Certain discourses in contemporary art frequently arrive at a critique of Fordist production, but the term usually references automotive factories rather than Western films. Currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art are two works by significant contemporary artists, each self-consciously engaging the iconic landscape of Monument Valley, the preferred backdrop to many a John Ford film. In their respective works Untitled Film Still #43 and If You Can’t Handle Freedom, Try Seeing How Far You Can Get With Women, Part I, Cindy Sherman and Martin Kippenberger each make photographic portraits of themselves deliberately engaging the generic conventions associated with the Western landscape in cinematic representation.
Sherman’s 1979 Untitled Film Still #43 is included in the photography exhibition Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West. The image has been used extensively in promotional materials for the exhibition, adorning poster’s on the subway and the homepage of the museum’s website. The corresponding image by Kippenberger (only one of ten photograph’s making up If You Can’t Handle…, and part of the retrospective exhibition Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective) is also likely familiar to many readers, as it enjoyed cover placement for the February issue of Artforum. While Sherman’s #43 was made in 1979, Kippenberger’s piece comes from 1984, and there is a knowingness that suggests that he is directly citing Sherman’s earlier photograph. Discussing If you can’t handle…, George Baker’s review in Artforum points out, “Kippenberger would offer – perhaps in ironic, backhanded solidarity with the “women” of his title, if artists like Cindy Sherman are to be taken among them – an autotypology of male-artist clichés: so many portraits of Kippenberger as tourist, criminal, drunk, well-hung exhibitionist, rock star, cowboy, prankster, bohemian, or inept terrorist.”
Both Sherman and Kippenberger thrive on the generic and the cliché; what better location than Monument Valley: a site that is eternally a picture, ripe with associative possibilities. Against this backdrop it is interesting to consider the similarities and differences in how each artist has staged their photograph. Sherman appears in period dress, barefoot astride a gnarled, ancient desert juniper. Absurdly coifed hair frames her familiar face (Sherman’s photographs are all of her, and yet she is in none of them), chin uptilt, one armed suggestively braced on the bough of the tree between her legs. One wonders whether her coach or home is nearby, explaining her bare feet? But no, Monument Valley is always passed through; it is a site on the way to other places, to other areas of civilization and development. As such it is a battleground and proving place, most generally in which the masculine hero asserts himself. The female role then is one of general passivity, waiting in the shade to be rescued perhaps. And yet Sherman’s photograph implies no such narrative possibilities—we simply glean them from the iconic backdrop. It is a picture out of action, Sherman’s character seeming to exist only for the purpose of being at subject to be looked at, simultaneously available and yet vacant.
By contrast Kippenberger is framed out in the open, astride a (too-small) stead. He would seem to be placed in the space of action in which the male is tested, and yet we also guess that Kippy is merely at the edge of a parking lot or highway turnout, riding a rented pony intended for the children who spill out of Winnebagos. Saddled in, the artist wears a mohair wool sweater and black slacks along with his incongruous cowboy boots rested in the stirrups. He looks stridently out across one horizon, highlighting his jaw and earnestly attempting to look the part of John Wayne. But the sad-faced horse and eurotrash costume are too much. It is a failed enactment of the cowboy Western. Yet it is helpful to recall the Germanic affinity for Cowboy and Indian narratives, as well as Kippenberger’s own failed attempt to become a movie star, strangely enough in Florence, Italy. Describing the dubious culinary taste implied by “Italian pasta made for a German palate in the City of Angels,” Baker mentions Kippenberger’s habit of calling pasta “noodles.” Appropriately, this photograph might be his Noodle Western. As Baker points out, one of Kippenberger’s primary aesthetic strategies is inversion and negation.
We might then consider Kippenberger to be deliberately inverting Sherman’s photograph, at taking up the guise of the male hero to her female object of desire. But we see it to be a poor masquerade, and Kippy certainly knows it as well. But that wouldn’t stop him from trying.
Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West is on view through June 8.
Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective is up through May 11.