You can live like an ass, but you mustn't be one. Kippenberger 0

Tabita Sīmane

German contemporary artist Martin Kippenberger would have turned 60 this year. In honor of this birthday, Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhofis holding a comprehensive retrospective of his work titled “Martin Kippenberger: sehr gut|very good”, through 18 August. Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997) was an artistic phenomenon of the 1980s and 1990s who never was, and still isn't, fully categorized or defined. Was he a genius, or an overly ambitious fool? Among his works of art is a crucified toad (which was later deemed as heresy by the previous pope, Benedict XVI), he established a museum without walls in an old slaughterhouse located on an abandoned Greek island, he bought a run-down petrol station in Brazil and renamed it  “The Martin Bormann Gas Station”, and he attached metal legs to a monochrome work by Gerhard Richter and transformed it into a coffee table. He spoke in barbed aphorisms, fought against any sort of conjuncture, and swiftly drank himself to death. Extreme provocations in art and life, and balancing on the edge, were what made up the essence of Kippenberger. He tried to make his whole life be one continuous work of art. He was always in motion, always searching for company, conversation and alcohol-fueled fun. And, in his continual overstepping of the boundaries of good taste and behavior, he would raise the uncomfortable issues of what it means to be an artist, and what it means to be German.

His shocking and provocative actions and presentation of himself during his lifetime were, perhaps, what was to blame for his art not being taken seriously. The true worth of his legacy was increasingly realized shortly after his death: more than 20 solo shows of his work have been exhibited in various parts of the world, including comprehensive retrospectives in the most prestigious centers of contemporary art – London's Tate Modern (2006) and New York's MoMA (2009).

Martin Kippenberger was born in 1953, in Dortmund; in a family of five children, he was the only boy – right between two older sisters and two younger ones. His father was a director at a coal mine and, as a friend of the family once said, “the extreme version of his son”; his mother was a dermatologist. As a young teenager, Martin left school and went his own way: he lived in communes, took drugs, went to rehab, and learned how to be a window-dresser. His mother was killed in 1976 – she was hit by a transport platform that had fallen off of a lorry. Kippenberger inherited enough money that he no longer had to worry about earning an income. He studied at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg for a while, then moved to Florence – where he both tried to become an actor and had his first solo show, but then moved on to Berlin, where he managed a nightclub and established his art management company, “Kippenberger Offices”, and the punk rock group, “Grugas”. He later lived in Cologne, Paris, Los Angeles, Madrid and Seville, among many other places. A garden playhouse in his childhood was, as his younger sister, Susanne, wrote in a catalog for one of his exhibitions: “... his first home. And it was his only home. He was always looking for a place to call home”. “I haven't managed to find a home” – he once said of himself – “but the yearning for one is just as strong as ever”.

“What one has to understand about Martin is that everything that he did was extremely intense,” Susanne has said. “He demanded attention already since early childhood, and he had a natural tendency towards rebelling against the system. He liked to provoke, but there was always a serious reason for doing so. That's why it wasn't easy for people to think of him as a pleasant person.” His older sister, Bettina, also admitted that Martin was “a born showman and rebel, who even saw school as an opportunity for having fun – already on the first day of school he was reprimanded for having tripped the teacher.” Later in his school years, Kippenberger boycotted art class because the teacher had only given him the second highest mark.

Kippenberger possessed the characteristics common in many alcoholics – unrest and heedlessness of social norms. He would frequently show up at the openings of his exhibitions with a drinking buddy in tow; he would often sing and dance in front of his guests, even accompanying himself on instruments that he didn't know how to play. As Susanne recalls, he once led everyone on a dance that ended with him standing on his hands and his head in the toilet bowl. That's why it's not surprising that he got on many people's nerves, and was accused of everything – from vulgar self-promotion and intentionally painting badly, to Nazi propaganda. In response to this accusation, Kippenberger created one of his most well-known works – a self-portrait in which a manikin of himself stands in the corner like a red-faced naughty school-boy. This piece, titled “Martin, Into the Corner, You Should be Ashamed of Yourself”, exudes the thread of disgust that weaves through all of his works. It was a disgust that was turned towards the art world (which frequently ridiculed and ignored him), towards the culture of post-war Germany, towards everything that other artists regarded with piety, towards the pointlessness of most art, and towards himself. On one hand, it is clever irony directed at oneself, but on the other – the ache that arises from always being the outsider.

Martin Kippenberger. 1988. Photo: (c) Andrea Stappert

Upon entering the art world, Kippenberger was well aware that he was “entering the stage at the end of the drama, and not at its beginning”. At the time, the ruling art movements of the second half of the 20th century – pop art, minimalism, conceptualism, neo-expressionism – were already antiquated. The same went for political ideologies, such as socialism and communism, as well as the utopianism of the 1960s – which is what had created the familiar and existent world around Kippenberger. All that remained were leftovers of styles and ideas. Nevertheless, Kippenberger was not deterred. His view was that there are no small parts, just unconvincing actors; and that you have to use what is there, and you have to make something different, big and loud from it.

Kippenberger transformed his work into an information processing center of late modernism, in which all known styles, creations and ideas would be reevaluated, taken apart, and either thrown away or constructed anew. Taking the view that it is impossible to do anything new in art, he made his paintings into data bases of art and ideas: social realism, Picasso, Picabia, Nazi propaganda, punk culture, pop art, Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke and consumer culture, as well as concepts such as progress, originality, consequence, success and failure, all combined in an alarming way to reveal the pointlessness of art, to show that art, per Freud, is rubbish. Portraying himself as Picasso – with hanging breasts and a floppy stomach hanging over very large underwear, Kippenberger announced that art has taken us nowhere. Although, as Kippenberger's friend, the artist Albert Oehlen once said about him: “Every day, and with all his heart, he really believes only in art.” And that was his originality, which couldn't be hidden. He himself was at the center of his art, always playing some role; he worked tirelessly, and was overflowing with ideas and energy. “I'm a traveling salesman,” he said, “I sell ideas.”

Quite possibly, Kippenberger's conflicts and contradictions continue to define him as an artist – the feeling that he tried to be everywhere, but unnoticed; knowledgeable, but naïve; cruel yet gentle; he balanced between intellectualism and street smarts, between the offensive and the simply funny – and often times, all in one piece of work. “The artist who is in opposition to himself has the greatest prospective to achieve results,” Kippenberger said. In life, he was just as contradictory as in his art – sometimes aggressive and clumsy, sometimes gallant, considerate and intelligent. He lived in chaotic movement, traveling from one place to another, yet he always wanted to have lunch at noon sharp, and his afternoon nap – at three o'clock.

“People who knew him only vaguely, often thought of him as oppressive, or even frightening,” said Gisela Capitain, Kippenberger's onetime gallerist and the manager of his estate, “but it didn't seem that way if you spent some time with him and got to know him better. He was brutal on those who took art for granted, and he was always provocative towards any audience, especially his own. For him, art was always a test. How far can I go? How much can they take? It is not an attitude that endears an artist to collectors, but perhaps, in the end, it is the most honest attitude.” 

“In Germany, in the Eighties, he did things and said things that some people thought were funny but many people perceived to be offensive, but, in a way, he was behaving as a satirist should. He was exposing our weaknesses to show us some kind of essential truth about ourselves. It was often an uncomfortable truth,” Susanne has said.

The artistic legacy of Martin Kippenberger is immense: paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, posters and books. Charged with both natural and chemical energy, he was able to create an unbelievable amount of unique objects in every medium. His works are also very diverse in terms of size – beginning with a series of sketches done on hotel stationary and bar receipts (which reveal him to have been a talented drawer), to such epic installations as “The Happy End of Franz Kafka's 'Amerika'” (1994). His refusal to choose one style that would belong only to him makes it difficult to assign a classification to his body of work. Although, upon first glance, his works can be viewed as clever and satirical pieces made by a self-proclaimed enfant terrible, they are much deeper than they look, and reveal not only great, if self-destructive talent, but a personal wisdom that lifts these works above today's cheap attempts at art. 

A year before his death, Kippenberger finally achieved a sort of peace for himself – he married the photographer Elfie Semotan and approached his work, according to Capitain, “with a new, more focused level of intent”. This is reflected in his last two series of works, entitled “The Pictures that Picasso Couldn't Paint Anymore” and “Medusa” (a paraphrasing of the famous painting, “The Raft of the Medusa”, by Géricault). In a photograph taken by his wife – in which Kippenberger poses for the figure in the latter painting – one sees a bloated and haggard-looking man who has been self-destructing for years. But instead of slowing down, he continued this destruction by living the same as before. Martin Kippenberger died soon after that picture was taken – from cirrhosis of the liver, at age 44.

“He was a very complex personality,” Susanne has said. “He wanted to be loved and accepted as an artist but, in the end, he didn't care what people thought. He was not a clown. He made jokes, he liked to laugh, he had fun doing what he did, but he was very serious about his art. This made him exhausting to be around. He was very demanding about his work.”