Boys Will Be Boys

John Haber
in New York City

Martin Kippenberger and Other Wrecks

As art's chic bad boys go, Martin Kippenberger was one of the worst—and he wanted everyone to know it, too. He made a good half-dozen copies of Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself, his sculpture with its head bent and its back to the viewer. It appears twice in his retrospective alone, each time the same short, balding man.

Or should I say man-child? Kippenberger remained just that all his short life. A look at Luca Buvoli and others shows how much art has become a playground for bad boys. In each case, they play with an eye to Modernism and a fear of its implications for the present. Each even throws in a car wreck. In each case, too, their play with the wrecking ball always has center stage. from Martin Kippenberger's Dear Painter, Paint for Me (Museum of Modern Art, 1981)

"The hood ornament of a speeding automobile is more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace," wrote Filippo Marinetti in 1909. But would its beauty survive a head-on collision? Right now, as with Dick Skreber, galleries are starting to resemble the scene of an accident, and even a Futurist might be screaming for an ambulance. He helps elucidate the stages by which the shock of modernity became the cult of the artist. In today's art scene, it takes a lot to crash the party.

Oops, me bad

Since he died in 1997, at age forty-four, Kippenberger can no longer cause trouble in person. He does, though, still bring out the bad boy in others. Out front the Modern displays exhibition posters, dozens of them—but not of this exhibition. If one chooses the sixty-floor gallery's usual entrance, one first sees plenty more stand-ins for the artist, looking very much the worse for wear. Must he reflect on his career from the moment it begins?

He paints himself as the bloodied Romantic castaways in The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault. A room later he poses as more of art's heroes and victims, including Pablo Picasso and Picasso's mistress. Can a young artist be so anxious for his physical state and his place in history? How helpful that a Chelsea gallery has staged a huge show of Picasso's last decade, with the painter posing as a dejected, recycled version of himself.

The shows largest painting shows a more dapper Kippenberger in a sofa on a New York street corner. Even homeless, he seizes the chance to sit at ease, command center stage, and have a cigarette. Must he always worry about his image, even on the edge? His answer to each question is the same: indeed he must, only not the way one might think.

Ann Goldstein of LA MOCA and MoMA's Ann Temkin do, after all, call the show "The Problem Perspective." In reality, the show runs in reverse direction relative to past installations. The cross-dresser and Romantic are dying in the 1990s of liver failure. That large painting in what I took as the final room actually begins the show, in 1981—and Kippenberger did not paint it. For Dear Painter, Paint for Me, he conceived several city scenes, from photographs. Then he hired a sign painter.

He got professional work at that, in a blurry photorealism derived from Gerhard Richter. As with Philip Guston, another model for his late self-portraits, the joke is simultaneously on you, on art, and on the artist himself. That includes endless recycling and an endless focus on the artist himself. Does that mean a perspective on the problem or the artist's perspective as the problem? Even on a third visit, I breezed through the long, glib series of sketches, copies, posters, and even business cards. To drive the point home, some paintings place those cards under a magnifying glass.

It would take a better critic—or maybe a spreadsheet—to summarize his peripatetic life, including a shot at acting in Florence and a punk band in Berlin. However, his bad-boy heart lay with painting, specifically German painting. In place of Richter's skilled realism, Kippenberger flaunts (or invents) his inability to do the job. In place of Richter's sagas of political trauma, he chooses supermarket aisles and a seedy street. In place of Richter's cool anonymity, he presents himself. As he turns to an exaggerated Neo-Expressionism, he takes center stage once and for all.

A boy's progeny

Like Albert Oehlen, Kippenberger turns the irony of the late 1980s on the earnest self-reflection of German art a generation before him. Yet he belongs very much to both. He becomes a kind of Neo-Neo-Expressionist: the redoubling both turns on the past and reinforces its prejudices. He makes fun of Sigmar Polke or Georg Baselitz, but he shares their casual approach to representation. He turns painting in straw by Anselm Kiefer into oatmeal atop a rusted car. He can neither embrace nor escape from Kiefer's exploration of Germany after the Nazis.

In this, he has lots of progeny, few of them German. When he began, the Guerrilla Girls were active. Thanks to Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and Sherrie Levine, irony came with a healthy dose of feminism. Now bad boys like Alan Vega rule, with a viciousness that Kippenberger could never have anticipated. Like Matthew Barney, they have learned to scale museum walls. Like him, too, they flirt with politics while never criticizing authority.

Should one blame an artist for his offspring? Perhaps, but no one could blame him for the politics of art since 1997. An artist so desperate to leave his mark missed out on the boom years of celebrity culture. The artist who posed downtown never saw Bowery bums and CBGB give way to Whole Foods and the shimmering New Museum.

America's love of the open road has gone way beyond graveyards of rusted automobiles. If Kippenberger looks more endearing now, his art on the cheap helps. Its obsession with the 1970s could well pass for nostalgia—if only it stirred real associations. Like Richard Prince, Kippenberger never lets details get in the way of a bad joke.

Those bad boys back in grade school now seem more an annoyance than a tragedy, even if a playground fight for Hank Willis Thomas can end in death. In much the same way, one should not take Kippenberger's work half as seriously as his career. The Happy End of Franz Kafka's "Amerika" fills the museum atrium with a small soccer field, covered with desks and chairs—from office furniture to a lifeguard's chair. More benches surround the field, so that one can watch. The role of seating as subject, object, and place for an audience may allude to Kafka's dream of a collective "Nature Theater of Oklahoma." Then again, maybe not, and who cares if America does not watch soccer?

In the end, the artist is his subject, as well as his best engagement with history. In another large installation, of pipes painted like birch trees and blond wood shaped like pills, even the landscape testifies to his personal degeneration. In what looks like a thrift-story copy of Fernand Léger, he alludes to German laws banning swastikas. When, influenced by Joseph Beuys, he mocks modernist architecture, it explodes. Is he taunting those who cannot face the nation's past—or taunting those who dwell on it? Maybe both, but his transgression always comes first.

Art's automobile graveyard

The Kippenberger retrospective starts with that rusted automobile dusted with oatmeal, like flower petals at a low-budget funeral. Another brown wreck runs up against the wall, thanks to Michelle Lopez. A blacker and dingier versions lies on its side thanks to Adel Abdessemed, who also throws in twin airplane fuselages, entwined in a sensual embrace. Luca Buvoli's smaller, livelier models arced across still another gallery, toward a video of NASCAR. Just last spring Tom Burr treated SculptureCenter as a wrecking yard, and Cai Guo-Qiang suspended his wreckage from the Guggenheim's ceiling. That does not count any number of trashy installations over the last years, back to Peter Fischli and David Weiss in The Way Things Go or the auto race in Barney's epic Cremaster cycle.

Luca Buvoli's Instant Before Incident (Susan Inglett, 2009)These artists clearly do not aim for the Modern's design wing. They do, however, demand an alternative history of Modernism. It might include crushed and compacted cars by John Chamberlain, the spare tire in a combine painting by Robert Rauschenberg, the Green Car Crash by Andy Warhol, a plastic simulation by Charles Ray, allusions to a fatal accident in Jasper Johns, and the real one that took the life of Jackson Pollock. Buvoli explicitly cites Marinetti. His installation begins with the words "Instant Before Incident" in a streamlined font. He also disperses them into a near abstract composition, like the cover for a modernist manifesto.

Modernism often invoked speed. Speed ripples through paintings by Stuart Davis. It informs the floating squares of Kazimir Malevich, which many associate with flight. It can have social as well as formal causes. The Chrysler Building takes its corner gargoyles from, yes, the hood ornaments of a car, but as branding. Modernism has associations with violence as well. At least some Futurism flirted with Fascism, and vice versa.

Modernism did not, however, foresee art as an automobile graveyard. Marinetti wanted to live in the future, but his idealism measures itself against the past. He speaks of ornament and beauty. Violence makes him think only of victory. How little the poet knew of speed, much less a ten-car pile-up. The first Ford factory opened the same year as the Futurist Manifesto, and Ford stuck with the Model T until the stock-market crash and GM styling did it in.

Every one of those artists back in Warhol's time has intimations of disaster, but that, too, belongs to the past. The younger artists link speed and Modernism alike to a mythic, violent America, and they like it. They substitute irony for Marinetti's idealism, but they share his exhilaration. They also dumb down Kippenberger's bad-boy role. Abdessemed plays it to the hilt, with videos of reptiles and photos of "death" inscribed into a rock face from the American West that Carleton Watkins never imagined, where the artist claims to have dangled over a canyon. Lopez titles her show in triumph "The Violent Bear It Away," after Flannery O'Connor.

O'Connor's stories, anything but mythic and bloated, rely not on technology but on ordinary human cruelty. Lopez may wish to undermine male posturing by adopting it, but her posturing seems just as self-satisfied. Her car, enfolded in brown fabric, looks sanitized. A tree comes out of the gallery partition, and do not even start to count how often that, too, has been recycled. Even Buvoli, by far the most thought provoking, leaps easily from modern design to a sport for blue-color males with a remote control. Maybe art is due for a moratorium on used cars—or at least a speed limit.

The crack-up

If the recession continues, and enough galleries close, west Chelsea could always revert to its past life—of taxi stands and parking lots. Artists would willingly contribute. Bill Viola, with his epics of fire and water four years back, already came too close for comfort to a Chelsea car wash. And then came the cars.

No wonder so many galleries have turned into the scene of an accident. Each places wrecked automobiles at the center of an installation. And each recycles what Matthew Barney and so many others have made a cliché. Each, too, flaunts the theatrical gesture under cover of deconstructing Modernism and American pop culture. The presence of a woman artist at most takes it from macho to postfeminist. Still, by summer each seemed safely towed away.

I spoke too soon. Then again, anyone who expects the latest trend to conclude neatly with this week's article must be writing for a more popular magazine than I. Dirk Skreber ups the testosterone display to two car wrecks. Each wraps around a pole, as the result of a collision at forty miles per hour. As it happens, out in Brooklyn Jonathan Schipper simulates a head-on collision. At least his more realistic image of disaster does more to subvert the narrative.

Obviously one does not need crushed metal to get at America's love and fear of the open road. Back in the day, James Rosenquist painted I Love You with My Ford, while David Smith welded steel into models of significant form. Andrew Bush clings to Pop Art's retro cool, but in photography. He shoots cars in close-up and strict profile, lending almost any model the bright colors and blocky outlines of a vintage Chevy. Tom Wesselman might have painted them, just as he once posed an actual red car in front of a still life. At least he might have cruised in one.

Bush was cruising, too, for he shoots in motion, through a side window—for what he calls his "Vector Portraits." He thus brings speeding cars to a standstill, and their passengers hardly react or care. They look as frank, banal, and unrevealing as the Southern California coastline behind them. At the same time, his point of view makes the viewer part of the open road. It works to the extent that one shares his anonymous pleasures. Then again, one could just wait for the crash.

Skreber clearly makes an impact, the figurative kind. Reviewers quickly praised his daring, while only slowly getting around to mentioning Andrea Fraser, who shares the gallery. Her self-analysis on video takes on feminist overtones that she must find gratifying but frustrating. Then again, Skreber, a German artist, might have sexed her up. His veiled paintings give sexual imagery a proper, knowing detachment, like Gerhard Richter or Pop Art without the thrill or poignancy. Is there any escape from another lap at Nascar, short of a pile-up?

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Martin Kippenberger ran at The Museum of Modern Art through May 11, 2009, Michelle Lopez at Simon Preston through May 17, Adel Abdessemed at David Zwirner through May 9, Luca Buvoli at Susan Inglett through March 21, Dick Skreber at Friedrich Petzel through June 27, and Andrew Bush at Yossi Milo through June 27 and at Julie Saul through July 3.


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