Obituary: Martin Kippenberger
Saturday 29 March 1997
Kippenberger took the notion of the Bohemian painter and exaggerated it to ironic excess, pastiching and promoting not only Montmartre's self- destructive hedonism but, more importantly, his whole native German culture.
Amongst post-war German artists, angst was, not surprisingly, obligatory, along with the haunting question of what constitutes "German-ness" after Nazidom. Whilst Joseph Beuys or Anselm Kiefer turned such issues into operatic, metaphysical themes, Kippenberger was the only one honestly to face the kitsch and commercial crassness of the New Germany. Kiefer painted burning fields and imperial eagles; Kippenberger celebrated television wurst advertisements, Heidi boutique mannequins, badly printed beermats, Berlin kebab shops and lurid cartoon hangovers.
His career can be traced from 1979, when he lived in cold-war Berlin and mounted such performance events as "Pisscrutch Action" or "Spying on your Neighbour": museum shows followed in Darmstadt and seemingly everywhere else simultaneously thereafter. His trademark sculpture was Street Lamp for Drunks, an old- fashioned bent gas lamp-post, of the type seen on comic postcards propping up the fall-down drunk. This exaggerated drunkenness in itself was the core of Kippenberger's modus operandi. He boasted that he would rather be known as drinker than artist and this wish was granted. Yet he was only trying to demonstrate that drinking was a crucial element in German life which had been overlooked in the celebration of his country's economic miracle.
Indeed Kippenberger's oeuvre was an attempt to prove a whole set of stereotypes true, Teutonic and male. In this he was an important influence on countless young artists (not least today's celebrated British stars), stressing the importance of massive alcohol intake, all-night sociability and sundry bar outrages, along with the aforementioned unimportance of art. That said, some of his work could be surprisingly interesting: a series of watercolour sketches done on the notepaper of the expensive hotels he passed through or trashed; expressionistic paintings hung as photographs whilst the originals lay shredded in skips; a self-portrait in bronze standing in disgrace in the corner; gigantic model pills.
That much of this work was produced by others - young artists he patronised and promoted on a whim - or in collaboration with others, only added to its ambiguity, as did his creation of a whole set of pseudonyms, imaginary artists and groups. Thus he was founder member of the Lord Jim Lodge, a non-existent artists' group whose motto was "Nobody Helps Anybody".
He even invented his own jive talk with which he berated uncomprehending indigenous peoples the world over, usually as a prelude to a fist fight. Kippenberger was obsessed with rock 'n' roll and had as many bands, stage names, record labels and limited edition 45s as painterly alibis. Anyone who saw him in action, ranting and raging, swinging his mike on stage at 5am, could see his genuine, abiding star quality, a charisma which happened to have been diverted into the art world.
In 1986 he bought a petrol shop in Brazil and christened it "The Martin Bormann Gas Station". In Venice, California, he bought an Italian restaurant with the express intention of serving the same lousy pizzas he could find back in Germany, firing several chefs until he found one talentless enough. For a large show at the Rotterdam Boymans Museum he persuaded women to dress up and perform as American cheerleaders, none of their ra-ra skirts or tops quite fitting, emphasising the eroticism of this pseudo-teenage display. Kippenberger was consistently, gleefully, sexist, pugilistic, loud, obnoxious, cruel, autocratic, drunk or hung-over. He was also, thanks to the power of the German art world, often rich and fat, but the more money he had, the more willingly he spent it on parties, exotic travel, whores or yet another punk band.
In terms of massive output, piggishness, drunkenness and Germanness, he was comparable to that other dangerous genius Werner Fassbinder, a comparison he would have hated, Fassbinder being, in his words, a "faggot".
If the list of Kippenberger's exhibitions is daunting - from 1993 at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, to the Museum of Modern Art in Geneva that recently opened a retrospective of his work from 1976 to 1997, not mentioning shows in private galleries all over the world - equally impressive was the resistance of the official German art world. Ironically, this summer Kippenberger will finally be included in Documenta, the international show held every five years in Kassel with which he had become obsessed, owing to its omission of his work.
If Kippenberger (always known as "Kippi") loved art, collected, accumulated, accepted as gifts or osmosis the work of many contemporaries, organising the art display at Berlin's pre-eminent hangout, the Paris Bar, he never pretended his own massive production was anything other than high-volume braggadocio. And that is precisely why he will be remembered as a serious, influential artist of the end of the 20th century, for knowing instinctively that life, myth and drink will from now on be more important than the occasional elegant canvas.
Martin Kippenberger, artist: born Dortmund, Germany 25 February 1953; married (one daughter); died Vienna 8 March 1997.
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