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A league of his own

MOCA tries to sum up Martin Kippenberger's escapades. It's hard to do in just a few hundred works.

September 21, 2008|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Bad BOY, egotist, prankster, exhibitionist, provocateur. Martin Kippenberger cultivated lots of edgy identities while exploring what it meant to be an artist in a world where traditional values and ways of working had been turned upside down.

Born in Dortmund, West Germany, the son of a coal mine manager and a dermatologist, Kippenberger studied art but aspired to be an actor before launching himself as a painter. His life and career were cut short in 1997, when he died of liver cancer at 44, but he left a hugely varied body of work that defies categorization.

Ann Goldstein, senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, has taken on the challenge in “Martin Kippenberger: Problem Perspective,” the first major U.S. retrospective of the artist's work. Opening today, it's packed with paintings, sculptures, works on paper, installations, photographs, multiples, books, posters and announcement cards. The exhibition will travel to the Museum of Modern Art in New York from March 1 to May 11.

"One can only understand Kippenberger through the breadth and volume of his practice," Goldstein says. "He produced hundreds and hundreds of works. I have settled on 250, but that doesn't account for the fact that one of those is a multi-part installation or that another work comprises 56 canvases and another, 47 drawings.

"Kippenberger claimed a position for himself as a publisher, curator and performer, as well as author of objects," she says. "He was keenly aware of the roles artists play and challenged ideas of authorship and originality. He cannibalized himself over time, recycled his images and worked with assistants and other artists to produce his work, even conceive of the work.

"He really complicated things, but through that complication I think one can see a coherence. My hope is that through the volume, one will have a clear understanding of Kippenberger."

Even so, getting a grip on any artist entails considering one work at a time as well as the big picture. Goldstein shared thoughts, below, about five pieces she chose to exhibit.

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'The Happy End of Franz Kafka's "Amerika" '

Mixed media installation, 1994

"This epic piece brings together a lot of ideas in Kippenberger's work. It comes from a scene in Kafka's unfinished novel in which the protagonist goes to a huge job recruitment center in Oklahoma and finds an endless grid of tables, each with two chairs, where interviews are going on.

The floor of the installation is a large green field, modeled on a soccer field. On it are dozens of vignettes of tables and chairs, representing encounters between interviewers and interviewees. Some of the furniture came from Kippenberger's collection; other pieces were constructed by him and other artists.

He produced the work in 1994 at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. In the United States, it has been seen at the 1999 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh and the Renaissance Society in Chicago. We will show it with an element that isn't always included: bleacher-like seating for spectators.

Kippenberger places the interview vignettes in the context of a competitive game on a soccer field. Then he takes the situation one step further by turning it into a spectator sport. You can't enter the work, but you can watch from the bleachers. He was concerned about the artist's role and function in society, so you can imagine one of the encounters as an artist trying to convince someone of his significance and value. It's a powerful statement."

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'1. Preis (1st Prize)'

Oil and acrylic on canvas, 1987

"Kippenberger WAS very conscious of wordplay. 'Preis,' the title of this series, means both 'price' and 'prize' in German. He numbered the paintings in the series 1 through 17, although the numbers 11 through 13 were combined in one work. Here, he was interested in the idea of awards and competition, as well as the double meaning of 'price' and 'prize.' The idea of how things are ranked in the market was also an important consideration. Then there are these sort of checkerboard backgrounds, which come from everyday checked fabrics. Using common fabric backgrounds plays with the notion of status and market value."

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'Modell Interconti'

Gerhard Richter painting from 1972, wood and metal, 1987

"In KIPPENBERGER'S 'Peter' sculptures, his first foray into sculpture, he made a body of well over 40 works that were almost dysfunctional design objects cum sculptures. He combined found and newly constructed elements in pieces that refer to vernacular objects, architecture and works by artists such as Reinhard Mucha and Donald Judd. 'Modell Interconti,' which demonstrates his interest in Gerhard Richter, is a small table that he had made, using a small gray painting by Richter as the top. Kippenberger not only turned the Richter into a table, but also transformed it into a Kippenberger. He purchased the painting at a Richter market price, transformed it into a Kippenberger and sold it at a Kippenberger market price, which was much lower."

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