Bones' Beat: Martin Kippenberger at MoMA

This week Bones, intrepid art-world raconteur, is humbled at the MoMA retrospective of the live-fast, die-young German artist Martin Kippenberger. Call him both tank and gnome...

"Self Portrait"
"Self Portrait"

There are people you encounter, perhaps twice in your lifetime, with more magnetism and extreme enthusiasm for the world than everybody else. These individual's brains and heart never stop working, for they are human switching boxes: hundreds of circuits of energy go in; new energy radiates out in all directions. There is no mistaking someone like this. It is the person who inspires you the most, the person whose frighteningly unnatural level of stamina baffles you, and a person who every now and then, invariably, causes you problems. In the dramatis personae of contemporary art, Martin Kippenberger is that person.

The Problem Perspective is the first full Kippenberger retrospective in the United States since the artist's death, at age 44, in 1997. It was arranged and ran in Los Angeles last year, and it opened here at MoMA last week. Big show. Kippenberger's practice--art about making art but also always about Kippenberger--was forever changing shape, and the exhibition aims to show its every mutation. There are paintings executed in scores of styles, many painted by others and many that beg to be sculptures, out-and-out sculptures, and sculptural installation. The exhibition is punctuated with tall walls littered with dozens of drawings that occasionally begin to tickle as ephemera, and numberless examples of the artist's publications, show invitations and posters that could qualify, in the artist's estimation, as "a good Kippenberger." The gigantic atrium on the museum mezzanine displays The Happy End of Franz Kafka's Amerika, a collection of reconfigured furniture sculptures, flanked by bleacher seating, over a mocked-up sports field.

Kippenberger became fluent in international lifestyle and was afforded the luxury of living it from a very early stage in his career. Throughout his twenties and thirties he set up camp in Berlin, Paris, Cologne, Nice, Amsterdam, Seville, Madrid, Los Angeles, and the Black Forest. He made a lot of friends. The artist made his mark at every stop, often--as when he bought a disused gas station in Brazil, partnered on a funky Italian restaurant called 'Capri' in Venice, California, or built MOMAS, a Museum of Modern Art on the small Aegean island of Syros--literally so. His inappropriate speeches and manic trouser-dropping Dada antics at the parties and openings that he attended religiously reliably created controversy. At any given time he drank alcohol and got trashed, ate grub (preferably noodles, a food for which he had outspoken philosophical enthusiasm), and talked for as long as possible. He stayed at the finest hotels in the world and made hundreds of drawings on their stationery. "I am working basically 24 hours a day. I dream art, I see art," said the artist, succinctly, in an epic 60-page 1991 interview in ARTFAN Magazine.

"War Wicked"
"War Wicked"

The work is by turns loose, macho, funny and obnoxious, usually messy, and rarely beautiful in any conventional sense. Expressionistic is the closest art-historical term that suits it, visually. Theoretical definitions are wobblier still. The work has proven adaptable and unbound by any pre-existing rules. Put simply, he fit, and continues to fit, anywhere. Krieg böse (War Wicked), a key series of paintings from 1983, show a gnomelike figure with a prickly beard and Father Christmas outfit on the front deck of a large, terrifying tank. The figure stands in front of the gun turret, while the tank's long snout stretches diagonally up, over, and past the figure. The image--a perfect impasse--is as silly as it's simple, the allegory a tart thesis on where the artist stood. Kippenberger sought nothing more than for his art to abide and he to abide in the world, unimpeded and unharmed, as both tank and gnome. The things he made fought for a continuing place in contemporary cultural dialogue as the artist threw himself around the world. Ongoing relevance, and life, for his work was all he could hope for.

It is my belief that this egomaniacal alcoholic should be remembered, and looked to, for lessons left to art in 2009. Being everywhere, with a stake in all things, is the prerogative of a digital-age citizen. This was Kippenberger's prerogative, too, but one that he chose in an era when global ubiquity was much more difficult, and done without computers. Kippenberger was cut out for the life he led, and embraced its every challenge. Are you, perhaps, a young artist thinking about becoming famous? If there's one thing you take from hours shared with The Problem Perspective, please note that it's not as easy as it appears.-Bones

The Problem Perspective runs until May 11th at MoMA, and there is no excuse not to go. The exhibition's catalogue sets itself apart from many Kippenberger monographs through superior writing, design, image choice and appendices, and is the only book on the artist you'll ever need. ID the artist's lasting influence in the contemporary galleries on the second floor if you've got any juice left over after the show.

Next week, Bones visits The Armory Show on Piers 92 and 94 over the Hudson. Deep-freeze collector hibernation and a ludicrous $30 entrance fee for the average New Yorker will ensure that this is the worst-attended installment of this art fair in many years. Distressed by the sickly pallor of The Art Show two weeks ago and buoyed by Kippenberger's radiant, positive example, let's forage for signs of life on the piers.

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