PRINT February 2009



Frank O’Hara in his home, New York, 1965. Photo: Mario Schifano. Courtesy the Estate of Joe LeSueur.

INEVITABLY, THE IMAGE THAT ADORNS the cover of this month’s issue will elicit from readers a searching double take: The amber vastness and big sky of the American West are immediately recognizable, with the panoramic terrain’s sun-scorched sand, silt, and shale having provided a stage for epic characters in cinema for nearly a century. And yet the protagonist here is playing his leading role in this romantic fantasy all wrong, having eschewed the commanding poses of so many outlaws and cattlemen for a quietly distracted (if not befuddled) look backward from his horse—or pony, as it happens. In fact, this lonesome rider, a bit too large for his diminutive steed and outfitted in fuzzy mohair sweater and slacks instead of chaps and Stetson, seems utterly foreign to the landscape, conjuring less the stuff of myth than of tourism—and the experience, one surmises, isn’t quite measuring up to the day-tripper’s imagination.

Or, more aptly, to the advertisement. Taken in 1984 by Martin Kippenberger—whose first US retrospective was on view this past fall at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and appears next month at the Museum of Modern Art in New York—the photograph seems intrinsically bound to so many other appropriations of mass media by artists of the time who were seeking to lay bare (or magnify) the mechanisms of meaning at work in such seductive representations. What makes Kippenberger’s image particularly compelling, then, is his placing himself squarely within the frame, so that he deflates clichés of masculinity at once on-screen and within the day’s living art world (where, one recalls, the critical operations of poststructuralists were just then clashing with the efforts of those neo-expressionists seeking to resurrect the heroic artist of yore). Of course, it could be said that Kippenberger merely enhances a myth uniquely his own through such effacing displays; this snapshot, after all, is just one of ten in a series ostensibly taking apart various tropes and stereotypes of the male artist, with Kippenberger cast in the starring role every time. But if he does so, it is only while suggesting other larger, lasting dilemmas for anyone working under the constraints of capital in culture generally. As art historian George Baker suggests in these pages, Kippenberger continually undercut himself and his audiences alike by adopting so many different, irreconcilable poses, intending to carve out space for real individuation both through and amid works. And yet he thereby risked the possibility that one approach might appear just as good as another, all of them infinitely interchangeable. As Baker puts it, the artist’s “inversions could . . . lead to a sense of endless equivalence, the collapse of all difference and perspective.”

All matters of contemporary unconscious aside—though punctured bravado and the dangers of deflation do seem very much of our moment—Kippenberger’s dilemma finds resonances among numerous questions posed in this issue about the promise and peril of occupying such a shifting subject position. To cite one example: In discussing the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona’s recent “Universal Archive,” an exhibition plumbing the ambiguous status of documentary photography today, art historian Blake Stimson speaks to the show’s attempt to avoid “the identity traps of sameness and difference alike”—taking identity “all the way down to its zero degree”—even as it addresses what he terms photography’s implicit allegory of an experience of self “like that sense . . . reflected in statistics and polls and the marketplace.” Intriguing as well, for me, is the presence of another figure shadowing Kippenberger in these pages, summoned up by several writers rather unexpectedly: Frank O’Hara, the American poet whose subject was variously jujubes, jazz singers, the Ziegfeld Theatre—and, most significantly for our understanding of the German artist, the “scene of my selves, the occasion of these ruses.” (The line, not quoted in this issue but clearly related to our concerns here, comes from O’Hara’s “In Memory of My Feelings.” Another line from the poem seems pertinent as well: “Grace / to be born and live as variously as possible.”) Immediately following the consideration here of Kippenberger’s encyclopedic and self-contradictory approach to artmaking is a text by scholar-curator Achim Hochdörfer suggesting that, roughly half a century ago, “an entire strain of [painting] practice sought to understand how subjective experience might survive the age of simulation.” This, he says, constitutes a “hidden reserve” on which contemporary artists might draw as they seek to carve out space for themselves among the preexisting models of artmaking. Per Hochdörfer: “Early on, in the ’50s, it was poet Frank O’Hara who posed these questions most provocatively, mediating between notions of ‘feeling’ and cultural constructions of subjectivity.”

At this awkward cultural moment—and with Kippenberger’s engagements with multiple modes of artistic production freshly in mind—it seems fitting that UCLA’s Hammer Museum should have recently featured an exhibition (“Oranges and Sardines”) inspired by another O’Hara poem, for which six abstract painters were invited to select works by artists who had significantly affected their practices. (The exhibition is reviewed here by Maggie Nelson.) Rummaging among artistic precursors without rendering them actual or absolute precedents—taking up the different models yet leaving room in those relationships for the people behind the pictures—provides a contemporary corollary for, or alternative to, Kippenberger’s deflation, instigating as it does contexts without setting any fixed course. (It’s all the more compelling at a moment of uncertainty in both culture and the identities filling it.) One remembers that O’Hara’s single manifesto was devoted to “Personism,” whose fundamental tenet—inspired by the poet’s realization that he could always just use the phone to call the friend to whom he was devoting a work—is that “the poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.” Of course, O’Hara also joked that this would mean the end of literature as we know it.