Self Portraits by Martin Kippenberger
Luhring Augustine Gallery
631 W 24th Street
Through April 30, 2005
The German artist Martin Kippenberger, who died in 1997, is being celebrated with three shows in New York right now. The most interesting of these is a show of self-portraits, in various mediums, at Luhring Augustine Gallery. Kippenberger was “an 80’s artist”. That is to say he was a New Wave type, worked in many mediums (painting, sculpture, photography, graphic design, performance) and bought the cult of personality package whole. Warhol is said to have been his inspiration, but comparison to any of the 80’s mega-maniacal personalities will do. Kippenberger was a terrific prankster and most of these self- portraits are intended to be funny. The show includes a wall of exhibition posters. Kippenberger loved to design posters, which always involved himself in one guise or another or some complex reference to himself through a system of symbols of personal iconography. One stand-in image for Kippenberger is Fred the Frog. A character shown here crucified, as a sculpture. Fred’s cross is made of stretcher bar wood and he clutches a beer mug, a not so subtle statement about the artist as victim and slave. The beer mug, cans of beer, cocktail glasses and many other references to alcohol are throughout the show. Kippenberger was the proverbial pathetic but lovable alcoholic and using the domesticated vernacular of drunk jokes openly admits it and makes fun of it at the same time. He’s playing the fool (in the Shakespearean sense) and the unrepentant punk. The fact that Kippenberger played briefly in a raucous rock band is no surprise. What is a surprise, however, is how beautiful and even deeply poetic much of the work is, especially the paintings. They are all made in the eighties or early nineties and even though they have a lot of the look of painting of that period; dry (rather like David Salle), thick brush work (rather like Julian Schnabel), distorted (like any number of people), they also have a lot of graphic punch and real pathos. The color is generally off key and intense enough to create optical frisson. The drawing is either close to realistic or cartoonishly abbreviated. The artist is usually pictured trying to perform some kind of work related impossibility or at the edge of mental dissolution. His appearance in the self- portraits varies wildly from overweight confused old nut to svelte post punk prankster. The props depicted in the paintings include the stand by cocktail glass, a hangman’s noose and artists’ tools, all are a menace. Kippenberger never hesitated to make a monkey out of himself and he’s more beloved than ever for doing it.