery entitled, The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s Amerika. It is a recreation of an installation he did in Rotterdam in 1994. In Diedrich Diedrichsen’s catalogue essay, The Poor Man’s Sports Car Descending a Staircase, the author makes some interesting points about Kippenberger’s unique relationship to sculpture. He likens its realization to casual and causal conversations between the artist, his assistants who often fabricated the works (often through miscommunication with the artist), and ultimately the audience who would have to deal with this “tremendous quantity of signs and stimuli, all of which have to be processed simultaneously.” Kafka’s work offers a great template for Kippenberger in the writer’s famous habit of making figurative metaphor literal. The viewer of this work perceives an archive of specific situational dialectics played out in the repeated motif of two chairs facing each other over a table. The quotidian aspect of the junk store furniture is interspersed with exotically transformed and manipulated sculptural fabrications that include (but are not limited to) sidewalk- sold African sculptures, a life sized Barbie bathtub and two prison guard towers diametrically matched with two lifeguard towers. This piece contains the kind of catholic ambition one would like to see more in younger artists of the same DIY ilk such as Thomas Hirschorn.
When one reflects upon the influence of Kippenberger and his like minded partners in art crime Werner Beuttner and the brothers Oehlen, one senses that their bemused reaction to the impending mopping up of the last entrails of modern romanticism by international yuppiedom offers an important lesson in the facility of being at the wrong place at the right time, and that perhaps the wandering German is best left afield.

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