Martin Kippenberger with llama at the closing party of S O 36 music club in Berlin  30 June 1980
Martin Kippenberger with llama at the closing party of S.O.36 music club in Berlin, 30 June 1980

Associated with the culture of refined abandon is the idea that art and alcohol are related, ending in tragically romantic self-destruction. Martin Kippenberger explored the clichés and norms of the art world, and the art of his generation is better understood in the light of the emergence of rock and punk, transforming this taboo-breaking energy into art. Daniel Baumann digs deeper.

There are some people, including artists, who drink a lot. Alcohol is the only drug that Western society not only legalises, but celebrates with a sophisticated culture that has developed all the requisite rituals and hierarchies – from the cultivation of the grape and prizes for great wines, through the pleasures of whisky, vintage port and speciality beers to hard alcohol and the hope of oblivion. Associated with this culture of refined abandon is the idea that art and alcohol are closely, if not directly, related. It’s an ancient cliché (Dionysus/Bacchus) and last reigned supreme in the existentialist circles of the 1950s, when it was most wonderfully embodied in the mythologised figures of Jackson Pollock and Wols. Their biographers, admirers and critics were largely responsible for the image of the radical artist as a human being who struggles equally with art and alcohol, a battle that ultimately has to end in tragically romantic self-destruction.

On closer examination, this picture has less to do with reality than with the longing of admirers and critics for freedom and abandon, self-determination and control. The fact is that in a society that can only prosper on the basis of the division of labour, subordination and discipline, the artist to this day is an ideal of sorts: artists turn out their own products, can do what they like, it seems, with regard to the when, how, where and why, and don’t have to get up in the morning. But this ideal is also a threat, because it undermines bourgeois virtues. So the artist is mentioned in the same breath as alcoholism, recklessness and madness, honoured in museums, rewarded with prizes and invited to dinner.

The picture of a human being defiant and free, but ultimately doomed to failure, is the product of a society whose highest ideal is the noble suffering of the male hero. It was only in the 1950s and 1960s that this view changed, partly because feminist activists set about overthrowing patriarchal structures and thought patterns, and partly because the queer scene was starting to stylise male role models. The concept of bohemianism and of the tragic-hero artist was progressively dismantled, a process that Andy Warhol promoted and accelerated. Ignoring existential questions, he made templates for his art and had it industrially manufactured, which in effect debilitated the notion of the artist as a free being with an inner creative urge. By refusing to search for an existence behind appearances and surfaces, Warhol washed his hands of the fundamental notion of the artist’s biography as a never-ending drama of emancipation and adaptation.

Martin Kippenberger (1953–1997) continued with this project. More so than almost anyone after Warhol, he was at home in the world of dramatisation, convention and expectation, but while Warhol eluded the image that the outsider had of the artist, Kippenberger deliberately exploited the clichés and norms of the art world. Unlike the United States, Europe – and Germany in particular – clung to the notion of the artist as prophet and visionary until well into the 1980s. The most famous example was Joseph Beuys (1921–1986), and specifically in the Federal Republic of Germany the artist continued to be regarded as a moral authority, which was perhaps understandable in view of recent history. In the early 1980s, Kippenberger, together with his friends Albert and Markus Oehlen, Werner Büttner, Georg Herold and Günther Förg, started chipping away at these attitudes. Like the punks of the day, these young artists refused to be dictated to or to show respect. They were not loners, but part of an upsurge that reached its climax in the music of the German New Wave. Hierarchies no longer counted, ordinary was the new sensational, pathos joined forces with tastelessness, approval was refusal and vice versa. In the late 1970s Kippenberger ran the fabled discotheque S.O. 36 in Berlin Kreuzberg; in 1979 he became a member of the band Luxus and recorded songs such as New York-Ausschwitz, Pretty Good, Love Song and Falsch Verbunden (Wrong Connection). Markus Oehlen was the drummer in Mittagspause and released LPs with memorable titles such as Flying Klassenfeind (Flying Class Enemy; 1982), Kirche der Ununterschiedlichkeit (Church of Indistinguishability; 1982), Rache der Erinnerung (Revenge of Memory 1984) and Beer is enough (1985). His brother, the painter Albert Oehlen, played in various line-ups, including Red Crayola, Jailhouse and, just recently, Van Oehlen.

In 1981 the band DAF (Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft – German-American Friendship) shocked the cultural establishment in West Germany with the hit Der Mussolini. Kitted out in leather, adopting homoerotic poses and backed by a crushing beat, they sang the words: “Tanz den Mussolini… Tanz den Adolf Hitler… Beweg deinen Hintern… Und tanz den Jesus Christus” (Dance the Mussolini… Dance the Adolf Hitler… Move your ass around… And dance the Jesus Christ). The art and the demeanour of Kippenberger, Oehlen and other members of that generation can be understood only in light of the emergence of rock and punk. Their art revolution happened in music venues, not in museums, galleries and art institutions. The clubs were the place for intensity, excess, demolition and breaking taboos, electrified bodies, chatting up, performances and shows. The point was to transfer this energy into art.

After his career as a writer in Paris came to nothing, in 1980 Kippenberger started to paint, roughly dashing off series of pictures with titles such as Down with Idealism, The Father of Capri, Hole in the Wall Where Else, Tits, Towers, Tortellini and Thought Today Done Tomorrow. In 1984 he painted the pictures H.H.I.F.(Heil Hitler Ihr Fetischisten - Heil Hitler You Fetishists) and With the Best Will in the World, I Can’t See a Swastika. Like DAF’s Der Mussolini, this art was an open challenge to a country – West Germany – paralysed by its knee-jerk attempts to come to terms with its own past, a country where the left wing put on self-congratulatory peace demos and Estate Martin Kippenberger/Galerie Gisela Capitain anti-Pershing protest marches, and where the cultural elite regarded Anselm Kiefer’s pictures as a serious contribution to the nation’s understanding of its history. The radicals redoubled their efforts, with Albert Oehlen producing the large-scale portrait Adolf Hitler in the three primary colours, red, yellow and blue, and Kippenberger creating the installation Gas Station Martin Bormann (Bormann was Hitler’s secretary). That was in 1986 and won them no friends, but there was no stopping them; in 1987 Kippenberger summed up their approach: “We believe that taste doesn’t apply to the honesty of exaggeration.” Which was too much for some, including Wolfgang Max Faust, the editor of the influential German art magazineWolkenkratzer. In spring 1989 he published a personal attack on Kippenberger in his magazine, entitled “The Artist as Exemplary Alcoholic”, which includes the passage: “Especially the work of Martin Kippenberger manifests this decline [into cynicism]… What up until now has presented itself as cynicism turns out, on closer examination, to be the efforts of little more than a petit-bourgeois German trying to make his mark… These structures are exemplified in Kippenberger and Förg’s attitudes and self-presentation. Nazi slogans, sexist and racist allusions – of the kind favoured by German pub-going plebs - presented as showstoppers, twistedly facilitated and masochistically excused by alcohol… His alcoholic shows – like Förg’s – are hollow and infantile.”

Fifteen years after they were published we read these lines with some astonishment. In those days it was still possible to be provoked; the writer’s passion was genuine, and he duly vented his outrage. Kippenberger had launched a ruthless, even humiliating, attack and Faust reacted accordingly. His response made sense at the time, whereas today it may seem rather more puzzling. And how did Kippenberger react to these accusations? By creating Martin, into the corner and shame on you 1989, a series of sculptures which show him standing in a corner, as though he were being punished for his misdemeanours – thereby casting Faust in the role of petty schoolmaster. With his allusion to the artists-and-alcohol cliché, Faust was trying to discredit Kippenberger and his friends – and he did so in full knowledge of that cliché and of the applause that would be his reward. Which was precisely what Kippenberger’s life, his excess and his work were in part about: encouraging clichés and their friends to self-destruct, so that the air would be cleared, apparently of its own accord.