Pure Madness: MoMA’s Martin Kippenberger Retrospective


The text panel prefacing The Problem Perspective, the first major U.S. retrospective of German artist Martin Kippenberger, opens with a quote from Aristotle: “everything in moderation.” It then continues with the following statement: “Martin Kippenberger never got this message.”

Curatorial assistance or not, it doesn’t take long to pick up on the Dionysian overtones of Kippenberger’s work. At the entrance to The Problem Perspective an oat-covered Ford Capri peeks out into the foyer (a nudge to Anselm Kiefer) and continuing through the exhibit, the viewer passes by drunken street lamps (which unlike sober ones weave in and out of walls) deprecating self-portraits, and a junkie’s forest populated by disco balls, wooden pills, and ominously headless birch trees.

Kippenberger’s sculptures — like all of his work — are slyly incendiary and occasionally infantile, recalling the themes of Mike Kelley and the aesthetic of a perverse Claes Oldenburg. While Kippenberger’s targets vary from Neo-Expressionism to Pop, his work is especially damning when he takes aim at himself. In his “Martin Into the Corner You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself” series (view the E-Card version here), a mannequin in Kippenberger’s clothes stands in a corner. Arms folded behind him, his resin head swims with cigarettes.

Stepping outside of Kippenberger’s bizarre universe of drugs and self-portraiture, the most striking piece in the exhibit is actually housed four floors below: The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika’. Intended to invoke the novel’s Oklahoma recruitment center, the work is a sprawling and cacophonous installation that combines classic works of 20th century design with a pastiche of absurdist objects (Barbie bathtubs and oversized fried eggs are prominently featured). Between its surrealism and Kafkaesque obliqueness, the viewer is ultimately left at a loss, forced to either marvel at its scope or puzzle over Kippenberger’s views on literary interpretation.

Throughout his career, which MoMA curators describe as “a twenty-year commitment to unrestrained excess,” Kippenberger drew from a wide range of sources with an eye towards rejecting them, grounding his work in opposition to easy labels. Riffing on everyone from Picasso to Richter (in the “Peter” sculptures, one of his monochromes is transformed into a coffee table), Kippenberger both recycles and demonizes the art world, and in this ambivalence, forges the overarching theme of his career. Through pieces like Heil Hitler You Fetishists, and With the Best Will in the World I Can’t See a Swastika, Kippenberger toes the limits of acceptable transgression, recasting the controversies of Germany’s troubled past in the vocabulary of art. While critics have dismissed Kippenberger as a jester or fire starter, as New York Magazine’s Jerry Saltz recently remarked, Kippenberger’s best work comes from the understanding that he is “obviously battling with art history.”

Between Kippenberger’s volatile personality and the prolific range of his work, The Problem Perspective could easily have been a disaster, but remarkably, it isn’t. Rather than pigeonhole him as an artist or fail to acknowledge the disparate strands of his career, the retrospective is held together by a sensitivity towards his tormented relationship to his field. In light of this, and considering the breadth and eclecticism of his oeuvre, perhaps another Aristotle quote is in order to complement the first one: “No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.”