PRINT February 2003


MARTIN KIPPENBERGER SPAWNED A WEALTH OF ART-WORLD legends in his truncated career. His practice seemed specifically designed to maintain a steady buildup of anecdotes, many of which continue to circulate today, six years after his death. On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Kippenberger’s birth, this month sees the opening of a major retrospective of his entire career at the Museum für Neue Kunst ZKM in Karlsruhe, with additional stops in Vienna and Eindhoven. Though his influence in Europe will be debated and discussed for a long time to come, there is no question that he is one of the most significant German artists of his generation.

Given the reach of his reputation in Europe, it is somewhat surprising that there are no plans for the exhibition to travel to the United States. Kippenberger had a one-man show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1991, and his massive Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika” (first shown in 1994 in Rotterdam) was included in the 1999 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh and mounted a year later at the Renaissance Society in Chicago. But his numerous gallery appearances at Metro Pictures, Nolan/Eckman, and David Zwirner in New York, as well as at the former Luhring Augustine Hetzler in Santa Monica, have never been augmented here by a museum-scale overview of his extensive body of work. Merely to consider his impact on installation practices beginning in the late ’80s should prompt recognition of the need to reexamine his contribution.

If Kippenberger’s prestige in the US is uncertain, “Amerika” was nevertheless a regular stop on his ever-expanding global itinerary. For an artist renowned for his spongelike capacity to take in whatever was immediately at hand and spit it back out with his unmistakable imprint, the US represented a bonanza of cultural source material of all kinds. As in Kafka’s posthumously published novel Amerika (1927)—whose protagonist, Karl Rossmann, traverses an absurdly bureaucratic maze before landing a job in the hallucinatory Nature Theater of Oklahoma—the country most firmly identified with a sudden rise to success certainly appealed to an ambitious artist like Kippenberger. Still, he did not always feel at home in Los Angeles and New York. Though he was adept at setting up bases from which to operate (usually restaurants or bars), the dispersed geography of Southern California and the hectic pace of life in Manhattan were far less manageable than the midsize city of Cologne.

Despite his craving for a reliable social environment, Kippenberger was constantly on the road. As a teacher and habitual visiting artist, he made his presence felt in a number of American art schools. The remarks by six colleagues of Kippenberger’s that follow touch on the artist’s famous generosity to students and friends, yet they also acknowledge his notorious ability to alienate and aggravate his audience.

Kippenberger didn’t live to hear the recent calls for an end to irony. One suspects that he would have responded to such developments with typical candor and wit. Indeed, a provocateur of his stature is sorely missed in this moment when gravitas and sanctimony are the reigning tones of public discussion in the US. This should be reason enough for bringing his work back to our shores.

Gregory Williams