TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT October 1997

passages

Martin Kippenberger

MARTIN KIPPENBERGER’S MAGIC always cast a powerful spell over his audience, sometimes literally putting them under the influence. Not so long ago I invited him to visit the Yale School of Art, and with extravagant melodrama he struggled through the early-morning commute to New Haven. Immediately on arrival he scuttled his scheduled lecture by ambushing the students with a cheering invitation to head straight for Yale’s favorite bar. At the Anchor, they ate from the breakfast menu and got all liquored up. He held forth, judging the quick and the dead in the art world; opinions were refueled with every round of margaritas. Huddled in the Anchor’s cramped booths the students must have been positively charmed, or at least entertained; they stayed on past noon, cutting classes to drink lunch with Martin. It was after two when the entire staggering herd returned to the sculpture department, and with a considerable cache of beer in tow. The Visiting Artist would not be making his round of afternoon studio visits this day.

Listing only slightly, but in full possession of his intoxicating splendor, he eased himself into an old avocado and orange recliner and proceeded to hold court before all those he had single-handedly converted to boozing at breakfast. There was a lull in the boisterous conversation as fresh beers were cracked before snaking their way, hand to hand, through the room. In advance of everyone taking their first swig Martin’s eyes danced with inspiration: he would sponsor a drawing contest! Standing to announce the tournament his marvelous imagination and tweaked sense of humor flared: The artist who could make the most convincing drawing of Frank Sinatra would win a portrait of themselves drawn by none other than Martin himself. Among his audience were those who were still young enough to have difficulty conjuring the crooner’s precise features. Gripped pencils, tongues stuck straight out the side of mouths—the competition to render Old Blue Eyes was underway. It was a furious contest—that is, as fierce as this gaggle of drunks could manage.

In the end, of course, Martin couldn’t decide on the quality of any single drawing above the others. “You are all just too talented,” he declared. And then he showed his hand, insisting that he was now obliged to make individual portraits of every student. No dissent was brooked. As he began to draw, intimate conversations would grow up around the artist and his subject. During these ad hoc studio visits Martin summoned a steady level of affection, aspiration, and spirit the alcohol had not touched. His teaching style, unfolding on his own terms, was uncanny and quite literally sobering. The late day passed easily into early evening as Martin finished the last portrait. On the train back to New York, there would be no stormy, drunken snoring. Martin slept like a big baby, a gentle smile graced his face. It had been a perfect day.

Last February, Martin reached me in New York; he was by then seriously ill with cancer and wished to hear from me. He had taken up residence in a Viennese hospital. Faxes would be best. I wrote out the bear joke that had been his favorite, the pig joke that came in second, and recalled those lovable Sinatra drawings and that warm drunken New Haven afternoon, his appearance with a surprise guest, Werner Heisenberg’s granddaughter, at a dinner party I once gave in his honor, and other late evenings that always gave way to early mornings from Los Angeles to Berlin. In complete denial I told him to get well, and then assured him how frightfully boring New York had become. He never responded to my hospital faxes, and because Martin always responded, I knew that the illness was carrying him toward the end. A few days later, on March 8, I arrived in Europe, unaware that he had died while I slept on a plane crossing the Atlantic. At breakfast in my hotel, glancing through the Herald Tribune, I learned that there would be no more perfect days.

The New Haven story verges on a cliché. Martin’s reputation as the personification of unbridled excess or, as The New York Times recently put it, the “Madcap Bad Boy of Contemporary German Art,” is secure. But as always, there is more to the story. As much as art history fantasizes Kippenberger as the spunky art-world sophomore, his position is too phenomenally complex to leave it at that. He appeared to us when powerful enclaves of contemporary German culture were sponsoring a full-scale excavation of Expressionism. It is an understatement to say that Martin was at odds with all that. Thinking back to his day at Yale might make this last observation seem a contradiction, but it is not. From the Paris Bar in Berlin to New York’s Odeon, to the Anchor, he carried on, untamed—like the neo-Expressionists he held in contempt—but these passages were performances Martin always kept in quotes. He never mistook having fun for ideology. True, he possessed an entertaining appreciation of his culture; but more significant, he recognized what it was about to become. He enjoyed a second sight in this way, a formidable perception that modern nationalism was at last giving way to the dominion of the next culture, a culture staggering in its unity. We never really talked about this seriously (it required a sobriety he would rarely permit), but it was on his mind, and I can say that he did more than casually ponder it. Simply said, his pessimistic insight into what the culture would bring forth was one of his most remarkable gifts.

What now seems to have been predestined for the Europe we know today was far from transparent in 1985 when Martin painted The Friendly Communist. Adoring her fetching smile and flirtatious eyes with paint, Martin envisioned a companion he would have certainly loved to love whatever her politics. But he also endowed her comely gaze with ridicule for Reagan’s Evil Empire rhetoric. Cold-war foes would one day thaw and become very, very friendly, even agreeable in the way Martin understood “friendly.” I must say that the discreet way this portrait freely registers his libido as it ridicules the superego-strangling cold-war potentates broadcasts a flawless impression of where Martin’s heart was, and where, I believe, his work will finally bargain for its place in the history of art. With unfailing consistency his art negotiates a delicate balance of cultural indicators. On the one hand, there was always the mirror that could only ever reflect Martin’s ego in one iteration or another, from artistic hero, to sexual prowler, to adolescent hoodlum; on the other was his earnest visualization of the fate of our culture—this was always less detectable. And it was not only in his paintings where he unfolded this discriminating equilibrium between inner self and the world out there. He was effortlessly shamelessly—kaleidoscopic when he set out to make his art, gliding from sardonic posters like “Dialog mit der Jugend,” to polymorphic installations in galleries (or as often in bars), to producing rock bands, to books, to sculptures, to his entertaining hotel stationery drawings, or those humble self-mocking ready-mades like “Alkoholfolter” (“alcohol torture”). Someone was always mistaking Martin’s solo exhibitions for a cattle-call group show. That pleased him no end.

A decade ago, most saw The Friendly Communist through the interpretive lens that still logs in the reception of his work. And so critics would have seen an entry in Martin’s catalogue of desire, or perhaps something cynical, but still only surface deep. There is more. This painting is an expression of Martin’s desire, no doubt, but it traces as well his projection of a culture where post-Communist citizens could make love, not war, in Euro-Disney hotels paid for by a currency called the Euro. Four years after he finished this picture the Berlin Wall would fall and Martin’s forte for forecasting late-modern culture could belatedly be acknowledged.

In the same year The Friendly Communist was painted, and before Arts magazine was put down, not long after the departure of Richard Martin, I wrote a Kippenberger piece that I used to celebrate the artist and speculate about Donald Kuspit’s constipated view of contemporary German art. “Martin Kippenberger’s . . . is a wildly different understanding of contemporary German culture than Kuspit’s for Kippenberger seems to know few differences between cultures. His is the experience not of the [potential for the national] but of the domination of the universal.” Kippenberger, through all his drunken excess—and he was drunk much of the time, and always excessive—helped us to glimpse this universal culture, to see what would become. In this he was brilliant, which may be why Roberta Smith, The New York Times’ stingiest critic, wrote with favor that Martin “is one of the three or four best German artists of the postwar period.” Well, of course she is correct, but most appetizing is trying to figure out who the other three are! It would be a game Martin would wade into assuming he was already on the list. First there is Beuys, and while Smith loves Richter there are those who would say Polke, and then could it be Horn? Delicious this game! I can hear Martin chiming in: once on the list he would care less and less about who the others happened to be, instead turning his attention to where he would take his place in history’s first draft! Ahhh, Martin.

Ronald Jones