In 1997, when Martin Kippenberger died of alchohol-related liver cancer at the age of forty-four, Roberta Smith opened her New York Times obituary by writing that Kippenberger was “widely considered one of the most talented German artists of his generation.” In fact, outside of a subset of fellow Conceptual artists and prescient gallerists, he was not considered at all. At the time of his death, a museumgoer might have recognized a blurred Richter or a grim Joseph Beuys while being totally unfamiliar with Kippenberger’s hotel drawings, the now-famous series of doodles on hotel stationary.
Although his life was a fast burn, the creation of his reputation has been a slow cementing, set by an extensive 2006 Tate Modern show, a U.S. exhibition that came to MoMA in 2009, and now a biography, released by J&L Books.. Kippenberger: The Artist and His Families is written by Susanne Kippenberger, the artist’s youngest sister and a journalist at the Berlin daily Der Taggespiegel, and translated from German by Damion Searls. It is both a profile of a mad art star and a fascinating history of the bohemian scene in Germany before the fall of the wall. When Ms. Kippenberger met me at City Bakery recently to discuss the book, she did not, as her brother might have, jump on top of the table and pull down her pants then force me to stay out all night drinking.
I saw the Tate show in 2006 and left astounded by the incredible amount and range of work created by someone who died so young. The retrospective included the massive installation “The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘America’,” which is an ersatz sports field filled with desks and chairs; the ironic self-promotional exhibition posters; punkish figurative paintings; self-authored catalogues; and sculptures. I was surprised to find, reading your book, that when he was alive his art seemed eclipsed by his renown as a personality.
Yeah, people thought, He doesn’t do anything. He just sits in bars, throws parties, and talks and drinks and puts on a show of himself.
What were some of his antics?
There was his incredible dancing. He would pull down his pants in the middle of crowded parties. He could be quite aggressive. He was all for honesty and truth. He would tell these long, long jokes or speeches and force everyone to listen over and over.
What was the expression you used, which means forcing good cheer?
Zwangsbeglucktertum. A friend invented the term for him. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. While he was living in L.A. he bought shares in a small Italian restaurant and set himself up next to the door. If anyone tried to leave while he was doing one of his presentations, he would loudly call out insults as they tried to get by. He brought people to tears. He would shout across a room, “Why are you so ugly?”
How would you categorize Martin as an artist?
He did everything, even made records. The books were very important, too. Maybe what was unusual about the work at the time, and what made it difficult, was that a lot of it was very witty, and, especially in Germany, curators didn’t like it. They thought if someone was funny he wasn’t serious, so they didn’t take him seriously.
Tell me about the lampposts.
Those were inspired by a silly tourist postcard he found. He commissioned a sculpture series—he always did series, he said they were more economical—of bent, wobbly, drunken lampposts. One has a Santa hat.
He came to some prominence in the eighties—which was really when the German art market came into being—along with a group of artists in Cologne represented by the gallerist Max Hetzler. They were called the Hetzler boys—Günther Förg, Albert Oehlen, Georg Herold. Many of them had big exhibitions and group shows, and often Martin, even though he was the unofficial spokesman of the group, wasn’t invited. One year, when he wasn’t included in Documenta, he talked to the director and convinced the director to let him do a poster. And in it he put one of his bowing lampposts in Walter De Maria’s The Broken Kilometer.
All his titles are so fantastically funny!
I’m giving a talk in Guggenheim Berlin about Martin and translation. The language of everyday German culture plays such a huge role in his work, and I wonder how Americans understand it.
He translates so well. The cliché is that Germans have a completely different sense of humor. His work contradicts that. “Through Puberty to Success, Not to Know Why But to Know What For, Friendly Communist Girl. He took a photograph of himself after he was badly beaten by Berlin punks and called it Dialogue with the Youth of Today.
In German, it’s just Dialogue with Youth.
The “of today” is what makes it work in English. Why did they beat him up?
There are different theories. One is that he raised the beer prices at SO 136. It was a legendary punk club in Berlin. He wanted to be a part of it and bought a share in it from the people who ran it. He made it his space.
Martin didn’t behave according to any rules, whether the rules of my parents, the punks, or the art world. Max Hetzler later got upset because Martin didn’t work strategically. He did a lot of shows, which upset Hetzler. You know, you have to make yourself scarce. But Martin had a sense, always, that he didn’t have much time.
He had a piece called Alcohol Torture.
Oh yes, it’s a portrait of him with his hands held together at the wrist by beer six-pack fasteners, like handcuffs. Tortured with or without alcohol—you could interpret it either way.
He was unrepentant about being an alcoholic?
He tried once in a while to stop, particularly in the nineties when the doctors said he was going to die if he didn’t. He wouldn’t drink for a few weeks when he was at a spa or staying with friends in Greece. But coming back he couldn’t stand it. He said he couldn’t stand other people without it—it was too intense, you need a blur between you and them.
How much of his own painting did he do?
Most of it. But when he lived in Berlin, in the late seventies, a group of neorealist artists was becoming popular, and painting became a big thing. So he decided he wasn’t going to paint. He approached a billboard painter, and that was the start of having other people paint for him.
When I was researching the book, I went to Jeff Koons’s studio. He showed me how he worked. It was totally different. The studio assistants were painting exactly an image he had on a computer, and it was the same with the sculptures.
Martin wasn’t interested in perfect pieces of work. He wanted the exchange. For example, he came up with this idea for a sculpture called Martin Go to the Corner and Be Ashamed of Yourself. It was a reaction to being attacked by a critic. So he gave the general idea of the sculpture, of a boy standing there with his hands behind his back, to Uli Strothjohann. Then Uli went off and bought the clothes—each sculpture has a different outfit and is slightly different. In his works there is always something that connects with other artists, living or dead, or with the people he befriended.
Do you think this had something to do with being from such a big family, with so many siblings? When you talk about growing up it sounds like a constant hubbub.
It was! Five children. Four girls and Martin, the only boy, in the middle. It wasn’t easy for him. You did always have to work to get attention. There was never enough of the good food. You had to fight for it.
What did Koons think of Kippenberger?
He liked his work and spoke rather tenderly of him. Koons said Martin was very generous in making him part of the group when he came to visit Cologne. He said in New York everybody was in competition. Cologne is a fairly big city, but it’s like a village really. The city center is small, and you always run into each other at the Walther König bookstore and the bars.
Koons and Kippenberger did one issue of the art magazine Parkett together. The front cover is by Koons and the back by Kippenberger. At the time, the editor told me that they fought over the better space. So you always have to be a bit careful with someone like Martin, who’s dead—you can start to think only in positive terms or in negative ones.
In the early nineties he was vilified in the art world, condemned for being an anti-Semite, a racist, a sexist. He was criticized for the intentionally incendiary public misbehavior and for some of his pieces. For instance, in the sculpture Put your freedom in the corner, save it for a rainy day, he papered a wall with images of a sleeping white man next to a lynched black man.
That was one of the reasons I wrote the book. Some of his biggest critics were, after his death, his biggest friends and admirers.
Do you think the accusations were true?
He said provocative things, but no, no.
Were you concerned about how the book would be received? So many people involved are still alive.
I was, but it was mostly received incredibly well. A few of the old critics took their revenge. Isabelle Graw …
Was she the one you quoted in the book as saying that she got tired of being constantly reduced to a sex object in the Kippenberger scene?
Yes. She comes from an entirely different school—feminist, highly theoretical. She doesn’t believe in biography at all, so she was critical. But in the end, she did say that Martin’s life was art. I was particularly moved by younger or less successful artists saying they were inspired to keep on.
It is inspiring! At moments it feels like a self-help book on how to do whatever the hell you want with no shame.
Yes. It was the motto he lived by, peinlichkeit kennt keine grenzen. Embarrassment has no limits.
Susanne Kippenberger will be reading from Kippenberger: The Artist and his Families at the Goethe-Institut Wyoming Building Monday, March 26, at 7:00P.M. 5 East 3rd Street (at Bowery) New York, NY 10003.