The Reviewer: Martin Kippenberger at MoMA

A week spent in New York began with a free trip to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Aware of the continuing economic recession, MoMA has finally taken a cue from the European art museums and is providing free entry, even if it is corporately sponsored (Target Free Fridays!) and only one afternoon a week. The visitors inside couldn’t seem farther removed from the recession, they laughed and talked together, while taking it all in. What was the featured exhibit captivating my attention? Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective.

It is my opinion that Kippenberger’s work asks not the question, ‘What is Art?’ but rather, ‘What is an artist?’ Dead at 44 from a liver disease undoubtedly linked to his alcoholism, Kippenberger represents what I think to be the ‘Insane Artist’ prototype. Both his critics and his fans agree he was manic, unpredictable and wildly productive.

Living up the crazy stereotype, he defied all others. Was he a painter? A photographer? A graphic designer? A performance artist? A carpenter?

Walking into MoMA, I was greeted by a huge open space chock full of Kippenberger-created furniture. Tables, chairs, swings, shelves, dressers, even wooden people filled the space. A small circular train track didn’t carry your typical cars. Instead, replicas of the capital punishment electric chair lined the track.

His furniture alone could have carried the exhibit. But his furniture was only the beginning. As I made my way up to the sixth floor, I found a wall of posters. Nearly every poster featured a photograph of himself, his name consistently larger than all other words on the piece. Most of the posters announced his gallery openings, and he designed each one himself, making them an easy outlet for his glaring narcissism.

Then, as if on cue, he fooled me again. I entered a room that was literally breathtaking – I cannot remember the last time I saw something new that was so captivating. I stood in front of a wall of his paintings for 15 minutes. A grid of the square paintings seduced viewers, with depictions of everything from a city street to a portrait of a young girl. The relatively small paintings (probably two feet by two feet) were done in only black and white gauche, with intensely brilliant attention to light.

Simply turning around within the same room illuminated his mastery of light. Behind me, hung Kippenberger’s photography. Certainly practice with a camera brings a new understanding of light, one Kippenberger capitalized on to create dramatic representations of light.

The little I knew about Kippenberger was mostly associated with his mania and productivity, but I had no idea the range of his work. I remember hoping at this point, that as I continued through the exhibit I would be struck by a real rarity -consistent excellence throughout it.

I was disappointed. It seemed the curators of MoMA packed a lot of punch with Kippenberger’s first few rooms, only to strikingly taper off towards the end. The paintings went from great to mediocre, his real skill hidden behind what looked to be a purging of insanity. I imagined my own journal of neuroses and frustration with EDS poured onto a canvas, and found it in his more abstract work.

Still, I loved the exhibit. Kippenberger took risks, tried new things, never resting on his laurels. He kept creating, drawing, drinking and indulging until his death. Kippenberger broke all conventional rules of mastery of medium, opting instead for a life of a renaissance addict. Some of his work represented the adage of quantity of quality, but his philosophy of “living life to the fullest” was clear – Kippenberger chose quality of life over quantity any day.

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