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“Directions—Martin Kippenberger: Works on Paper”

he said: What is history?/And he said: History is an angel/Being blown backwards into the future/He said: History is a pile of debris/And the angel wants to go back and fix things/To repair the things that have been broken/But there is a storm blowing from Paradise/And the storm keeps blowing the angel/Backwards into the future/And this storm, this storm/Is called/Progress.”

So ends “The Dream Before” from Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels. It is dedicated to Walter Benjamin and is based on the ninth of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” which itself draws inspiration from Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, a watercolor Benjamin owned. Although musically Anderson’s version is an improvement on Benjamin, some regrettable excisions were required, chief among them the explanation that “where we perceive a chain of events, [the angel of history] sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.”

The tendency, especially for Germans, to regard what has happened as an infinite and miserable heap and history as the futile effort to make sense of it is one to be reckoned with. Sometimes, though, it’s enough to make you throw your hands up in defeat. In Lösungen (Solutions) (1967), shown at the Hirshhorn in Sigmar Polke’s 1991 retrospective, the artist suggested, in the wake of Nazism’s programmatic devastation, discarding the old rules entirely, even the simplest and most dependable ones. Faced with the memory of a genocide that required national complicity and mathematical precision, and which consisted largely of making persons into heaps, what else to do, Polke’s painting cried, but get all the answers wrong? And that it did: 113, 236, 445, etc., all the way down the canvas.

When Polke started adding things back up, he set his math in the visual domain, but, perhaps still mistrusting clear answers, continued to twist the arithmetic. Images were his addends, ciphers his sums. This became a common postmodernist technique (“strategy,” in the pseudo-military jargon of theory), as those grappling with the surfeit of images provided not only by German history, but by any history, stacked representations to mimic the great pile of being. (It is curious, but understandable, how for many who lived through it, the war occasioned musings about nothingness, while those who came afterward tend to think of it in terms of excess.)

Polke’s student, Martin Kippenberger, is no slouch at image layering and, being of a younger generation (born in 1954 to Polke’s 1941), is even more likely to regard the technique not only as an adjunct to the historicizing impulse but as an accurate reflection of the contemporary psyche—dizzy, disconnected, and cluttered to the rafters with banal stuff. Kippenberger’s perverse reaction to the vastness of the historio-cultural heap has been to make one of his own, spewing out huge quantities of work for dozens of artists’ books and shows in countries around the globe. As he travels, which he does obsessively, he collects hotel stationery, sometimes from places where he stays, sometimes not. Forty or so of the scribbled, sketchy drawings he produces on this stationery form the bulk of the Hirshhorn show “Directions—Martin Kippenberger: Works on Paper.”

Those who criticize Kippenberger for not incorporating the logos of his lodgings (whether fictional or actual) into his designs fail to understand his choice of surface as less a graphic conceit than a conceptual one. Indeed, to acknowledge the individuality of each sheet would be to undermine its role in creating for the drawings a locale of cosmopolitan placelessness—one letterhead is that of the wryly named Hotel “nie zu Hause” (“never at Home”). The result is a hospitality-industry neverland of fax, phone, and telex, which must be dreadful to actually inhabit—consider all the pop songs written against it, never mind all the actual violence it inspires in these songs’ authors—but one on which Kippenberger, despite a punk-rock background (he once ran a West Berlin nightclub, S.O.36), seems to thrive.

Provided he gets his rest. In one series of drawings, 1994’s “Don’t Wake Daddy,” the titular message is directed toward hotel workers, represented via depersonalized glyphs and doorknob hangtags, and the artist’s young daughter, seen as a bawling cartoon sprite or, metonymically, through her favorite noisemakers—a reverberating cake pan and pots, a headless windup Toy Drummer, and most menacingly, a jagged-wheeled pair of skates that, depending on your cultural vantage point, look like a cubo-expressionist Roy Lichtenstein drawing, or what Pebbles Flintstone might wear in a roller derby.

As Kippenberger’s drawings go, those in “Daddy” are rather straightforward, depict ing objects that are easily identified and described. More typical works feature things that hover at the edge of indescribability, suggesting that our capacity to make objects or to collect them visually has begun to outstrip our knowledge of what they are. In one of the simplest such drawings, Untitled (1995), curator Frank Gettings recognizes the artist “showing his left hand in a shoe, applying pigment to the surface of a canvas.” Before I’d been told, I thought I saw the hand in one of those hoods they place over the heads of racehorses. Now that I know for certain, I don’t really believe either option.

Matters are complicated further in several collages that accompany the drawings in the show. In the most easily read, James Dean (1989), a poster of “Dean the Giant” is sliced and threaded through with strips of paper, as in a child’s woven placemat. Recognizable in or on the mesh is another movie-star poster (of Marilyn Monroe), one of Kippenberger’s many custom-made “I” signs, a blue Band-Aid across Dean’s mouth, several rubber-stamped Humphrey Bogarts (looking introspective with a cigarette and a faraway gaze), and a custom “police line”-style warning tape whose cryptic message—in English, “I Hold Myself Closed“—belies the attempt to deliver it in several languages. The whole thing seems to lampoon the myth of Dean as the troubled lad who just can’t communicate. (Or, as Shudder to Think’s Craig Wedren, shaking with mock rage, taunted a mosher last week: “Are you angry, motherfucker? Is it hard to be you?”)

Even more tangled is the visual net of another collage, Untitled (1989). Half the strips comprising its background are virtually unreadable and the other half seem to have been blown up from a pornographic comic strip featuring a growling vagina (voicing the artist’s fear of fatherhood?). Overlaying all in gold ink is an agglomeration of syringes, tanks, a sheik counting money, a cat wearing a bowler, a reclining vacationing couple, a teddy bear on the back of a bicycle, a plant cutting in a milk bottle, chandeliers, lanterns, geese, masked eyes above male genitals, and a Señor-Wences-style hand sucking on a straw. Who knows what to make of this mess? Would oblivion be preferable? Would topicality? How about both, offered by images pasted into other collages, from the bad-joke photo of Irish-Catholic Stew (with a time-bomb in the tureen) to a movie shotgun suicide (bedroom splashed with blood and pinups) to wartime citizens in the street using scalpels to cut meat from what I hope to God was once a horse?

Recently we’ve all done a lot of worrying about the Bomb in the past tense, likely made possible by the fact that we no longer worry about it in the future the way we once did. A couple of works, then, remind us of the old days: As if to emphasize the way the Bomb set up housekeeping in our minds, furnishing them with cheap and plentiful, IKEA-identical pieces of dread, Kippenberger has designed the A-Bomb Chair, with a plywood-thin back in the shape of a two-tiered mushroom cloud (made friendly by speckling that causes it to resemble its vegetal namesake) and a bulky seat reminiscent of a fated faux-moderne parking garage. And what better home for it than the nuclear-family bomb shelter pictured in the background of 1985’s Untitled (IHolztür)? Holztür’s creepy-cozy retreat is collaged with magazine pictures bearing queasy travesties of the normal activities that would supposedly continue underground. Deflated into a comic animal realm, education is depicted by a row of teddy bears being shown a canvas by an enthusiastic instructor (perhaps recalling Joseph Beuys’ How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare) and sex by two kittens naughtily frolicking on a doll’s bed before a miniature movie camera and lights—you know, kitty porn.

Sometimes, as in this case, such image overlays appear thematically linked, however tenuously. But just as often, as in Untitled (1989), the collage described above, Kippenberger doesn’t so much juxtapose as unearth, turning to the surface buried cultural artifacts, then leaving them just as they were found. In the 1983 introduction to The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Rosalind Krauss asked if critical writing is read not for judgment but for method, noting the ascendancy of the latter. Kippenberger is an artist of whom a similar question could be asked, as his importance would seem to rest less on the content of a particular work than that of his overall approach to image-making, one based in the gross, dumb accumulations of experience and history.

Two years ago, Anselm Kiefer had a show at New York’s Marian Goodman gallery in which he stacked over 300 of his works in a giant pile as if for a bonfire. But instead of setting alight the straw-and-sunflower-festooned tower, he named it Twenty Years of Loneliness, 1971-1991 and let it die of embarrassment. Had Kiefer the wit of John Baldessari, from whom the idea of destroying years of work in a grand (and titled) gesture of self-abnegation derives, perhaps he would have realized that such displays are no longer needed, that art now destroys itself not through romantic renunciation but virulent superabundance. Conceptually, Kippenberger constructs something similar to Kiefer’s unburned pyre. But rather than merely admire it, we are invited to scale the heap, and we, not at the outset understanding that it contains not just art, but all the world and all the time in it, foolishly comply. If ever we manage to clamber to the top, we will collapse, exhausted. And die, laughing—wondering what lies at the heart of it, miles below our bones, unexcavated.