Martin Kippenberger was a wreck. When he finally died at 44, he’d so beaten himself up with drink and bad living that the grave must have been a relief. The show currently on view at MoMA, “Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective,” is something like a catalogue of everything Kippenberger had been doing in the years before he finally expired. There are doodles on scraps of paper and delicate water color scenes, announcement cards and his collections of music. There are sculptures created through the arrangement of assorted pieces of used and modified furniture and full-scale oil works on canvas. Everything is represented, from the offhand gesture to the fully intentional work. Kippenberger, it seems, could not stop making art. Yet, he rarely seems to have been pleased by that state of affairs. The theme of shame appears throughout. Kippenberger was sometimes ashamed to be Kippenberger. Thus two of his now famous dunce-in-the-corner sculptures titled, “Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself.” In these sculptures, a clothed mannequin stands, head bowed, in the corner.
There is also, of course, a note of defiance in those sculptures. This defiance, this ability to revel in his own shame comes out most majestically in the series of self-portraits he completed in the late 1980s. Clothed in what seems to be a large diaper, the fat and disheveled Kippenberger lumbers around the canvas like some prehistoric beast hastening its own extinction. That was Kippenberger — poignant and pathetic and always able to extort a chuckle from his otherwise horrified public.
The relentless self-abuse, and the relentless self-exposure of that abuse has led, perhaps inevitably, to the critical fascination with this aspect of Kippenberger’s art. Peter Schjeldahl from the New Yorker, for instance, makes the following point:
Kippenberger and the MOMA show make the best cases for themselves with “The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika’” (1994), a vast installation that represents the recruitment center where Kafka’s immigrant hero applies for work. It makes stirring sense for Kippenberger to identify with the disconcertingly upbeat “Amerika,” so at odds with Kafka’s signature tales of dread. The allusion endorses the artist’s serious refusal to be serious, even in late works that project his mortal ruin. There are few other artists so richly deserved by their times.
Holland Cotter, in his recent New York Times piece, writes:
If messy and raucous aren’t your thing, and tidy objects are, Kippenberger is not for you. Sometimes when I come up against his drunk-and-disorderly divahood I think he’s not for me. But he is, absolutely, or the idea of him is, meaning the model he sets for what an artist can be and do. His multitudinous recyclings, insubordinate temperament and generosity seem unexpectedly right for a non-party-time time.
I, if I may be so bold, think that Kippenberger is really about eggs. Eggs in the shell and eggs in their more exposed form, usually fried, generally sunny-side up. They pop up everywhere in his work. You might find an egg in the corner of an oil painting. The model of a fried egg can be found in the huge Kafka installation. Drawings of fried and whole eggs pop up here and there in his nearly infinite series of stuff-drawn-on-mixed-media. Importantly, you will never find scrambled eggs in the work of Kippenberger.
The egg, as we all know, is beautiful. There are few things more satisfying than its oblong sphericality. Held in the palm of your hand, there is a pleasant weightiness and texture. The hardness of the shell is nice, too, especially because you’re aware that the hardness is fragile. One crack and the thing goes all to pieces. That’s the surprise of an egg: One minute it is a perfect unity and the next it is a goddamn mess, spilling all over the place in various densities of goo. A primal thing, the egg is both the Truth and the Way — the Truth as it sits there in mute and singular glory, an infinite oneness; the Way in that the oneness gives way to the messiness and splatter of life. As Lenin is rumored to have once commented, in order to make an omelet, you’ve got to crack a few eggs. He was talking about murdering people, but you get the point. In order to use an egg you’ve got to get your hands dirty, you’ve got to spoil the pure simplicity of the original package. (The boiled egg does present a possible compromise, practical and metaphysical but we shall set that problem aside for the moment. Anyway, Kippenberger had no interest in boiled eggs.)
As nearly everyone has noticed, art in these times presents some unique challenges. One of the most unique is what I like to call the why-do-this-and-not-that problem. In times of yore, this wasn’t such a big deal. There simply weren’t that many options. You might paint, you might sculpt. Either way, you knew what was expected and you dealt with the problems, technical and content-wise, of the previous generation. Much of the time, you simply took up where your father had left off (see Hans Holbein the Elder and Hans Holbein the Younger). I’m not saying that art was easy business in those times, but simply that it did not present much of a dilemma in the why-do-this-and-not-that arena.
In the violent explosion of possibilities in terms of medium, technique, format, reference, and style (I could go on) that was 20th-century art, the landscape is now littered with why-do-this-and-not-that problems. It’s a mess out there, not unlike an egg that has spilled contents once nicely contained. Walking through the show at MoMA, I found myself continuously moved and surprised by how often and how successfully Kippenberger could change his tune. His answer to the why-do-this-and-not-that problem was to do-this-and-then-that.
Of course, it is all well and good to propose doing everything as a solution. Practically speaking, the order is so tall as to be infinite. But Kippenberger, bless his soul, decided to tackle the infinite tower of possibility that is contemporary art. He was going to gather the whole thing up into his own shell, concocting a unity amidst the confusion. In the end, he used himself up. The process of becoming the great art egg burned him up from the inside out. Kippenberger’s dissolution is thus not the point or subject of his art, but its cost.
There’s a rickety wooden sculpture sitting in one of the rooms near the end of the exhibit. It’s an egg. The egg is made of scraps of wood fastened together in a haphazard manner. When you get up close to it, the thing is a mess, it doesn’t seem to have any particular design. But when you back off again it all comes together. The little bits of craziness, the sad little scraps of wood cohere into an ovular unity, an egg.
A friend who came with me to the exhibit remarked in passing that for all the diversity in Kippenberger’s art, it never comes off as postmodern pastiche. That’s another way to state the egg thesis. Doing everything is not the same as doing anything. Whether he was drawing on hotel stationary or assembling furniture according to some plan of his own, Kippenberger always feels like Kippenberger. He was the opposite of a chameleon — he didn’t change into the color of his outside environment, but instead gathered everything outside and made it his own. His innate drawing talent, his feel for color and proportion, allowed him to cook up a style and an approach appropriate to whatever “found material” he was up against. A restless traveler, he wanted to suck up as much of the world as he could. He wanted to draw on it and arrange it and color it in until each thing was a Kippenberger. A unity out of vast multiplicity: That’s Kippenberger in an eggshell. • 17 March 2009