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September 21, 2008 - January 5, 2009, at The Museum of Contemporary Art [MOCA], Downtown

by Diane Calder

Museumgoers accustomed to appreciating art solely on the basis of its rarity, awesome aesthetics, or capacity to elevate their spirits are going to have a hellish time adjusting to provocateur Martin Kippenberger’s prodigious output. Pope Benedict XVI recently wrote a letter disapproving of a work by the late German artist. The Pope asked that Kippenberger’s sculpture be withdrawn from a museum in northern Italy since it "has wounded the religious sentiment of the many people who see in the cross the symbol of God's love and our salvation." The disputed work features a green, toy-like frog, bonded to fragments of wood from stretcher bars, eyes crossed, tongue hanging out, holding a beer stein in one hand and an egg in the other. Constructed while Kippenberger resided in Los Angeles nearly twenty years ago, the subject of “Zuerst die Füsse  (Feet First)” and other tragically humorous self-portraits is the fate of the artist in contemporary society.

Raised amidst cold war threats and the re-examination of Nazi atrocities, Kippenberger’s angst surfaces in titles such as “We don’t have problems with people who look exactly like us because they get our pain,” or “Put your freedom in the corner, save it for a rainy day.” Turning his back on the shaman Joseph Beuys, Kippenberger, got more mileage from disillusionment and human weakness than political correctness. Reworking Beuys’ declaration, "Everyone is an artist," Kippenberger insisted that “Every artist is a person."

"Untitled", 1996, oil on canvas,
70 7/8 x 59 1/16".

"The problem perspective. You are
not the problem, it's the problem-
maker in your head", 1986, oil
on canvas, 70 7/8" x 59 1/16".

Frequently referred to as the German Andy Warhol, Kippenberger often fed his insatiable appetite for more than 15 minutes of fame by exploiting his personal phobias. Unlike the cool, bewigged Warhol who “left the pimples out” of self-portraits, Kippenberger was not afraid to cast himself as the brunt of his own jokes. “Martin, ab in die Ecke und schiim dich (Martin, into the corner, you should be ashamed of yourself)” (1989) was constructed in serial response to a less than positive critical review of the artist’s lifestyle. Kippenberger sculpted half a dozen life-sized self-portraits cast in a variety of materials, enabling each to be banished to its own corner to make amends for his transgressions.

Prefiguring Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Tracy Emin in a culture that can’t seem to get its fill of celebrity impropriety, embarrassing political candidates or bloggers and reality show contestants eager to try their hand at self exposure, Kippenberger inspired younger artists, producing work that probed the concept of originality, art market manipulation and the cult of personality.

"Ohne Titel (Untitled) from the series
Jacqueline: The Paintings Pablo
Couldn't Paint Anymore", 1996,
oil on canvas, 70 7/8" x 59 1/16".

Installation view of "The Happy End of Franz
Kafka's 'Amerika' " at Museum Boijmas
Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1994,
mixed media, dimensions variable.
Having sought fame as an actor before taking up painting in the 1970’s, Kippenberger, ever the shrewd observer, adopted ideas from every encounter he made, appropriating them into the construction of his own persona. Posing in white underpants, Kippenberger referenced the ‘50s photograph of Picasso he had used in a poster announcement in 1985. When close to succumbing to liver cancer, the young artist mocked his impending doom by mimicking the heroic victims of Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa” in a series of self-portraits. By age 44 he had created thousands of works in nearly every media imaginable. Networking extensively, he sucked assistants dry and employed stand-ins to paint his portraits, formed a band, managed a punk nightclub and a museum, and, seemingly, drew on the stationary of every hotel he visited while traveling worldwide. In her insightful catalogue essay, Ann Goldstein lauds Kippenberger’s work “for its diversity and remarkable volume--encompassing hundreds of paintings, sculptures, works on paper, installations, multiples, photographs, posters, invitation cards, and books.”

It’s fitting that Kippinger’s final production, “The Happy End of Franz Kafka's ‘Amerika’” (1994), has been reconstructed within shouting distance of the concurrent exhibition “Index: Conceptualism in California”” in the cavernous Geffen Contemporary. Kippenberger’s vast installation references Kafka’s unfinished novel in which the protagonist, Karl Rossmann, flees to America to avoid the consequences of impregnating a young girl.  After numerous mishaps, the desperate Rossmann fills out job applications at an employment-recruiting centre. Kippenberger’s depiction of Kafka’s imagined job office, stretched out over a green playing field, is populated with furniture from modernist designers including Marcel Breuer and Charles and Ray Eames. Objects held over from Kippenberger’s earlier exhibitions resurface along with work by artists including Jason Rhoades, Tony Oursler and Donald Judd. The viewer is left to envision the vulnerable protagonist shuffling endlessly from station to station. There are no assurances from Kafka or the irascible Kippenberger that any path taken will lead to a happy ending, but the journey itself is an eye opener.