New York

Martin Kippenberger

Metro Pictures

The world is Martin Kippenberger’s bauble, and art finds its redemption as an agent of his extended dalliances within the Euro-American cultural theater. His medley of art workings, coupled with tactics of distribution and promotion, comprise the essential ingredients of a model—or esthetics—of social networking. The development and maintenance of a court of acolytes is as much his “art” as the paintings, sculptures, installations, drawings, and ephemera themselves. It’s all very neodecadent, but somehow Kippenberger has enough élan and conceptual gumption to woo even the most skeptical. He has managed to torque the cultural stereotype of the artist-as-delinquent-adolescent into a behavioral model that can be alternately occupied and abandoned—a charming instability that becomes iconic.

A dandy of hijacked ideas and hijinks, Kippenberger is at his best when he is really at his putative “worst”: his exhibitions only truly sparkle when they assume the look of self-indulgent auto-retrospectives. Last summer, Kippenberger designed an idiosyncratic brand of mid-career survey at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Reviling any authority other than his own, he generously gave over part of the space to a historian of Situationism, Roberto Ohrt, who mounted a vitrine show of books and archival documents on the movement. Building upon this parenthetical component (a reminder of the artist’s own situational impulse, or situational opportunism), Kippenberger included his own collection of erotic art by other artists, as well as a number of his recent paintings. It was a superb bricolage that articulated a fundamental Kippenberger philosophy: frame yourself before you yourself are framed. As we might expect, he reveals no anxiety of influence, only an anxiety of possession: he simply cannot get his hands on everything. Ironically, an unholy equilibrium is achieved here: the more Kippenberger takes, the more he makes, and thus, the more he gives back to those around him; it’s a self-regulating system.

Something like this could—or should—have taken root in this show, except that what we were presented with here was merely a selection of Kippenberger’s paintings from the ’80s and ’90s. These same works had recently been exhibited at the Forum for contemporary art in St. Louis alongside paintings by contemporary artists from Kippenberger’s own collection. At Metro Pictures, the latter had been deleted, and one confronted the not-so-awful truth that, for the most part, his paintings simply cannot hold a room. (His impromptu integration of a John Miller mannequin only served to foreground this situation.) But one would suppose that this “failure” is built-in from the start, and that the humor arises out of our discovery of just how clever Kippenberger has been in inventing it. For instance, in Mountain of Yielded Income with Economic Values by Joseph Beuys II, 1985, he incorporates some of Beuys’ “economic value” pieces, alerting us to his own techniques of value-boosting through art-historical pedigree.

His multifarious rebukings of artistic mastery have nevertheless culminated in a kind of authority most poignantly expressed through the “attitude” of his paintings: the expressionist model is just too entrenched and/or affected to be displaced by the invasion of merely allegorical bad taste. A tongue-in-cheek admonition to recognize the validity of runner-up status in the Art Olympics, 2. Preis (2nd prize, 1987) is a sweetly unpleasant brown-and-white checkerboard painting that bears the stamp of its own impoverishment—oatmeal added into the oil medium creates a textured ground that resembles freeze-dried diarrhea. In an effort to stage a demise of “quality” and of irony itself, Kippenberger has once again stumbled across his own authority in the multiple reflections of a dispersed authorship that, as in the Jorge Luis Borges allegory of Pierre Menard, is only quixotic.

Joshua Decter