Go Jest, Young Man!


Martin Kippenberger was a champion of insincerity. A momma’s boy turned trust-fund kid, he peacocked his way into various vocations—actor, club owner, rock musician, gallerist, and finally artist—before settling, as was his wont, on a purposefully scattered métier. An artist in nearly every possible medium, this part-time sculptor, collagist, photographer, performer, installation artist, and conceptualist inhabited stock roles like a Teutonic Olivier, coaxing from them soliloquies that played less like Hamlet and far more like a punk Punchinello.

“A good artist,” Kippenberger said once, “has less time than ideas.” Accurately reflecting the schizoid temper of his decade, the ’80s, while also repeating a conceptualist trope that was tired even then, Kippenberger—who, like many dead artists with a good rock ‘n’ roll story, is finally achieving the kind of fame that eluded him in life—was a lurching self-advertisement who happened to make cynical, sometimes funny, at times mordantly important art.

The kind of acquired taste that turns all the rage once broken into easily digestible bits, Kippenberger’s objects are complex enough to defy dumbing down, even if their backstory, like Basquiat’s, screams out for a Julian Schnabel biopic (if only Kippenberger hadn’t loathed him). Kippenberger’s paintings, for example, though narcissistically personal, misbehave in prickly, rebarbative ways: They poke fun at the ur-canonical and the ur-vanguardist with equal gusto, mimicking not just earnestness, but general style and content, with a knowing tartness that rarely breaks character.

But if Kippenberger played the role of the artist as jester, he did so at the risk of being nothing without his court. Older German artists like Sigmar Polke, Jorg Immendorf, and the regal Gerhard Richter were his Oedipal kings, while Warhol and other celebrated Americans stood in as Olympian lords. Kippenberger’s relationship to the stars was clearly that of an antically rotating moon, orbiting around the weighty influence of their distinct contributions. To illustrate, an anecdote: Kippenberger once perversely bought a Richter painting that he then trashed by turning it into a tabletop; sadly, there wouldn’t be much of a story had the roles been reversed.

Today—10 years after his death from liver cancer made worse by nonstop partying—Kippenberger is enjoying a surprising renaissance as the art world’s favorite cut-up. At a time when important critics, like Roberta Smith, still equate sincerity with middlebrow culture, the insincerity of the put-on artist manqué cuts a lot of cheese in the art world’s infinitely expanding fromage factory.

“Vulgarity,” the English critic Cyril Connolly said, “is the garlic in the salad of life.” And what is more vulgar, after all, than to yak on about the worth of one’s possessions? A modest exhibition of Kippenberger’s work at 1018 Art, a new uptown gallery, does that, just in time to let some of the air out of the art world’s postVenice Biennale, postBasel Art Fair, post-auction balloon. The exhibition features a set of paintings that Kippenberger titled his “Preis Bilder” series—after the dual meaning of the word preis, which in English translates as “price paintings” or “prize paintings”—colorful abstract works sized perfectly to fit above most middle-class couches, across which the artist emblazoned strips of caustic text.

Among these laconic gems, there is 2. Preis—”second prize” or “second price”—a brown, beige, and white checkerboard number that communicates some of the pathos of being a runner-up. Tröstpreis, a study in gray and black stripes and blotches, deepens the cut by literally signifying, most trenchantly, “consolation prize.” And then there is Preislos, yet another sarcastic poke at the inflated modernist grid, done in acidly inspired shades of red and hot pink. The most conventionally handsome work on view, this canvas mimics painterly passion while sporting boldface type declaring the painting to be (take your pick) either “Priceless” or “Prizeless.”

Mutton dressed as lamb—to employ the lingo used by British tabloids when encouraging Joan Collins to give up dressing like Sienna Miller—Preislos and the other six paintings exhibited pantomime lyrical abstraction while pointing up both the rewards and limits of what, in full-bore artspeak, has come to be known as “criticality.” A balky, buffoonish commentary on the social function of art, Kippenberger’s one-take, slapdash paintings mock the market and the approval of juries and art critics alike without ever acknowledging their near-total dependence on the art world’s closed system of meanings for their deepest, even funniest significance.

An exhibition of paintings as one-liners, Kippenberger’s “Preis Bilder” canvases are interesting for their goosing of the art market as well as for—irony of ironies—their newish standing as hot commodities. A mercurial artist to say the least, Kippenberger changed tack far too often in life to fully recommend his work to the super-collectors and museums who write art history. In the words of the executor of his estate: “Now that he is dead, people have time to catch up with him—and he can’t surprise them anymore by going in some other direction.” Not exactly what old Kippie had in mind. But then, the jester does serve at the pleasure of the king.