Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Mein Lieber Herr

October 02, 2008

Martin Kippenberger's Ohne Titel from Lieber Maler, male mir (Dear Painter Paint for Me)

I keep meaning to say something about the great new Martin Kippenberger exhibit that opened up a little over two weeks ago downtown at MOCA in Los Angeles. MOCA has been on a roll the last few years with wonderful shows focusing on California minimalism, Rauschenberg, and many others. Now comes an exhibition entitled “The Problem Perspective,” which will travel to New York next year, representing the first major American retrospective of Kippenberg’s large and varied output prior to his death at age 44. This follows closely on the heels of a similar retrospective in London at the Tate, which I caught in 2006. The U.S. exhibit seems more pared down but does provide an excellent overview of a jack of all trades who was often more about process than content.

As noted by Kippenberger biographer and friend Diedrich Diederichsen in a rather dry lecture on the opening weekend, the artist often accompanied his projects and exhibits with a variety of commemorative posters and programs, which in turn would spurn new projects and then more commemorative artifacts and so on. It was this process of self-sustaining production, what Diederichsen alludes to as an endless joke with no punch line, that is at the core of the myriad sculptures, paintings, drawings and other works that fill half of the galleries at MOCA. Included are paintings of industrial spaces, self-portraits of the artist as Picasso, and an abandoned Ford Capri. Even Kippenberger’s paintings incorporate a variety of production strategies including a series of works from the early 80s entitled "Lieber Maler, male mire (Dear Painter, Paint for Me)" in which the artist commissioned a surrogate commercial sign painter who reproduced images at Kippenberger’s direction based on various scenes and photographs of his choosing. The artist is at the center of most of his work but far from seeming a megalomaniac, he appears as the patron saint of the late 20th century's fractured self. Or at least a subject heavily involved in the cultural logic of production and repetition.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the exhibition is that it is spread out over two sites, both the Grand Avenue galleries and the Geffen Contemporary space on the east side of downtown. At the Geffen is perhaps Kippenberger’s masterpiece, the giant installation “The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika’.” This giant sculpture consists of numerous pairs of chairs across a diverse range of tables, large and small, that fill a football field. The work references Kafka’s unfinished novel in which the protagonist arrives at a huge football stadium in Oklahoma where people are being interviewed simultaneously at one of hundreds of stations in preparation for being matched with a dream job they will later be transported to. The scene is brooding and references both utopian and totalitarian images of the 20th century across this large field of space.

In the MOCA display, there are numerous significant intrusions in that the Geffen ceiling is supported by steel beams and cross supports that fill the playing field. Despite being painted white to blend into the color scheme of the work, they stand out like a sore thumb, obstructing the view of several of the work's elements, which is doubly a problem in that the piece is designed in such a way that the viewer is not permitted to walk onto the field amongst the tables themselves. Traveling over to the Geffen to see what is arguably the key work in the exhibit that is then displayed in such a compromised fashion is disappointing. Still, there are too many great things in the exhibit overall to pass this by. The show runs through January 5.

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