Martin Kippenberger: Sehr Gut | Very Good
Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin
By Rob Goyanes
Martin Kippenberger existed at the vanishing point between comedy and tragedy, rapture and melancholy. His art received little attention until after his death in 1997 at the age of 44, but since then collectors, museums, the press, and other artists (especially) have sprung a vibrant discourse around him. Critically, some praise him as one of the most important artists of his generation; others deride him as inconsistent and not so talented. He’s often romanticized for his hard lifestyle of relentless drinking. This uneven but growing interest might be tied to the fact that his confessional approach and relentless self-mockery and promotion anticipated a great tide of irony-as-device in contemporary culture. Kippenberger himself was insatiably social and needy for an audience, yet desperately lonely—a highly relatable subjectivity that haunts our world today. It also helps that his anti-art foolery makes for great stories.
He is also known for his copious output. The entirety of it would overfill many grand museums with paintings, photographs, sculptures, stationary doodlings, letters, posters, zines, songs, and books. The most recent major exhibition of his work, held at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin (a city he spent some very formative years in), contains a tight edit of some 300 works.
The Hamburger Bahnhof, a former railway station that now houses the Museum für Gegenwart, or Museum for the Present, is intimidatingly large. Seeing so few works of Kippenberger’s on its clinically austere walls is like viewing an eruption through a peephole, but the exhibition still manages to convey that he was a master of many styles—from abstraction to impressionism to realism—as much as a playful, sloppy interlocutor of conceptual games and unceasing appropriation. He was a man of highs and lows who dragged from the spectrum of his own experience.
Sehr Gut | Very Good, the title of the exhibition, references not only one of Kippenberger’s self-published zines, but also his series of “White Paintings,” (1991) which were on view. They contain a child’s scrawled descriptions of his paintings in white paint on white canvases. Kippenberger demanded that they be hung flush with the wall, as to be indistinguishable from it, an expensive install since removal of part of the wall is necessary. Much of his practice was just seeing what he could get away with, and this is a ripe example. It also is telling of Kippenberger as a person: trying to tell the wall from the painting is about as impossible as delineating between the artist’s life and work.
Unsettled and a roamer of Europe, self-deprecating yet craving of recognition, Kippenberger was a loud, tragicomic, and by all accounts, sweet man when he wasn’t being flamboyantly provocative. One night in Berlin, after allegedly drunkenly parading as a Nazi at the punk club SO36 (which he helped run), he was severely beaten and hospitalized. The next day he had a photographer take shots of his bandaged, swollen face, from which he then painted a self-portrait titled “Dialogue with the Youth of Today,” (1981). Kippenberger could paint like Picasso and subvert like Duchamp, yet he was keen on dropping his pants while boogying or waltzing on tabletops at the bars and restaurants that served as his refuges, his de facto studios. He so loved these public spheres that, besides SO36, he co-owned a restaurant in Los Angeles.
His sister Susanne wrote a book about him titled Kippenberger: The Artist and his Families. Kippy—one of his many nicknames—was the middle child in a gaggle of two younger and two older sisters, and was frenetically creative right from the start. The Kippenbergers were a hardworking, leisurely upper-middle class family. Life in post-war Germany for them was pleasantly stimulating and they got along mostly, though his parents eventually divorced. Still, the realities of Soviet disciplinary society, a post-Holocaust consciousness, and conservative cultural attitudes greatly influenced Kippenberger. He used all of it to feed his creative production: when a pallet fell off a truck and killed his mom, he started integrating pallets as a medium. Indeed, pallets abound at the Bahnhof exhibition as monuments to that darkest of absurdities. Martin moved to Berlin at 24 in 1976. Sehr Gut | Very Good—the first major Kippenberger show in that city—contained one of the first pieces that Kippenberger created in Berlin: a catwalk for Fabrikneu, the space ran by experimental fashion designer Claudia Skoda and which Kippenberger was a part of. The runway contains over 1,300 photographs that Kippenberger himself shot and developed, all shellacked with synthetic resin and portraying a wide swathe of intimate and eventful moments from the city. Visitors were allowed to put on slippers and walk on it.
After his time at Fabrikneu, the artist opened a space called “Kippenberger’s Büro” (his “Office”), a conscious play on Warhol’s Factory. Like Warhol, Kippenberger was an economy of artistic production: he made work in series, appropriated everything, and had other people execute his ideas. Not only did he reference mass and consumer culture, his oeuvre included a cult of his own personality—ridiculous on the surface, forlorn beneath. His series “Feet First,” (1990) on view at the Bahnhof, is a sculpture collection of crucified frogs holding beer mugs, which he called self-portraits. Also on display was a mannequin modeled on himself, facing the corner, titled “Martin, into the corner, you should be ashamed of yourself,” (1989). Though very good at painting, his sculptures trump most of his other work – but nothing could really communicate like his words.
A master of titling and aphorism— “Think today, done tomorrow,” and his book 241 Picture Titles for Artists to Borrow are some examples—he was also a failed poet and novelist. In 1980, he moved from Berlin to Paris for six months to become a writer (“It didn’t work out at all,” he said). He was always interested in language and was a man of letters, but he never once read a novel. Misspellings, purposeful and not, abound in his famed, vast collection of works made on hotel stationary, part of which was on view at the Bahnhof. Many of his famous sayings were printed on the Bahnhof’s walls as well, such as “Never give up before it’s too late!”
His work in words, both written and verbal, exposes one of his dominant qualities: he played on his weaknesses and liked to sabotage himself. For example, when painting became cool again in the Berlin art scene, he decided to swear off painting—but then had others paint for him anyway. Though a “failed” writer, he was always a successful talker, something lubricated by his love for booze. Known for telling Samuel Beckett-style jokes in which the punchline was the constant addition of details, he started to become more cryptic as he aged, especially when drunk. The Bahnhof showed his series “The Raft of the Medusa,” (1996) named after the famous painting by Théodore Géricault. The photographs of the artist show him in tortured poses, his face drawn and belly bloated. They divulge his deep appreciation and knowledge of art history and his own painful mortality. They were some of the last works that he produced before his lifetime of hard drinking caught up to him.
He wrote in one of his poems, “CIRRHOSIS OF THE LIVER IS NO EXCUSE FOR BAD ART,” and the show Sehr Gut | Very Good—while very gut—gave only a slice of the hilarious yet despairing genius of a man with comet-like volition, hurtling and spraying, ending too early in dust.