Alison M. Gingeras
It would seem that Martin Kippenberger (1953–1997) is finally getting his due. Eight years after his premature death, his legacy has slowly begun to infiltrate a mainstream narrative of art history – bolstered by a series of important recent institutional exhibitions (including Tate Modern’s show), a flurry of new academic scholarship and soaring art market speculation (primarily on the painterly side of his otherwise complex oeuvre), as well as the cult status he has attained among younger artists. While the posthumous consecration of an artist is far from a new phenomenon, in Kippenberger’s case it is extremely revelatory to examine how a highly prolific, radically heterogeneous artist can – in death – quickly become homogenised or tamed into a more digestible figure of art history.
For those who knew Martin Kippenberger personally, his retroactive distillation into a consensual figure is highly problematic. As the following testimonials attest, he founded both his life and his work upon a constant refusal of the status quo. In fact, the lack of mainstream recognition or celebration during his lifetime can be directly attributed to his espousal of destabilising strategies. Not only did Kippenberger attempt to make work that was deliberately out of sync with the aesthetic, social or political climate of his time – from his biting mockery of the high serious painting of his German Neo-Expressionist peers in the early 1980s, to his total irreverence towards his own mortality in his The Raft of the Medusa series in 1996 – he also refused to be a simple studio artist. His notorious hyperactivity provided another means to resist any type of pigeonholing. Kippenberger’s art practice amounted to a maelstrom of creative activities: he was as much a painter and sculptor as he was an architect, writer, poet, underground club manager, actor, musician, promoter, curator and director of his own museum (MOMAS, the Museum of Modern Art Syros).
While this recent critical focus on his work will certainly reveal his artistic significance to a broader audience, it is impossible to condense the Kippenberger legacy into a single exhibition or publication. Instead, it is perhaps better to create a space for the vast oral history that surrounds him, multiplying the various anecdotes, opinions and analysis from his friends and artistic peers about his life and work. A cacophony of voices, rather than a single narrative, seems to be the only means to paint an honest portrait of this formidable iconoclast.
Martin Kippenberger and I met in 1977 in Berlin. He had decided that he wanted his own loft. We finally found a whole floor in a Bauhaus building. He had this idea of having a Kippenberger Büro, inspired by Andy Warhol’s Factory. As well as an artist, he wanted to be an entrepreneur, an entertainer and a director/manager. In the Kippenberger Büro I learned how projects come to life, how the short film festival in his club S.O.36 was organised and how to do exhibitions. He was my initial teacher in contemporary art.
We had lots of visitors staying in our loft, artists and musicians such as Meuser, Lydia Lunch and Eric Mitchell. Martin had this amazing creativity. He was an endless source of activity and inspiration, and the most generous person I ever met. He taught you how to be strong to realise projects. He often took great risks. For example, following a period of painting, after the mid-1980s he stopped and began making sculptures, which at first glance looked wrong and ugly, such as the famous series of Peter sculptures/objects.
During his lifetime most of the people from art institutions as well as many collectors found it hard to find a way through his work: it was too eclectic for them. He brought an everyday, banal media world into the high art system – actually something which was pioneered by Pop Art, but his way was much more German. He was also influenced by Dada in how he used language and a certain collage technique. His texts had a lot to do with undermining the simple images he took from newspapers, magazines and television. Sharp, clear, sometimes ironic, sometimes melancholic, they always referenced what was happening in German society. His work was very sensitive to how it had developed after the Second World War. He was not typical of the generation of 1968, nor of the young wild German Expressionist painters of the 1980s. For example, in 1984, while Albert Oehlen painted a portrait of Hitler, Kippenberger did a painting with the title With the Best Will in the World, I Can’t See a Swastika. They were very critical of the political taboos of that time.
I met Martin in Cologne in 1992 when I was putting together a show in the Friesenwall 120 Gallery. He saw it, and very soon after approached me and said: “You have to do an exhibition with me, you’re going to be my curator.” A year later we did Candidature à une retrospective at the Pompidou in Paris. I was surprised by this approach, but you could feel he was serious.
The show occupied three halls. The first section was Paris, connected to his personal history when he was living there in the early 1980s. The second was about the deconstruction of painting, which included his painting series Invention of a Joke – nine canvases that you couldn’t piece together. The third was Martin’s collection of erotica that consisted of works by friends. Running through all three rooms was this large display cabinet packed with all of his books and printed material. The case went through one of the walls and really formed the spine of the show. The mass of material on display was confusing, and purposefully so. He did everything he could to divert, confuse and make it difficult to decode his work. This was part of the joke.
Some said he was cynical or aggressive. He could be, but he was also very generous, maybe sometimes too much so, because he would put the relationship slightly off balance easily, expecting the same amount of generosity back. He was very active, but had different levels of activity throughout the day. If we went to dinner, it would always be unpredictable fun. The people on the next table would join in, more would arrive – soon the evening would turn into a kind of performance. People would take photos, which Martin would then use as an idea for a work.
His art is packed with intrigue, diversions and provocations. It opens a dialogue with all kinds of art that he was interested in, not merely with himself. He never stopped talking and playing with his words and those of people around him. He thrived on twisting and distorting their meaning. For example, in 1994 he became very interested in Dr Schreber, the inventor of the German allotment, after a conversation with his former assistant Michael Krebber, whose comment “art is allotment gardening à la Schreber” Martin took seriously. He then twisted the word through all its meanings and associations (such as streber, the German for teacher’s pet) and fed this into his work in series such as Don’t Wake Daddy and Portrait of Paul Schreber. He was like a machine and never stopped pushing his language, meaning and energy into conflict.
I met Martin at the Gramercy Park hotel in New York. I was on my way out one morning, and he was sitting at the bar with Albert Oehlen. Perhaps they had been there all night. He asked me if I wanted a drink, and I said I would have to take a raincheck since I was late for an appointment.
The next few times I met him was when he was living in Venice, California, and showing with Max Hetzler and Luhring Augustine in Santa Monica. I remember giving a party for him in my studio so that he could meet some other artists working here. He told one of his famous shaggy dog stories that went on for a long time. One by one people would walk away from where he was talking – and in the end he was left there on his own, except for my dog Raisin.
His work reminded me of Sigmar Polke – he was a fountain of creativity, a combination of talent and obsession, which I think is the sign of a good artist. It was interesting how he was received in the US. Americans liked Kiefer and all that German guilt he deals with in his work, while most people found Polke a bit much. I think Polke is too unpredictable for Americans. He is incredibly imaginative and inventive. Who is the reigning German artist after Beuys? Is it Kiefer, Richter, or Polke? Kippenberger is elbowing his way to the crown. The time is right for him now.
The first time I met Martin was when he was still in Berlin, just about to move to Cologne, in the very early 1980s. I had heard that he was organising the club S.O.36. He was extremely proactive and I found that very impressive. Of course there had always had been artists running galleries and creating a scene, such as Joseph Beuys, but at that time Kippenberger was the one who stood out. His work embraced complexity in terms of what an artwork could be, what an artist is, what makes us want to do what we do. The way he conducted his work and life addressed these subjects as existential questioning.
There were all of these layers of misunderstanding about him, and I think it was to dispel some of this that he set up a series of interviews with me. We did five sessions over the course of six months in 1992. He was a really good storyteller.
His alter-egos and multiple characters (the Spiderman, the Egg Man, the Frog, etc) and a lot of his self-objectification I found very inspiring as a vehicle to play out certain scenarios. He created an arena where ridiculous things could, and did happen. In these absurd guises, which also demonstrated his refusal to be limited to one type of persona, he could act out important ideas, where there was no hierarchy. He was quick to take up ideas from conversations at dinner parties and drinking evenings and absorb them into his work.
I think Martin’s posters best represent him and sum up the range of his ability: the humour, the social critique, the clever combination of provocative images and allusions. They were critical and politicised, perfectly expressing his ideas and his personality. There is so much information in each of them, telling stories about a certain moment or an era. Design was almost his first love, and as a young man he had been an apprentice at a printing plant in Dortmund, so he knew the technical ins and outs of pre-computer printing. This was also something he really enjoyed doing himself.
When I was a student at De Ateliers in Amsterdam for a short time in 1993, I recall that a fellow artist, Avery Preesman, and I would spend night after night pouring over this Kippenberger monograph. Every time we would return to these pages, we would find ourselves laughing out loud - it was the only time in my life that I had such a sustained interested in an artist’s book, never mind the only time that a book made me laugh in such a profound way. It was during this same period that I heard so many stories circulating about Kippenberger – perhaps due in large measure to the fact that one of his closest peers, Georg Herold, was teaching at De Ateliers then.
Kippenberger was a hero to us. The stories circulating about him were like Christopher Columbus’s reports from the New World. I remember one anecdote about when he was teaching at the Stadelschule in Frankfurt. A student asked him what to do. He suggested he walk to Africa. Reportedly, he actually did it! Tales such as this underscored that you couldn’t really learn art as one learns other subjects. Kippenberger incarnated an unreproducible model, a kind of knight or superhero that embodied a set of values that everyone wants to emulate, though you cannot exactly copy him. Even if these numerous stories were part myth, part fiction, it didn’t matter – they were as important as his work itself.
A few years later, it seemed that Kippenberger started to lose some of this heroic aura. Many of my peers began to complain that his work was too predictable; they started to reject his sense of humour as well as his occasionally aggressive, drunken persona. It was as if the audience’s patience had worn thin. Yet just before he died in 1997, I recall being very struck by his last series of paintings in which he portrayed himself as one of the dying sailors in Géricault’s infamous tableau The Raft of the Medusa 1819. For me, these moved away from his usual joking mode, adding a layer of complexity and cruelty to his oeuvre.
In the years following his untimely death, there has been a steady stream of posthumous exhibitions and catalogues appearing. I remember various friends who were close to Kippenberger pointing out that many of those protagonists now involved in promoting his current legacy were the same people who would cross the street to avoid him when he was still alive. While this process of recuperation is probably fairly standard, I feel like I have witnessed an arc in Kippenberger’s reception – having moved from an art school hero to a hot commodity. It is like observing someone trying to buy an artist’s breath.
Kippenberger understood that national identity could be transformed into an artistic medium – long before the focus on European unification, and well in advance of the multiplication of international art fairs and biennales. How could he not jump on such a subject?
A middle-class child in a post-war, guilt-ridden country, he made the burden of his own Germanness the primary target for his vicious brand of humorous troublemaking. While most of his compatriots infused their art with a sense of historical mea culpa, Kippenberger flaunted his identity, amplifying all its problematic connotations. Each work seemed to broadcast, “Fuck off, I’m German!”, starting with his very first painting series, Uno diVoi, Un Tadesco a Firenze 1977. He balanced obvious provocation – contained in the titles of paintings such as H.H.I.F.- Heil Hitler You Fetishist 1984 and With the Best Will in the World, I Can’t See a Swastika 1984, or in his inflammatory act of proclaiming an abandoned gas station in northern Brazil as the Gas Station Martin Bormann 1986 – with more subtle uses of very local, petit bourgeois German signifiers.
It might be easy to dismiss Kippenberger’s identity game as a punk gesture, simply reacting to societal taboos and the intelligentsia’s adherence to political correctness. Instead, I see his practice as forwarding a series of strategies designed to multiply misunderstandings and create unstable meanings. His work undermines the conventional thinking about identity politics. Kippenberger offers a liberating, non-programmatic, anti-ideological brand of political art – an attitude that is surprisingly still treated with suspicion. Like Serge Gainsbourg, whose pop songs SS in Uruguay and Nazi Rock he must have been listening to, he was an hedonistic drunk. Both maintained their lucidity while indulging in behavioural and artistic excess and, as Gainsbourg sang, “rocking around the bunker”.