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Martin Kippenberger

(1953—1997)


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German painter, sculptor, and installation artist, one of the most notorious and controversial artistic figures of his generation and one of the hardest to sum up. Born in Dortmund, after a troubled youth which included therapy for drug abuse while still in his teens, he studied at Hamburg Art Academy, which he left for Florence in 1976 with the intention of becoming an actor. While there, he made a series of black and white paintings in the same 60 x 50 cm format, all derived from photographs. Kippenberger stated that Gerhard Richter was a role model, but his paintings had nothing of the older artist's meticulous finish. In 1978 he moved to Berlin, where he founded the ‘Kippenberger Office’, which organized exhibitions and also managed a punk club, S.O. 36. Kippenberger combined this support for the more anarchic side of youth culture with a well-dressed respectable image. In 1981 he was hospitalized as a result of a violent beating from some of his customers, an event he commemorated in a painting entitled Dialogue with the Young. Kippenberger had a scepticism towards the political earnestness of Conceptual art and also towards the expressive claims for painting being made by the new wave of Neo-Expressionists. In 1981 he had a series of twelve large paintings made to his instructions from photographs by a sign painter. These were exhibited under the general title Dear Painter, Paint for me…. The most striking shows the artist from behind walking through the street with a friend, a casual snapshot blown up to the proportions of history painting. Elsewhere Kippenberger took a provocative approach to political imagery. The Sympathetic Communist Girl or A Lady Farmer of the Cultural Revolution Repairing her Tractor (both 1983) are neither satirical nor celebratory, yet the political implications of the subject-matter were still too charged to be taken purely as an exercise in painting. Certainly he took some delight in challenging earnest attitudes to current affairs. In 1985, a year when famine in Africa inspired worldwide concern and response, he exhibited a group of sculptures with holes for stomachs entitled Hunger Family. When an art magazine published an essay attacking him entitled ‘The Artist as Exemplary Alcoholic’, Kippenberger produced a sculpture entitled Martin, Go in the Corner and Shame on You. Happy to offend conservatives and the left alike, he also made a sculpture of a crucified frog with egg and beer mug entitled Zuerst die Füße (Feet First) (1990, Museion, Bolzano). For the work's defenders it was an attack on hypocrisy and in 2008 a public campaign, which included a hunger strike by a local politician and condemnation by the Pope, failed to persuade the museum which owned it to withdraw the allegedly blasphemous sculpture from display.

Kippenberger was enormously prolific in his brief career, sufficiently so as to be able to make one work entitled Heavy Guy from a skip containing the remains of 51 discarded paintings. When a major retrospective was seen at Tate Modern in 2006, what made the strongest impression on many critics was not the paintings but the room-size installation The Happy End of Kafka's Amerika. The association of the notoriously angst-ridden writer, who failed to finish any of his major works, with happiness and completion was itself a paradox. The work is an ensemble of chairs and tables including classics of modern design. The implication is of a series of invitations to interview, but, as Richard Cork points out, there are ‘far more unsettling presences, like watchtowers reminiscent of a concentration camp’ (New Statesman, 20 February 2006). The spectators cannot themselves rest in the chairs, although at Tate stadium-style seating was provided to enable viewers to contemplate the piece as a whole. Kippenberger's own end was early death from liver cancer in Vienna, probably precipitated by his extreme indulgence in smoking and drinking. Among his last paintings are a series based on Géricault's Raft of the Medusa, showing his own diseased body. Kippenberger can be seen as a figure in the succession of Andy Warhol, turning his own life into a highly marketable art commodity, but, unlike Warhol or Kippenberger's friend Jeff Koons, he exemplifies, as Alison Gingeras points out, a ‘paradigm shift in artistic persona—from…staged perfection to…bold embrace of imperfection’ (Artforum International, October 2004). It was almost as though Warhol had taken on the attributes of some of his self-destructive entourage. Kippenberger's star status belongs firmly to the age of reality television, not that of classic Hollywood.

From A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Art.


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