Mirror, Mirror

Martin Kippenberger, a prankster and self-mocking drunk, tells on himself

The German artist Martin Kippenberger, who died in 1997, is being celebrated with three New York shows.

The most interesting is an exhibit of self-portraits, in various mediums, at Luhring Augustine Gallery. Kippenberger was an ‘80s artist,” which is to say he was a New Wave type, worked in many mediums—painting, sculpture, photography, graphic design and performance—and bought the cult of personality package completely.

Warhol is said to have been Kippenberger’s inspiration, but comparison to any of the ‘80s egomaniacal personalities will also do. He 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, sometimes including a 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 sprinkled 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 in his work. He’s playing the fool, in the Shakespearean sense, and also 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 were all made in the ‘80s or early ‘90s and even though they have a lot of the look of painting of that period—dry, rather like David Salle; thick brush work, as in Julian Schnabel’s work; and distorted, like any number of painters—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 that is either impossible or suggests that he is at the edge of mental dissolution.

Kippenberger’s appearance in the self- portraits varies wildly from an overweight, confused, old nut to a svelte, post-punk prankster. The props depicted in the paintings include the stand-by cocktail glass, a hangman’s noose and artists’ tools, all portrayed as menaces.

Kippenberger never hesitated to make a monkey out of himself and he’s more beloved than ever for doing it.

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