Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997): The Looking For Freedom Tour
Part I: Freedom
Martin Kippenberger’s first major U.S. retrospective, Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective curated by Ann Goldstein, is on view at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles through January 5, 2009. It will travel to The Museum of Modern Art, New York and be on view March 1 through May 11, 2009. Goldstein took the title for the exhibition from the title of a Kippenberger painting that incorporated one of the aphorisms that Kippenberger and Albert Oehlin published in a 1986 book entitled No Problem–No problème. The painting The problem perspective. You are not the problem, it’s the problem maker in your head includes the text “You are not the problem it’s the problem maker in your head” painted in large letters on its surface.
This essay’s title The Looking For Freedom Tour is taken from a 1992 Kippenberger painting in which this text is painted in large red letters across the work. In contrast with the painting The problem perspective. You are not the problem, it’s the problem maker in your head‘s abstraction the untitled work featuring “The Looking For Freedom Tour” text depicts a nude, middle-age man, who may be wearing a small life vest, half kneeling and half sitting on the roof of a sedan and staring out directly at the viewer. A desert mountain landscape is in the background and a suitcase in the foreground. From this painting’s perspective “looking for freedom” not only involves goofing around but unorthodox discomfort if, while striking a pose, it entails resting one’s testicles on a hot metal roof.
Though Kippenberger’s image appears throughout the exhibition in photographs and self-portraits the urge to focus on his biography is ignored here. The autobiographical information available in Kippenberger’s works can be argued to be as much a Kippenberger invention as any other aspect of his work. Most thought provoking is to divorce attention from Kippenberger the story and focus on the paths of inquiry leading out from the content of each work, out from the works’ inventions. As Kippenberger and Oehlin said “It’s not our problem, that some people have very much money” it can also be said that “It’s not our problem, that Kippenberger the artist looks like Kippenberger the art.”
The retrospective includes sculptures, installations, paintings, photographs, posters, cards and catalogues, but this description does not do justice to the wealth of material on view which includes the monumental The Happy End of Kafka’s Amerika. As one enters the exhibition at MOCA a work near the entrance tells a particularly LA story. The bottom part of the work looks like a small copy of parts of David Hockney’s signature works of Southern California roads and intersections with stop signs. A road runs past an intersection in the foreground and up a hill past a small cute house, but the road does not lead to a hill top or into the distance. The top portion of the work, far from being a colorful continuation of the Hockneyesque subject matter of the lower half, is a dark depiction of museum architecture. Hanging in a catenary curve in front of the picture, like the chain or rope out front an exclusive club, is an inexpensive bicycle chain with a transparent blue, plastic cover. The title makes the discussion of inclusion and exclusion and desire clear, Venice-MOCA-Dreamway, 1990. It is the road to MOCA, fully taken, now, eighteen years after the fact.
Publications, posters and exhibition announcements are displayed throughout the exhibition. One card shows the battered, bandaged head of a young man juxtaposed with the text “Dialog mit der Jugend” (Dialogue with the Young). It would be easy to succumb here and tell a story, but no need. As with so many of Kippenberger’s self portraits or autobiographical works the stories which magnified his persona only do so in the wake of the effectiveness of the work. The image in juxtaposition with the text puts Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel on the stand. The dialectic is shown in action–pathetic, useless, savagely uncomfortable. Kippenberger has nailed it.
The hand of other artists is visible throughout the exhibition, whether in direct collaborations, incorporations of others’ works, or appropriations. This fact brings attention to the motto of the Lord Jim Lodge–a conceptual club, meaning it existed more as a concept than an actual club, formed by Kippenberger and several other artists–which is “Nobody Helps Nobody.” Note here the motto is not “Nobody Helps Anybody” which might mean nobody gets any help but “Nobody Helps Nobody” which though it might suggest a complete lack of help in closer examination more accurately suggests that nothing happens in a void. Kippenberger gets lots of help.
In a 1990 work from the Fred the Frog series Kippenberger appropriates a Matt Groening Life in Hell sixteen panel comic showing Groening’s characters Akbar and Jeff in dialogue. Kippenberger’s painting presents the first fifteen panels which offer one character saying fifteen times “I hate you.” The sixteenth panel of the comic is not presented. Readers of the comic might know that the missing panel would show the second character responding “I love you.” The grid’s missing frame, the space for reply, announces that the painting isn’t waiting for the audience’s response, or as is suggested by Akbar and Jeff being doubles of one another, Kippenberger isn’t even waiting for his own response before going on working. Kippenberger points to the possibility of the negation of a codependent relationship with an audience. The work makes the claim that it is not completed by the audience or the other–“I hate you” says the art and you the viewer get to say nothing. Kippenberger avoids the fate of Victor Frankenstein whose joy of creating is trampled by the reality of his creation–as the Doctor relates in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, “The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room and continued a long time traversing my bed-chamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep.” Kippenberger’s work makes the claim that it must remain incomplete, left behind before it can be fully known or, worse, know or violate its creator.
As a “dialogue with the young” is to be avoided so is dialogue with the audience, or the critic or posterity or one’s self. Pamela M. Lee in her essay If Everything Is Good, Then Nothing Is Any Good Any More, written for the exhibition’s excellently designed and informative catalogue Martin Kippenberger The Problem Perspective (Ann Goldstein, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts), quotes Kippenberger putting a different spin on the notion of the unfinished work or joke, “An exhibition is an artist’s ‘running gag.’ But a ‘running gag’ in the literal sense of the term, note: you have to move, keep walking, keep going. [...] For me, it’s also a good excuse–for I have to keep moving all the time–to be constantly moving, going to different towns. Although the desire to stay on somewhere never leaves me. Every time I redecorate my apartment room top to bottom. Which means I spend money. To analyze the new situation and cover my costs, I organize exhibitions.” The catalogue also benefits from including large portions of Jutta Koether’s 1990/1991 interview with Kippenberger. In this interview Kippenberger continues this notion of the inconclusive nature, and its relationship to gags, not just of his art but art in general, “Art taken as a science has the same sluggish beauty as a joke without a point, but it’s full of details.”
So, who is Fred the Frog? In sculpture and painting he is a frog on a cross (nailed to a painter’s stretcher bars in the sculptural version) holding in one hand a beer stein and in the other an egg. In some of the works the act of crucifixion is clearly depicted but in the Fred the Frog work featuring the Groening Life in Hell appropriation Fred the Frog is only a smear and the cross clear but as a graphic abstraction, being created by blackening the narrow gaps between the frames of the comic in the central part of the canvas. The frog and other figures and crosses and eggs in various states appear throughout the Fred the Frog series. The egg, at times being crushed in a man’s hand, also appears in the Hand-Painted Pictures series. About the egg we can refer to Kippenberger’s discussion about finding a form which Goldstein points to in her catalogue essay The Problem Perspective. Goldstein quotes Kippenberger in interview with Daniel Baumann, “In painting you have to be on the look out: what windfall is still left for you to paint. Justice hasn’t been done to the egg, justice hasn’t been done to the fried egg, Warhol’s already had the banana. So you take a form, it’s always about sharp edges, a square, this and this format, the golden section. An egg is white and flat, how can that turn into a coloured picture?”
The humor of Fred the Frog and his egg has recently escaped certain parties representing the Catholic Church. The London Times reported in July, 2008 regarding events of the summer of ’08, “Pope Benedict XVI’s summer break at a seminary in the mountains of northern Italy has led to demands for the removal of a ‘provocative’ sculpture of a crucified frog on show in a nearby museum. Local Catholics have complained to the police that the work by the German artist Martin Kippenberger, on show at the Bolzano Museum of Modern Art, is a ‘public obscenity.’ It depicts a bright green frog with its tongue hanging out, nailed to a cross, with a beer mug in one outstretched hand and an egg in the other.” A version of this work, a number exist, appears in The Problem Perspective. The version at MOCA is called First the Feet and the wood sculpture depicts a frog holding a mug in one hand and a fried egg in the other with two eggs, in shell, as testicles. Robert Ohrt’s essay First the Feet from the 2005 Taschen book Kippenberger gives some background on the Fred the Frog series and the sculptures’ titles, “The book accompanying the first exhibition with Fred is the most beautiful collection of texts that Martin ever published, poems that were spoken down from the Cross, in the final seconds, at the moment in which release or redemption only comes again in the familiar fashion. Incidentally, the Frog’s cross is put together from pieces of stretcher frame for canvases, the Cross of Art, a cross for the skin of painting, and at the last moment – this is the second joke that was always told in Fred’s honor – at the last moment he should have been liberated finally from his suffering on Golgotha. The rescuers approached. There he hung, set up with the Cross on his back, and still alive. They were already climbing up, and were already pulling the nails out, first the right hand, and then the left, too late for his request: Not the hands, please! First the feet!”
The Times article continues, “Luis Durnwalder, the head of the local province, said he supported contemporary art, but not ‘pure provocation … The principles of respect for popular feeling and of artistic freedom have to find a reciprocal tolerance through good will and with understanding from both sides.’ Under pressure from Bishop Egger the museum curators have moved the frog from the museum entrance to the third floor, but have so far refused to remove it altogether. They said the work was not an attack on Christianity but rather a reflection of the artist’s ‘state of profound crisis’ at the time.”
The notion that attack is missing from the work can be taken with a grain of salt particularly given the background provided by Ohrt and the information Nicole Davis in her 2005 Artnet article I Love Kippenberger offers up: “Luhring Augustine and Nyhaus each have a version of Kippenberger’s frog on a cross (1990), where Fred the Frog is hammered (literally and figuratively) to a crucifix with a beer stein in his hand. The translation of the title to English is approx. ‘What’s the difference between Casanova and Christ, when they get nailed the expression is the same.'” This is the first joke Ohrt alludes to above.
The point Durnwalder misses is that the notion of a side with Kippenberger’s work isn’t applicable. Diedrich Diederichsen in his catalogue essay The Poor Man’s Sports Car Descending A Staircase: Kippenberger as Sculptor points to the conceptual origins for some of Kippenberger’s works, “Kippenberger looked back to the various crude and drastic jokes that were popular during the early 1980s and applied them to sculpture. [...] In reality, any anecdotal occasion was good enough for the artist, provided that it was sufficiently overdetermined…” In looking at stories in contemporary Western culture it is hard to find one more “overdetermined” than the Passion of Christ. More thought provoking than the Bolzano Museum of Modern Art curators’ comment that the Fred the Frog sculpture reflects Kippenberger’s “state of profound crisis” (for as before, “It isn’t our problem”) is the notion of trying to nail down a “running gag.” Kippenberger’s frog on the cross lets the viewer know that if the “running gag” is to be stopped, if the artist is to be nailed down, nailed to his stretcher bars, then the viewer will see no prince but only a drunk, egg eating, frog. If, after all this, someone is still hanging around to have their sensibilities skewered then they only have themselves to blame, or their “problem maker”–the artist was already long gone.
Crucial to the MOCA exhibition are the Peter sculptures. A number of them are cramped together in one section of one room with a boundary around them so they cannot be walked amongst. This is not a criticism. Diederichsen speaks about them at length in his essay and included in this discussion is how “peter” in German is used to refer to a “guy” like a baker as a Broetchenpeter (rolls guy) or to an inanimate thing, “thingamajig.” Diederichsen goes further, “But there was also a critical and sometimes pejorative dimension to Kippenberger’s use of the suffix ‘-peter:’ It could only be used for things or people that were not sufficiently complex, that could be reduced to an attribute or function.” In Diederichsen’s text it is heartwarming to learn that David Salle’s “Peter-hood” was often referenced by Kippenberger and illuminating to learn that Kippenberger’s realization of Gerhard Richter’s “Peter-hood” came with a “slowly dawning sense of disappointment.”
Part II: Play
In Brian De Palma’s 1980 thriller “Dressed to Kill” Angie Dickinson plays Kate Miller (Peter Miller’s mother) and Peter is played by Keith Gordon. In a playful, and ultimately creepy, exchange with her son, Kate tells Peter that he shouldn’t be staying up all night working on his machine–which is some kind of homegrown computer. She then chides him for not having a name for his machine and christens it “Peter.” Her parting shot directed at her son as she leaves to go to the Metropolitan Museum, and unbeknownst to her also to her death, is “have fun playing with your Peter.” It is this playing with your penis aspect (or, homologously, your clitoris) of viewing Kippenberger’s sculpture that can be kept in mind here. Kippenberger in a poster for the exhibition of the Peter works at Galerie Max Hetzier in 1987 does this himself. Kippenberger has borrowed an ad for Burlington clothing and modified it for his exhibition poster. In the modified poster a man in a beret speaks to two striking women in the background. The women in turn are looking at a handsome man in the foreground who is crouched down in a rather macho way with a hand on one knee, elbow jutting out, and looking intently at a phallic sculpture.
So how do these thingamajigs function; how does the aspect of play figure in? For Modell Interconti, 1987 Kippenberger purchased a grey Richter monochromatic painting and made a table of it. In this example the sense of play extends subversively to the marketplace. Goldstein points out, “Kippenberger not only turned the Richter into a table, but also transformed it into a ‘Kippenberger.’ Purchasing the Richter at market price, he sold the sculpture at a price based on his own market value, which was substantially lower.” The Peter sculpture Wittgenstein, 1987 looks like an empty book case. A reference can be imagined–Wittgenstein gave up philosophy, however temporarily, so he didn’t need his books. In the MOCA exhibition viewers can turn the corner and see that same Peter sculpture, Wittgenstein, depicted in an untitled painting from 1998 and also in the painting, somewhat in front of the depicted cabinet and somewhat in it, is a head to thigh length portrait of a man, nude except for the large underwear he is wearing that is reminiscent of the underwear one would have seen Pablo Picasso wearing in pictures used elsewhere by Kippenberger in posters. Now what is the reference? In lieu of philosophy does Kippenberger offer a parody of the aging Picasso as a lion-in-winter. Or, now has the cabinet become a closet in which to hide a sexuality? Wittgenstein was gay, wasn’t he? So here the play begins and what appeared just a thing becomes a starting point. But the viewer has been warned: to expect the play, however titillating, to lead to a conclusion would be missing the point. In the catalogue interview with Koether, Kippenberger imagines this kind of play and speaks of working in such a way so that future viewers can say, “Kippenberger was good amusement! Plus, he looked up some minor details of various subjects and worked on them.” Kippenberger’s usual tongue-in-cheek response aside, this amusement becomes a key element of his works’ viability. Play is the vitality of the work. Sigmund Freud quoted the philosopher Kuno Fischer as saying “aesthetic freedom consists in the playful contemplation of objects.” For The Looking for Freedom Tour the statement is shortened to “Freedom is Play.”
Freud’s comment that “play is a child’s work” can be added to the consideration along with Picasso’s statement, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Freud’s comment speaks to the practical aspect of play as preparing a child for adulthood. But if in the end adulthood is the unconsidered goal of the child which is facilitated by play and freedom is the considered goal of the adult which consists of play then it is important to acknowledge through Picasso that this ability to be absorbed in childish play that makes the child an artist is mostly lost by adults–and is mostly lost by most adult artists. Kippenberger’s work is held up as a rare example of adult art as adult play as at once representation of freedom and as itself the very action of freedom.
The Lord Jim Lodge motto “Nobody Helps Nobody” is here discussed in relation to Jim’s story in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. Jim, the First Mate, and the other officers on a damaged ship leave a group of helpless passengers stranded onboard as they flee. The passengers, though, are rescued by other parties. Jim is the sole crew member who stays to answer for his deeds in court. Later as he tries to make his way in life his past catches up to him time and time again and eventually he finds himself living in lands far from his own and achieves some kind of redemption by helping others and finally sacrificing his own life. How does our notion of “Freedom is Play” function here? Returning to the painting with the “Looking for Freedom Tour” text the notions of goofing off, of play, and of discomfort come again to the fore. So, considering “Nobody helps Nobody” and “Freedom is Play,” if you do not help others, if you do not do the right thing, particularly when the situation calls for your help, then no play is possible, no freedom is possible. Ultimately the conclusion arises that not only is play not an unlimited exercise of free will but also that maintaining the conditions that allow for play and freedom can require self-sacrifice and personal discomfort. To use the adage used to justify nonsensical wars to a more sensical purpose, “freedom isn’t free.” Is play only possible when space has been cleared so that it can take place, or is play that very action of clearing the space for it to take place? Regardless and ultimately, the space which is cleared for or by the play is the place where freedom comes. As Lord Jim discovered, our problems can choose us.
Part III: Work
Kippenberger’s Put Your Freedom in the Corner can be used to explicate freedom’s demands. Goldstein’s catalogue essay discusses the work and Kippenberger’s use of a Robert Gober artwork brings to mind Michel Tournier’s rewriting of the Crusoe story in Friday as we ask Gober’s unasked question as to whether the slave owner is free to sleep in freedom: “Kippenberger addressed the breach of the wall and German reunification. First shown in Los Angeles and modeled on a section of the demolished wall, the sculpture is a plywood construction covered with Robert Gober’s limited-edition wallpaper Hanging Man/Sleeping Man (1989). The combination of Gober’s work, which pairs an image of a sleeping white man with that of a lynched black man, together with the formal reference to the wall, is at once pathetic and resonant. Incorporating a repaired ceramic vase on a pedestal, Put Your Freedom in the Corner was a powerful statement at a moment of celebration, confronting social relations at their most brutal, as they are embedded in the human subconscious. Kippenberger was critical of the removal of the wall, connecting it with the impetus to cleanse history: ‘The wall is part of German History. Now that all that’s left of it is a bit on Potsdamer Platz, it no longer feels like you’re walking through a wall. History is something you need to feel. First they weren’t Nazis, then they weren’t Communists. So what are they? They pulled down the wall without asking us, and smartly wiped out some German history. The wall ought to have been preserved. We don’t need excavations, like in Greece–in this country history happens at your front door. Beuys thought the wall should have been seven centimeters higher–on purely aesthetic grounds. Everybody cheered when the wall was pulled down. That’s the wrong way to handle history.'” As Tournier examined a comfortable but false understanding of the meaning of and the relationship between the civilized and the uncivilized, Kippenberger deconstructed the symbolic unlinking of the present from the horrific past and showed that the wall’s destruction was an empty symbolic gesture and not a truthful representation of the unbreakable chains that constitute any history.
Lord Jim fails to do what he thinks is right in a moment of crisis. He manages to regain his sense of freedom by working step by step on doing what he had thought would come to him naturally. One finds a similar conclusion in Voltaire’s Candide. Candide, after searching the world for his true love, squandering a fortune and witnessing and engaging in violence and hardship finds himself settling down with his friends to make a life by day to day work. In looking at 20th Century German history and thinking of the plight of the enslaved while mulling over the notion of “freedom” the gates of Auschwitz loom large. There and at other Nazi camps the words “Arbeit macht frei” (work will set you free) were written on the gates. The perversion of the death camps makes it difficult to imagine this phrase in light of the consideration of and pursuit of the work that calls to our deepest sense of obligation and presents routes to freedom. The work of play is to do the work that calls to you from beyond the requests of your fellow man. The work of enforced servitude and, in addition, that of unconsidered, voluntary servitude is not the work of play.
Kippenberger’s METRO-Net subway entrances (of the mid 1990s), scattered across the world and with stairs that lead down to nothing but shut gates with only earth behind them, have links to the gates of the camps. In the signage of the METRO-Net gates, with their connections to the Lord Jim Lodge, mystical symbolism arises along with mystical slogans. Kipppenberger’s “N.H.N.” seems to have less of a direct relation to “Arbeit macht frei” than it does to the slogan at Buchenwald “Jedem das Seine” (To each his own) which is on the path to “Nobody Helps Nobody.” Kippenberger’s critique of system is not limited to any one ideology. The symbol for the Lord Jim Lodge which Kippenberger both created as sculpture and incorporated into the METRO-Net gates includes a hammer, a sun and a pair of breasts. At first look the hammer and the curve of the sun bring to mind the symbol of the USSR. But instead of the hammer of industry crossed with the sickle of agriculture here the hammer is striking the sun. In some versions of the logo it is unclear what is happening at the impact point–in some the design appears to be a rendering of impact (like of a hammer hitting glass) but in others, particularly those used for the METRO-Net, at the point the hammer hits the sun a spider-web is clearly delineated. This spider web suggests lack of use or lack of usefulness. If the hammer is imagined to be hitting a sickle rather than being crossed with it then the logo suggest this destruction would already be redundant as the cob-webbed sickle is already in disuse. The old workers’ symbols and the Communist party are no longer of use. The Lord Jim Lodge’s symbol does not include a sickle, of course, but a sun. The symbolism of a hammer hitting a sun more suggests futility than destruction and the breasts hanging down appear an afterthought, or a subversion. Kippenberger reminds that archaic symbolism aside Marcel Duchamp’s proposition Rrose Sélavy–Eros c’est la vie–may be, if not a final answer, then the best bet at a parting shot.
These shut METRO-Net gates might suggest that if nobody helps anybody, nobody gets anywhere. Or perhaps, there is no reason to go anywhere if no help is to be had. But, one does not actually have to have passed through the gates of the METRO-Net for this help to have occurred. Kippenberger’s MoMAS project was in part about helping others. The METRO-Net station Kippenberger brought to Syros brought other artists to Syros–of course not in the sense of transporting them but in providing a starting point for the Museum of Modern Art Syros (Kippenberger’s project, not a museum by most standards). The various artists’ works presence at MoMAS and the artists being eventually–and, more, conceptually–linked to the whole world through Kippenberger’s global network of stations (realized to various degrees in Tokyo, Los Angeles, Dawson City, New York, Muenster, Kassel, Leipzig and Syros) establishes the corollary to N.H.N. as S.H.S.–“Somebody Helps Somebody.” To be somebody one needs to help somebody and to be helped by somebody. Again, Kippenberger does not advocate working in a void.
Kippenberger’s late masterpiece The Happy End of Kafka’s Amerika takes the modern working world as its subject. In the unfinished Franz Kafka novel Amerika (or The Man Who Disappeared) the protagonist is looking for work. The poster that leads him to an absurdist interview taking place on a grand scale reads, “At the racecourse in Clayton, today from 6 a.m. till midnight, personnel is being hired for the Theatre in Oklahoma! The great Theatre of Oklahoma is calling you! It’s calling you today only! If you miss this opportunity, there will never be another! Anyone thinking of his future, your place is with us! All welcome! Anyone who wants to be an artist, step forward! We are the theatre that has a place for everyone, everyone in his place! If you decide to join us, we congratulate you here and now! But hurry, be sure not to miss the midnight deadline! We shut down at midnight, never to reopen! Accursed be anyone who doesn’t believe us! Clayton here we come!”
In Kafka’s work interviewers evaluate interviewees in an expansive environment. We know that the questions do not regard whether the potential worker has pursued a work which will clear a space for play which will lead to freedom. We know the questions are of the kind determining whether the potential worker will be of the sort that will suit the needs of the interviewer. Kafka’s protagonist makes the claim of being an engineer just to get the process over with. So here Kippenberger creates a sculpture that presents a seemingly endless array of interview tables and chairs–not at a racecourse but on a soccer pitch–and this diversity, a wild diversity shared by all the work’s constituting elements, is itself a demonstration of play, a demonstration of freedom, which takes as its subject not enforced servitude but voluntary servitude. Some freedom is not only work but revolt.
To make the association of work with servitude or bondage clear, Kippenberger has placed on the edge of the sports field observation towers of the kind one would find in a prison or concentration camp. The towers emphasize that there is a direct relationship between the enforced servitude of the concentration camp and the voluntary servitude of the workplace. Work will not set you free if it is not your work.
Not only do the disparate designs for the chairs and tables (some found junk, some design classics, some hand made, some made by other artists–Tony Oursler and Jason Rhoades included) suggest a subversion of the standardized interview process so does the very design of the field. The use of the sports field as the ground for the sculpture emphasizes that there are rules to the game of servitude and Kippenberger’s work insists on directing our attention to the absurd rules of the interview process in Kafka’s Amerika. The goal areas are not laid out in the proper places for a standard soccer field. The should be across from one another at each end of the longest part of the field. Instead they are across from one another at what would be the midpoint of the field so that they are as close together as they could be. This negation of the design becomes revolt. The revolt itself, as discussed, is the result of play.
Goldstein says, “Kippenberger embraced failure as a generative strategy.” Looking at The Happy End of Kafka’s Amerika this failure can be reevaluated. Failure in one system may not be failure in another. In the production of art the discussion about the difference between being a commercial failure as an artist and being a failure as an artist in not offering authentic cultural contributions is well worn. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh has said, “Beginning with the readymade, the work of art had become the ultimate subject of a legal definition and the result of institutional validation.” Kippenberger overtly addresses commercial and institutional validation through the Preis works of 1987 (1.Preis (1st Prize), 2.Preis (2nd Prize) and so on); with the German word “preis” meaning both “price” and “prize,” and their brute, table cloth patterning, the works are an announcement of a free man’s willingness to accept lucre and its burden. The question these paintings throw up is if the culture at large can pay you handsomely for providing an authentic critique of that culture can that critique maintain an inherent value outside of monies paid for its acquisition, or, returning to the notion of Freedom equals Play equals Work, can one simultaneously do the work of freedom and get paid? Obviously, Kippenberger had been pointing to himself running back and forth across this bridge for a long time.
Part IV: Dead-Ends
One might think that an artist always on the move, playfully interested in perpetuating a “running gag,” would have little to fear. The truth is bleaker; as death can cut short life at any moment, free movement can be stymied by a dead-end at any turn. If a dead-end is not avoided, if one ends up idling there, it becomes the entry to the stasis of true “Peter-hood.” Kippenberger’s work reveals through its own composition how stasis was avoided. In answering a question about his process Kippenberger describes, again in the Koether interview, some paintings made in collaboration with his assistant Merlin Carpenter: “Then the paintings that got too good. These are the paintings which were done by Merlin, the assistant, after instructions. Simply too good, too well done, and therefore slush, that kind of painting, those comments. So I decided to make double-slush of them. They were photographed–very flat and colorful and shiny–and then exhibited as photos. And the acrylic paintings were chopped up and put into garbage cans that had been produced especially for that purpose.” Kippenberger sacrifices the paintings for the art, avoiding the dead-end. He says further of these works “Because Immendorff’s old idea, ‘stop painting,’ may be expressed again once in a while because it’s never been obeyed.” The chopped up works in a dumpster were featured prominently in Kippenberger’s 1991 exhibition Put Your Eye in Your Mouth at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
This ongoing escape from painting is also evident in the 1981 series Dear Painter, Paint for Me. Here Kippenberger hired a sign painter to create large works after photographs. The association with Richter’s photorealistic works cannot be avoided, but the sign-painter’s craft is no better or worse than it is when put to use for advertising. The quality of the means of production cannot be evaluated, only the choice of means, once we know the paint application is arbitrary. The subject matter can be best described as playful. Davis, again in her 2005 discussion, gives a to-the-point overview of this playfulness: “A 200 x 150 cm black-and-white portrait of a scruffy little dog is perfectly painted to insinuate itself as the missing image of one of the terrorist’s pets in Gerhard Richter’s Baader-Meinhof series–very funny, MK. But, in fact, all the paintings are funny, Kippenberger was nothing if not a joker. (…) Outsourcing his work to a billboard painter also gave him a chance to have himself depicted according to a nobler, higher vision. The crispness of Werner’s style renders Kippenberger regal and handsome. Each of the five self-portraits are a clever interpretation keyed to Kippy’s fantasies. For instance, the ‘self-portrait’ based on a signed, autographed photo of German actor Hansjorg Felmy allows Kippenberger’s lost pipe dream to be brought to life. Another black-and-white portrait places the viewer into the thick of an erotic encounter between Kippenberger and a beautiful woman. The most fitting depiction is a large painting of Kippenberger sitting on a discarded couch on a New York City street corner–a royal reject playing king over his degenerate court of garbage bags and indifferent traffic.” In the MOCA exhibition the work of Kippenberger on the couch as well another work showing a pocketful of pens from above and another of two men walking arm in arm on a busy street are images that resonate. Missed at MOCA is the work from this series of the “erotic encounter.”
Painting is not the only area where one might end up in a dead-end. German culture and history provide ample opportunities. Anselm Kiefer’s engagement with myth and history are, in part, targets of Kippenberger’s collaboration with Albert Oehlen in their 1982 work Capri by Night. The subject is not a nocturne of the beautiful Mediterranean island swarmed by German tourists yearly but a Ford Capri automobile. Of course the associations to the other Capri are there; the inexpensive pseudo-sports car’s name is meant to evoke a lifestyle of sporty play. And Kippenberger means to point to Germans’ fascination with Italy as a recreation destination–as he does in another work which places a skeleton of a Venetian gondola atop a high-end BMW sedan. Kiefer famously has included straw in his massive landscapes with their invocations of origin myths and the roots of German culture. By using the Capri, Kippenberger points to more contemporary infatuations and, then, diminishing the drama of Kiefer’s straw, paints the Ford Capri (the car was sold under the Mercury label in the U.S.) with a paint mixture that includes oats. As well as the car itself on display at MOCA is the 1982 piece Blue Lagoon which is a number of rectangular pieces cut from the hood of a blue Capri hung in an arrangement. Again Capri the island and its waters are a reference and it is easy to imagine that the Brooke Shields movie The Blue Lagoon of just a couple years before is also a reference. With Brooke in mind, the play can extend in a line from this work through Richard Prince (who counts Kippenberger as having been a “good friend”) and his infamous 1983 re-representation of the photos by Gary Gross showing a naked, prepubescent Brooke Shields posing in a soft-porn style and then the line can then be drawn even further, and with more obvious justification, through Prince’s car hood works that he began later that decade.
Back to Kiefer, Kippenberger’s Bormann gas station work is in communication with Kiefer’s 1969 photographic documentation of himself traveling around Europe giving the Nazi salute in various cities. In 1986 Kippenberger traveled to Brazil where he worked for three months. Some of this work was shown under the name The Magical Misery Tour. While in Brazil he purchased an unused gas station and renamed it the Martin Bormann Gas Station. It had long been rumored that the high ranking Nazi within Hitler’s inner circle had escaped Germany to somewhere, perhaps Brazil, to live after World War II. Most would now accept the more recent genetic testing of Bormann’s skull found in Berlin and indicating that he had died in Berlin in 1945. Doubling the absurdity of Bormann as a gas station owner is the association of The Magical Misery Tour with the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. Kippenberger may have been pointing to the failure of the Beatles to create a magical film when they went off hoping to create one by looking for adventure with a bus load of everyday people and a film crew. Bormann’s failure, in the most superficial of analyses, was also a failure of tainted idealism. But if Bormann had ended up in Brazil with the wealth of Germany in his pockets, as the story sometimes goes, would he have had to worry about getting a job? If he had and had ended up owning a gas station certainly he would not have brought attention to himself, just as his name was not affixed to the gas chambers of the concentration camps, by naming a public gas station with his name. Kiefer has spoken of being born in the zero year of the new Germany, 1945. He is tied to the old myths, to the notion of the fall of old civilizations and the slow birth of new on blackened ground. Kippenberger shows this to be a dead-end. His view is more human–we are not confronting a cycle of tragedy on a scale beyond human capacity to have perpetuated it, but dealing with a living history with still living figures. And as he wasn’t in favor of hiding history by tearing down the Berlin Wall, he sees that the act of stirring around in the same old mysticism–even with your heart in your hands and the ash of mourning smeared from here to there–leads to the same old places. So, Kippenberger makes a crude joke instead–Bormann is doing fine and is in charge of pumping gas, once again.
Goldstein speaks directly to Kippenberger’s attitude towards post-1945 Germany’s relationship to its recent Nazi history by quoting Isabelle Graw and discussing her views of German artists confronting German history: “Graw considered the work of German painters Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz, strongly critiquing their use of Nazi subject matter. (…) In Kippenberger, she found an artist who sought to disturb and destabilize the official histories citing his 1984 painting Ich kann beim besten Willen kein Hakenkreuz entdecken (With the best will in the world, I can’t see a swastika). The work is a tangle of swastika-like forms, yet none are autonomous or clearly discrete. The depiction of the swastika was forbidden at that time in Germany, and Kippenberger tackled the hypocrisy of that cultural position, not only centering in on a taboo and putting it in the face of the spectator, but confronting the desire and will to repress what was deeply rooted in a national psyche still coming to terms with its past.”
Kippenberger does draw a clearly legible swastika in one of his many drawings on hotel stationary. A woman’s genitals are viewed from exactly the same viewpoint as those depicted in Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World. If the works are compared side by side the viewer notices how the black bush of pubic hair in The Origin of the World has turned into a pair of black, slinky panties emblazoned with a swastika. In Kippenberger’s work the woman is pulling aside the panties and masturbating. The hotel, by the way, providing the stationary for this sketch of epic implications was the Fitzpatrick Hotel Bunratty now called the Bunratty Shannon Shamrock Hotel.
Kippenberger’s hotel drawings are another important part of the MOCA exhibition. They are fully rendered works or sketched out ideas, sometimes for sculptures, all on hotel stationary. The dead-end Kippenberger avoids here, with a simple gesture, is the view of artist’s original drawing by the viewer and marketplace as being an integral part of an artist’s oeuvre and thus being of de facto, predetermined importance. Kippenberger negates this categorization of his large body of drawings by associating the works with happenstance art making–the printed headings suggest that the paper happened to be available while he was traveling and he happened to make a drawing. The surprising thing about this tactic is how effective it is. The viewer is ready to accept, even when confronted with hundreds of these drawings, that the works are not part of a larger project, that indeed the drawings were just tossed off.
The discussion of dead-ends takes a turn in looking at a particular set of paintings in the MOCA exhibition that could be read as direct cultural critique if the critique were clear. Goldstein discusses the 1985 work Three Houses with Slits (Betty Ford Clinic, Stammheim, Jewish Elementary School (title translation from catalogue) by quoting a Diederichsen text, “In dealing with three buildings with political associations (Stammheim Prison; the Betty Ford Clinic; a Jewish Primary School), they encouraged the assumption that Kippenberger had at long last turned his attention to subjects which, while they might not show any obvious increase in artistic conscientiousness, at least revealed an almost civic-minded (or “alternative,” which amounts to the same thing) willingness to play along. Which in this case means asking questions which answer themselves. Because that’s what wild young artists are supposed to do when they become mature.” Goldstein continues with a discussion of how the work is “open to interpretation.” Diederichsen includes a conversation of the architecture depicted in the paintings as pointed to by the work’s title, but the discussion can also go elsewhere. As a master of escaping dead-ends Kippenberger here offers up double dead-ends. These dead-ends are deader than the dead-end job. The dead-end of chemical abuse ends in the dead-end of recovery. The dead-end of political radicalism ends in the dead-end of prison (and in the case of Stammheim death for its famous inmates from the RAF or Baader-Meinhof Group). The dead-end of religious dogma begins in the dead-end of religious education.
For artists art history is also filled with dead-ends. And for artists of Kippenberger’s generation none was more dead than Picasso. Yet, Kippenberger painted a 1996 series of work called Jacqueline: The paintings Pablo couldn’t paint anymore from pictures taken of Jacqueline in her husband’s studio after he had died. The paintings are patterned with bold, roughly executed vertical stripes and include images of a person who seems more or less modeled after Jacqueline, or perhaps it is a man, sometimes wearing outfits (one a cowboy hat and scarf another an Indian headdress) painted quickly in a brushy style. The works don’t particularly look like Picasso’s and nor does the figure particularly look like Jacqueline. The paintings are prominently signed with the initials “J.P.” Ann Temkin in her catalogue essay The “Late Works” of Martin Kippenberger discusses what kind of paintings “Pablo couldn’t paint anymore:” “But Kippenberger’s statement contained more meaning than perhaps even he realized. Today there is no way the serious male artist can generate interesting work by painting a woman he loves scores of times as Picasso had managed to do for seven decades. The end of the romance of modern art also dissolved the possibility of making romantic love the non-ironic subject of art.” This comment points further to the problem with movements and traditions in art–each activity eventually implodes. What was free play becomes rote. What keeps the artist from imploding along with a project is the willingness to move on. Kippenberger, by addressing Picasso, took this a step further and by entering an arena where most others saw only traps demonstrated how nothing is off limits to the emancipated artist. Kippenberger’s success in this series, though, has much to do with his turning his back on the entire problem of Picasso’s craft and contribution as an artist. Picasso’s name is in the title of the series and the subject matter is ostensibly of his wife but there are only a few off-hand Picasso-esque forms here and there that would suggest any kind of a dialogue with Picasso’s creations as an artist. It is the viewer that brings the weight of Picasso to the viewing of Kippenberger’s Jacqueline paintings, and it is the viewer that is left holding the weight because Kippenberger’s paintings barely remember to bring up the subject.
In another series of late works Kippenberger took on Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. The photographer Elfie Semotan captured Kippenberger modeling the tragic figures rendered by Géricault in his famous painting of desperate seafarers waiting for rescue. In Semotan’s photographs Kippenberger’s presence can be clearly seen as that of a model or an actor, and these help inform understanding that his presence in earlier works was also contrivance. A number of Kippenberger’s paintings in this series were taken from Semotan’s photographs. The Medusa drawings he made on hotel stationary were made after the paintings. Kippenberger also had a large carpet made that presented a top down view of the raft itself. In part of the series Kippenberger tips his hand and lets the viewer know that appreciation of “great art” often mimics the appreciation of the fetishist. Temkin describes, “Another set of drawings, fifteen works in colored pencil and felt pen, were made atop images photocopied from a book of Géricault’s drawing studies for Le radeau de la Méduse, sometimes including the captions. Kippenberger overlaid Géricault’s sketches of figures and body parts with drawings of women’s hands, feet, and shoes copied from the erotic photos of Elmer Batters, a pioneer of fetish photography. The disturbing collisions presented by these drawings–between Eros and Thanatos, two different centuries, draughtsmanship and photography, high art and low–counter any notion that Kippenberger might have been merely reverential toward his model.” Kippenberger indeed felt free to roam where others feared to tread. He was able to reveal to the viewer the pathos of The Raft of the Medusa and make it new while revealing the bathos of his and Géricault’s projects and, in essence, saying for the both of them that it is nothing inherent in art but your, the viewer’s, perversion that makes our labor and the forms we create attractive to you.
Part V: The Beginning
Goldstein’s choice of the The Problem Perspective as the title for her major curatorial achievement can be understood in her summation of Kippenberger’s practice at the end of her catalogue essay: “With everything and everyone usable as stimuli for his work, Kippenberger challenged and re-envisioned the role of the artist. His was an unsettling presence, breaching the boundaries that reinforce conventions and decorum in order to articulate and objectify the connections and relationships between individuals and their culture. Kippenberger did not like to be alone, and he embedded his work in social relations in order to foster the connections that he needed for himself. He left an exhaustive and challenging oeuvre, a few lifetimes of work in just twenty years, with numerous trails of associations that will take many years and many exhibitions to unfold. It is a most problematic practice–and that is its great gift.”
In this essay “freeing” has been given preference over “problematic.” And Goldstein is certainly correct to say that as much as has been seen of Kippenberger and written about him his projects are just beginning to be revealed. The impact of his “freeing process” is still unfolding which is useful to keep in mind while viewing each of the works as well as the exhibition as a whole. Some works in The Problem Perspective stand out as points from which this conversation could be spun further: the posters and catalogues and invitation cards; the work done in collaboration with other artists and assistants; per the first two of this list, Adam Kuczynski’s watercolors, commissioned by Kippenberger, depicting Kippenberger’s publications with one publication depicted per watercolor and with each depicted with a magnifying glass resting atop its cover; appropriations; the Peter sculptures including but not limited to Petertimer, 1987 (a rolling structure that looks like a scaffold with briefcases attached to it), Transporter for Sculpture (Not for Slipping, for Tripping), 1987 (made of wood and thirty-six bananas in casting resin), Retouching Box, 1987 (an obelisk type form made of press board with a paint roller stuck to it), Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1987 (a large tri-part structure made of wood, iron, mirror and lacquer), Mine II, 1987 (a kind of disco boot sitting atop a carpet atop layers of foam and wood–the title referring both to possession and to workers working in a mine below while dancers dance above); the drawings for the Peter sculptures; the early black and white paintings of the series One of you, a German in Florence, 1976-77 made after Richter’s black and white work and that include everything from an image of Sylvester Stallone to that of a spray paint can (suggesting the making of Lawrence Weiner’s, Two Minutes of Spray Paint Directly upon the Floor from a Standard Aerosol Spray Can, 1968); Orgone Box by Night, 1982 (for repairing bad paintings); New York Seen from the Bronx, 1985 (a small bronze work showing a skyline of only a few modest buildings); Snow White’s Coffin, 1989; Chicken Disco, 1988 (a small disco floor); Martin, into the corner, you should be ashamed of yourself, 1989 (on view at MOCA several versions of the life size sculptures that came in six versions with six different materials used for the heads and six different outfits); Spiderman Atelier, 1996; Siberia Hates You, 1984 (this painting makes a strong case against “ugly” being subjective); Psychobuildings, 1988 (a work of about 120 black and white photos serving as an index to sculptural process); Street Lamp for Drunks, 1988 (looking, along with the other sculptures in this series, like a drunk street lamp); War Wicked, 1983 (a painting of Santa Claus on a tank); a hotel drawing after the style of Tom of Finland with Kippenberger as a hunky, erotic Santa; the Hand-Painted Pictures, 1992 (including references to the ceramicist Hedwig Bollhagen); a 1989 Issue of Parkett featuring two artists–Jeff Koons and Kippenberger.
Leaving history, leaving art, one may find one’s way into nature. The 1990 work Now I am going into the big birch wood, my pills will soon start doing me good has been shown in a number of forms–with real birch trees and with faux birch trees as at MOCA. The piece is fairly straightforward–installed in the gallery are birch trunks standing straight up or leaning. Scattered around the trunks are sculptures of oversized pills rendered in wood. The Looking For Freedom Tour can begin and end in nature. Is it to nature that all returns? Do creative play, experiments in freedom, and defying stale, cultural paradigms necessarily lead one back to the woods, out to the desert? Kippenberger, of course, isn’t going to make it that easy. “A walk might do you good,” is a universal suggestion to the troubled or discombobulated that Kippenberger puts in its place. A walk among birches is described but the real hope is that pills will kick in and start to provide the real help. In the installation the pills are made from the wood of trees. Nature does not seem to be providing for the body, so man looks for help from chemicals made after models and from materials found in nature. Kippenberger does not set the scene after the moment help has arrived but before, so questions remain. Will the chemicals, will civilization’s tools, actually arrive in time to help, or help at all?
When one is not at home in nature, where to go? When one is not at home in culture, where to go? Kippenberger was no star-man, yet when the cosmos tug at your bloodstream it is hard to treat the earth with gravity. So, with his feet firmly on one piece of ground after another and not afraid to get his hands dirty, Kippenberger created work that found freedom in its uninhibited movement away from and towards the problematic. And when confronting one of Kippenberger’s definitive records of the indefinite, the viewer may, with some enthusiasm, anticipate agnosia.