Visual Arts in Germany: Exhibitions and Artist Portraits

“Kippi” Like You Wouldn’t Believe – Martin Kippenberger in Berlin

Martin Kippenberger, Ohne Titel (aus der Serie Lieber Maler, male mir), 1981; © Estate Martin Kippenberger, Galerie Gisela Capitain, KölnMartin Kippenberger, Ohne Titel (aus der Serie Lieber Maler, male mir), 1981; © Estate Martin Kippenberger, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Köln

He was considered to be an enfant terrible of the art business, he lived a life of excess and died at an early age. In celebration of his 60th birthday the “Museum für Gegenwart” in Berlin is paying homage to this controversial artist and presenting his multifaceted oeuvre with a solemnly museum-like approach.

“It would be brighter, if life were much lighter, dooby-do, dooby-do, dooby-do…”, these were the words Martin Kippenberger put to a song by the Italian singer, Adriano Celantano back in 1984. It was with such rigorous acquisitioning that the artist, who was born in Dortmund in 1953, was able to advance both his work and his life. Kippenberger was one of those people who wanted a lot from life, who did a lot in life and who died young – one of those people of whom is often said they burnt the candle at both ends.

“Berlin needs a new coat of paint “

Kippenberger’s life came to an end after 44 years. The Museum für Gegenwart im Hamburger Bahnhof Berlin has taken his 60th birthday on 25th February 2013 as a reason to hold an exhibition in his honour. It is not a retrospective, but more a “closer look at him as a private and public person, as well as an artist.

He was always on the go, his time in Berlin was only from 1978 to 1981, but what a time that was. “Berlin needs a new coat of paint” was one of his slogans. It was there that he founded his Büro Kippenberger and also became the co-owner of the punk club SO36 where he sometimes gave performances. He immortalised himself at that time by painting a picture of himself with his face all bandaged up. A punk girl had had a go at him with a broken beer glass, in protest at the cost of the beer – and also probably because he just did not fit in the scene there, dressed in his suit. Kippenberger caused a stir, whether he wanted to or not. Most of the time, however, he wanted to.

The sound of the exhibition

Sehr gut/very good – the title of the Berlin exhibition itself says it all by hailing the artist as “a painter, an actor, a writer, a musician, a drunkard, a dancer, a traveller, a charmer, an enfant terrible and self-dramatiser.” He was somebody who provoked, but was actually looking for recognition. Somebody who was controversial when he was alive and was even considered to be an outsider. Now, however, “Kippi”, as he was called by both his friends and himself, seems to have become something of a cult.

“Ja, Ja, Ja, Ja, Ja, Nee, Nee, Nee, Nee, Nee” is what you hear when you walk into the first room of the exhibition – it is the artist’s voice sounding from outside the room. It is an irreverent skit on the legendary fluxus performance by “über-artist”, Joseph Beuys. Now, however, this never-ending sound loop almost sounds like the soundtrack to the artistic legacy of the notorious self-promoter, Kippenberger.

Martin Kippenberger, Uno di voi, un tedesco in Firenze, 1976-1977; © Estate Martin Kippenberger, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Köln

Kippenberger – fun like you wouldn’t believe?

The artist, often decried as an excessive, disreputable, alcohol-driven macho, even managed to turn criticism into art. Martin, ab in die Ecke und schäm dich (Martin get in the corner, shame on you) is the name of one of his life-sized figurines that is of course standing in a corner. On one of his self-portraits the artist has a sign hanging from his neck with the words “Please don’t send me home” on it. A daring amalgamation of allusions to biographical details, but also to the darker chapters of German history. The Berlin exhibition kicks off with works from the 1980s that show the artist as the mocking ironist who is not afraid of the banal. Reducing Kippenberger to a witty jester, however, means you have misunderstood him completely.

The exhibition covers a broad spectrum from the early Uno di voi (One of You) – a series of pictures painted in black and white that was produced in Florence in 1976 and 1977, to the haunting self-portraits of the sick, exhausted artist from the year before he died.

It was in those pictures that Kippenberger depicted himself in the pose of the shipwrecked person in Théodore Géricault’s famous painting, Floß der Medusa (1819). Powerful strokes of the paintbrush fix one’s gaze on the exposed, tensed-up body of the man.

A snarl of relationalities

Apart from the paintings, sculptures, installations, posters, photographs, books and drawings (he liked to do them on hotel notepaper) also testify to Kippenberger’s brilliant productivity. There is also a faint indication of a network of biographical references, ambiguous statements and gruff comments on the art business and the social climate of the time. Kippenberger seems to have missed out on nothing. What, for example, are the objects made of euro-pallets piled on top of each other trying to tell us? Are they an allusion to the dreariness of modern architecture? The fact that the mother’s tragic death was caused by a pallet falling down on her is actually not the automatic conclusion reached on this.

Most of Kippenberger’s works do not speak for themselves, or for themselves alone. Some of them, however, still manage to cause a scandal. Take Zuerst die Füße (Feet First, 1990/91), for example – the brightly coloured, crucified frogs, holding fried eggs and beer glasses as their burial objects. The self-portrait seems to be the underlying theme behind all this. One of his trademarks that we find in many of his works is the lurching lamp. When he was not invited to exhibit at the famous Documenta IX exhibition (1992), the artist placed a lamp that was bowed particularly low outside Kassel’s international art show in a place where everyone would see it – with a Plexiglas teardrop hanging from it.

A synthesis of art with an antiquarian feel to it?

With the series of paintings known as Lieber Maler, male mir …(dear painter, paint me), Kippenberger brought off his most popular coup. It was actually executed by a movie-poster painter. One of the paintings, Paris Bar, was of his favourite bar in Berlin. It was there that the artist traded paintings for free food and drink, it was there that the pictures were hung on the wall all close together, the way Kippenberger liked it. The Berlin exhibition is however presenting his works with the pathos of a museum. Nevertheless, in the end he would have liked it.

Kippenberger had also already taken care of a way of evaluating his works via an installation of eleven white screens that were fitted smoothly into the museum’s walls in line with the instructions from the artist. Exhibition-goers might well have overlooked them completely had it not been for the white spidery writing on the screens. Kippenberger had asked a boy to assess his works in one word and to give him a mark of “very good”. He transferred the result onto the screens – white on white. This was “Kippi’s” way of anticipating his entrance into the museum.

Martin Kippenberger: sehr gut/very good
Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin
23rd February to 18th August 2013

Sigrun Hellmich
works as an art historian, journalist and author in Leipzig.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
June 2013

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