Martin Kippenberger // The Irreverent // El Irreverente


A little kid toddles away under a blue sky, bare-bottomed, free of his shoes and nappies, and without a care in the world. This scruffily painted scene is set inside a painted border on which is written: “For a life without a dentist.” Like death and taxes, pain is inevitable. The kid is heading straight for trouble.

This intimation of what life has in store makes us smile, and so does the futile wish that comes with it. The painting is cruel and funny, and the way it has been executed is stumbling and tragicomic. We could take this 1984 work by Martin Kippenberger as “bad painting”, but what it actually does is maintain a precarious balance between faux-innocence, wistful longing and slapstick cynicism. This is how much of Kippenberger’s work feels, pitching itself between optimism and pain, the laughable and a toothache.

Born in 1953, Kippenberger was dead at 44, a handsome man run to fat and gone to seed. He was a child who was always walking away and always heading into trouble. In 1983 he made a cardboard sign that said Please Don’t Send Me Home, hanging it around his neck on a bit of string. Later, he painted himself wearing it, like a forlorn adult child waiting to be evacuated somewhere by the kindertransport. Kippenberger was forever homesick and sick of home.

Accused of neo-Nazi attitudes by a German critic in the late 1980s, he made several mannequin sculptures of himself, called Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself, placed facing the wall. As with the humour in Maurizio Cattelan’s sculptures, there is a detectable thread of revulsion that runs through Kippenberger’s work. It is a revulsion that is at once directed at the art world (in which he was a consummate player), at postwar German culture, at the pieties of other artists, at the meaninglessness of most art (of which his own work can be seen as a parodic example), and at himself. One way out was to make his art even more meaningless, more stupid and obvious and dumb than everyone else’s.

The paradox was that he worked tirelessly, and was fizzing with ideas and wayward energy. He made enormous numbers of paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, posters and books. He collected art, set up clothing companies and nightclubs, and ran art-world scams. He was a great improviser. Since his death in 1997, there have been more than 20 solo shows of his work, and this Tate Modern exhibition, which will travel to Düsseldorf, is the second Kippenberger retrospective I have written about in the past two years (the last was in the Netherlands).

Kippenberger is often regarded as an antidote to Joseph Beuys. Beuys thought everyone was an artist. Kippenberger titled a painting Every Artist a Human Being; it showed an artist crucified over an easel. He made several horrible portraits of Beuys’s mother. While Beuys used fat, and Sigmar Polke invoked Higher Beings and magic mushrooms in his art, Kippenberger titled one of his own works Painted Under the Influence of Spaghetti No 7. Which is not to avoid the fact that Polke’s 1960s paintings are one of Kippenberger’s models for his own work.

All this might sound a throwaway art of cheap one-liners, produced by a self-appointed enfant terrible who revelled in ham-fistedness. This is both true and false. Kippenberger’s whole career was a peripatetic stumble from one place to another. If his art was rueful, bitter, sardonic, annoying, funny, ebullient and affecting, Kippenberger himself was loud, braying, often drunk, alternately aggressive and courteous, sensitive, intelligent and boorish. He inspired great loyalties and made lots of enemies.

He was a contradiction, an iconoclast who invented chaos about him – much in the Werner Fassbinder mode – yet insisted on lunch at 12 “on the dot!” and an afternoon nap at 3pm. He didn’t think anything new could be done in art, but his originality couldn’t help shining through. He was at the centre of his art, always acting a part, playing a role. “I am a travelling salesman,” he insisted. “I deal in ideas” – even if those ideas were not his own. Who owns an idea anyway? It is where you take it that counts.

Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth had the idea of carving holes through their figures. In 1985 Kippenberger made arresting, ghastly painted polystyrene versions of these and called the ensemble Hunger Family. An obvious gag, but the holes yawn back at you with a horrible wit.

There is an early 1980s painting of the artist that shows him looking relaxed and suave in his suit, sitting on a sofa. He appears oblivious, or unconcerned, that the sofa has been dumped on a New York street corner, among a heap of garbage bags. This is from the series Dear Painter, Paint for Me. Kippenberger supplied the photos, and got a Berlin sign painter to produce the photorealist paintings. The artist, then, elegant amid the rubbish. In the 1990s, he got his British assistant, Merlin Carpenter, to make a series of paintings for him. Dissatisfied, Kippenberger destroyed them and dumped them in a home-made skip, which then became the work, surrounded by photos of the canvases before their destruction. This was his idea of quality control. “I am not an easel-kisser,” he once quipped.

However, for all their quick-fix wonkiness and clownishness, his paintings – where he painted them himself – are better than they look, and show a talent intent on self-sabotage. Weirdly, he had a great touch, and was a wonderful draughtsman, even when he was drawing a self-portrait in which he hammered nails up his nostrils. Many of his drawings are made on hotel stationery and bar bills, lending the impression that he swanned between the world’s five-star luxury suites. In fact, he never stayed in half those places. But he did keep on the move, to Spain, Brazil, California – renting and furnishing apartments, then producing shows to pay for it all. In some ways, he lived an old-fashioned bohemian life.

Nowadays, Kippenberger is unavoidable. Wherever you go, he keeps turning up, although he held only one solo exhibition in London while he was alive. Tate curator Jessica Morgan’s catalogue essay puts this down to what she sees as London’s ignorance of Kippenberger during his lifetime. This is not true, any more than it is the case that London has ignored other artists in Kippenberger’s circle, such as Michael Krebber and Georg Herold. There was a great deal of traffic between London, Cologne and Berlin during the 1980s and 90s. Maybe there wasn’t enough money to be made in London for Kippenberger, so he stayed away. What Morgan perceives as London’s supposed insularity and ignorance of developments in German art in the past two decades is wrong-headed, and does both her readers and her own otherwise careful appraisal of Kippenberger a disservice.

The best essay here is by Kippenberger’s younger sister, Susanne. She describes her brother as a romantic who “wanted a Happy End”. This short memoir is very moving. Kippenberger even wanted to supply a happy ending to Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel, Amerika. The Kippenberger solution took the form of a sprawling installation, which provides the high point of the Tate Modern retrospective. An arrangement of about 50 chairs and tables stands on a green mat imprinted with the lines of a football pitch. The assorted furniture – including 20th-century design classics, chairs and tables “adapted” by other artists as well as refashioned by Kippenberger himself – is arranged as though for interviews. In Kafka’s novel, the protagonist applies for a job advertised at “the biggest theatre in the world”. “Whoever wants to become an artist should sign up,” the advert invites.

Kippenberger’s desks and chairs are implausible, uncomfortable settings, each a sculptural tableau in its own right. There are Eames chairs and Jacobsens, a table set with jars of body parts (on which filmed talking heads by artist Tony Ousler are projected), chairs set with African carvings, desks with Kippenberger’s own paintings stashed underneath, a metal table rimed in thick paint and gloopy silicon. Standing amid it all are rickety, concentration-camp-style watchtowers and a lifeguard’s tower. Unfortunately, viewers won’t be able to wander within the installation, but will have to be content to observe from the stadium bleachers at either side, like spectators at the big game.


Martin Kippenberger (Dortmund, Alemania 1953 – Viena, 1997) es uno de los artistas alemanes más díscolos y significativos. Marcó la década de los ochenta poniendo en entredicho los convencionalismos más serios del discurso artístico, desde su ironía demoledora.

Kippenberger no restringe su obra al empleo de un solo medio. Pintura, escultura, fotografía, dibujos, instalaciones, catálogos, carteles e invitaciones de exposiciones, fueron para él medios susceptibles de ser utilizados con la misma fuerza expresiva. Presente en los acontecimientos artísticos más importantes de las últimas décadas, la obra de Kippenberger ha sido mostrada a título póstumo en la Documenta X de Kassel, en el Skulptur de Münster, el Kunsthalle de Bassel y recientemente en una exposición itinerante en Karlsruhe y Londres. La obra de Kippenberger reconstruye una lógica desconcertante, al jugar con referencias inapropiadas, mezclar símbolos irreconciliables y utilizar títulos desmesurados y chocantes con el propósito de llamar la atención o parodiar los grandes discursos del arte, al tiempo que realiza una crítica ácida y jocosa del entorno cotidiano. El artista toma al pie de la letra los clichés políticos y de las imágenes de publicidad con las que cuestiona tanto la realidad social como la historia de la cultura.

Uno de los mayores coleccionistas de Kippenberger es Benedikt Taschen, quien ha reunido más de un centenar de obras del artista y de quien procede gran parte de las obras. Taschen y Kippenberger colaboraron a menudo en libros u otros proyectos, y llegaron a consolidar una sólida relación que se refleja en la calidad del conjunto.

El caso de Martin Kippenberger considerado por The New York Times como uno de los últimos artistas alemanes de mayor talento-  es el ejemplo sólido de cómo el arte más genial puede salir de una perpetua coña. Así lo explican en una retrospectiva de obligado cumplimiento (tras otras en Nueva York, París o Londres) que, hasta el 18 de agosto, alberga el museo de arte contemporáneo Hamburger Bahnhofde Berlín, donde sus propias palabras, como muchos de sus actos creativos, revelan hoy una capacidad premonitoria (y una inteligencia) apabullante: “El arte se aprecia sólo en retrospectiva…yo diría que el plazo es de veinte años. Mi trabajo consiste en que, para entonces, la gente diga que Kippenberger fue divertidísimo”.

Nacido único varón entre cuatro hermanas, en la todavía República Federal Alemana, Kippenberger murió a los 44 años fruto de una vida regada en alcohol y tras un proceso creativo sin freno como músico, pintor, actor, performancernetworker, escritor, viajero e incluso galerista. No descuidó el uso de múltiples formatos, ni el recuerdo a una modernidad previa, ya fuera nombrando a Beuys, Richter o Picasso (el Museo Picasso de Málaga mostró Kippenberger miró a Picasso en 2011), como tampoco el alcance o brillo calculado de cada proyecto que acometía. Hasta para comer y beber en la reliquia que es actualmente el Paris Bar de Berlín (que hoy acoge a una intelectualidad más al uso, entre abogados carísimos, estrellas de la televisión e incluso el play boy setentero Rolf Eden), Kippenberger producía entonces obras al instante como pago, incluidas partes de la serie Uno, di voi, un tedesco in Firenze (1976). Y para cualquier elemento a su alrededor encontraba la huella reversa, una para la posteridad: desde las hojas de un bloc de hotel hasta una gasolinera en Brasil. De las primeras salió su serie The hotel drawings (1987-1997) y de la segunda – previa compra en propiedad del lugar – la instalación con el nombre del secretario de Hitler: Gasolinera de Martin Bormann.

Casi todo lo que nos parece algo normal en el transcurso del arte contemporáneo actual, ha sido iniciativa del propio Enfant terrible alemán. El caso de la gasolinera con el nombre de Bormann fue un escándalo entre el pópulo y los críticos, que clamaban contra el hecho de que Kippenberger había contribuido así al mito de que el ayudante de Hitler tendría más fácil su supuesto escondite. Pero el artista daba en realidad una bofetada a un país y una sociedad borracha, mucho más borracha que él, de cinismo. Un país dividido en dos realidades fantasmagóricas, cuya importancia ideológica era un cuento chino. Entre las primeras obras de esta retrospectiva se encuentra Bitte nicht nach Hause schicken (Por favor, no envíen a casa), un autorretrato (Kippenberger era muy dado a autorretratarse a modo crítico o sátira) inspirado en la fotografía del secuestro de Hanns-Martin Schleyer por los jóvenes aterradores de la RAF. Schleyer era un prominente ex nazi que, a pesar de la supuesta desnazificación, acabó siendo líder de la patronal alemana en los años 70.

Su vida y obra se conciben solo a modo de un Sprint maratoniano, basado en la creencia de estar atestiguando el fin del arte y la imposibilidad de crear algo nuevo o auténtico. Así que Kippenberger condujo su vehículo a todo trapo, a sabiendas del todo (y nada) vale: Pálido de envidia, él espera en tu puerta, de 1981, es un conjunto de veintiún lienzos, sin conexión, estilo o título en común; el audio Ja, Ja, Nee, Nee (Sí, Sí, No, No), de 1995, juega con la bufa de un discurso intelectual a base de monosílabos, inspirada en la acción de Joseph Beuys de 1968; y la serie Querido pintor, pinte para mí, fue creación de un pintor comercial, llamado Werner, que contrató el propio Kippenberger, cediéndole finalmente su apellido (foto en cabeza de este post).

La huella de Martin Kippenberger en artistas posteriores es hoy infinita. En la última dOCUMENTA, la instalación de carpintería Sewing room (2012), de István Csákany, recuerda descaradamente a The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika’, una de las últimas obras de Kippenberger. Sin embargo, en este repaso berlinés de su vida y obra, solo se expone a Andrea Fraser y su vídeo Kunst muß hängen (El arte debe colgarse), de 2001: una parodia de doble sentido sobre el estado del arte, los coleccionistas, los galeristas y, en definitiva, los ridículos encuentros de la élite creativa.

Colgados, eso sí, en una de las salas de la Hamburger Bahnhof, están toda una serie de posters de las exposiciones del genio alemán, incluidos los que nacen fruto de su colaboración con Jeff Koons, Rosemarie Trockel, Christopher Wool o el también prolífico creador y rebelde del formato Mike Kelley.

Kippenberger se hacía amigos -mucho antes que de los críticos de arte-  de camareros y recepcionistas de hotel. Tampoco podía fijar una residencia estable, habiendo trabajado en catorce ciudades, desde Hamburgo a Florencia, Brasil, Colonia, Los Ángeles, Madrid, Grecia o Viena. Fue en Carmona, Sevilla, donde tuvieron origen la serie de autorretratos de Kippenberger en calzoncillos y tripón, una ironía del género masculino inspirada en Picasso. Y, también en España, creó la famosa Farola para borrachos(1988) que se mostrará en la Bienal de Venecia. Será en 1996, durante su estancia final y previa a su muerte en Viena, cuando culmine su serie de autorretratos, de obvia decadencia física, La balsa de la medusa.



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