New York

Martin Kippenberger

Luhring Augustine | Chelsea

No subject was too insignificant or absurd for Martin Kippenberger: a trip to the dentist, an old sock, or, of course, his own drunken antics. The sum total of the German painter’s inventive approach to subject matter, his boundless sense of humor, and his wacky self-deprecation form a composite self-portrait that functions as the default mode of his work. Martin as bad boy, Martin in his hotel room, Martin with those big underpants, just like the ones old man Picasso used to wear, pulled up over his paunch. The behavior was always so goofy and the hilarity so pronounced that, when they were first shown, the underlying seriousness of his self-portraits was all but suppressed.

Kippenberger died in 1997 at the age of forty-four, in part from the effects of alcohol. In full knowledge of his imminent demise, he used his remaining time to produce yet more self-portraits, images so powerful they stop you in your tracks. Among them is the astounding “Medusa” series from 1996, which consists of paint- ings and lithographs modeled on Géricault’s epic Raft of the Medusa, 1819. Kippenberger casts himself, in multiple roles, as the entire crew of hapless shipwreck victims who are either dead or dying or clinging tragically to life in one final, futile attempt at survival. As though rehearsing for death, the mature artist plays his last hand—first, resistance (the extended arm and outstretched finger), then the blank stare and the throes of rigor mortis. The grave persona who confronts us in his passage from life—a lion, fearless and fiercely creative—contrasts starkly with the grinning prankster who hams it up in the art of the ’80s and early ’90s.

A group of fourteen lithographs and one painting from the “Medusa” series, Kippenberger’s final works, were included in a welcome mini-retrospective of his self-portraits at Luhring Augustine. This exhibition, the first of its kind in the United States and concurrent with two other New York shows of the artist’s work, at Gagosian Gallery and Foundation 20 21, brought together twenty years of paintings, prints, and sculptures. The “Medusa” series alone encourages a rereading of the artist’s oeuvre in reverse-chronological order, requiring a thorough reappraisal of its complexity. It was only a pity that more of the late images were not included, such as “Jacqueline: The paintings Pablo couldn’t paint anymore.” In this 1996 series, Kippenberger, identifying with both the deceased artist and his widow, works from photographs of Jacqueline Picasso taken in the great artist’s studio after his death and surrounded by portraits he painted of her.

How long had Kippenberger been testing the waters of the Styx in his art? The question frames our engagement with long-familiar paintings and sculptures. We’re more sensitive now to the melancholia that moves in and out of the space of the artist’s clowning and takes hold in images of his bandaged head, his potbelly, his aging body. Negative Bath-tub, 1989, always did look like a defiant fist thrust up from the grave, a darkly humorous last rite of refusal. In Zuerst die Füße (First Defeat), 1990, his apotheosis as an ugly green frog (never a prince), crucified with a mug of frothy beer in hand, acquires much deeper resonance than it did ten or fifteen years ago, as does the abject figure who stands with his face to the wall in Martin, Go in the Corner, Shame on You, 1989. All are poignant reminders of the depth of his struggle to come to terms with himself and his compulsion to stage that battle as a communicative act.

Jan Avgikos