LIKE MOST VISUAL ARTISTS’ musical forays, the recording career of Martin Kippenberger has been relegated to a footnote to his output in the plastic arts. Kippenberger’s discography numbers eight records, mostly seven-inches, whose tracks were first collected on the 1996 self-released CD Greatest Hits and are now available again in a handsome box set, Musik 1979–1995, that consists of three ten-inch records or one CD, plus an accompanying book. The book is dominated by a cursory oral history focusing on the artist’s perennially outsize personality, which implies that the Kippenberger legend alone will somehow explain the odd street recordings, schlocky karaoke-style renditions of Cher and Adriano Celentano pop songs, clamorous sound collages, and big-band perversions heard on Musik.
On closer inspection, several parallels can be detected between Kippenberger’s releases and his approaches to painting and other media. For example, the tracksall jazz standardson an untitled 1987 LP credited to Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, Günter Förg, and Hubert Kiecol (dubbed the Golden Kot Quartet) are in fact played by a swing jazz group made up of moonlighting free improvisers. The precedent here is Kippenberger’s 1981 series “Lieber Maler, male mir” (Dear Painter, Paint for Me), painted by a film poster artist known only as Werner, and credited to “Werner Kippenberger.” And Kippenberger’s three versions, recorded in 1995, of Joseph Beuys’s 1968 sound piece Ja Ja Ja Ja Ja, Nee Nee Nee Nee Nee exemplify what Mike Kelley has identified as Kippenberger’s characteristic amalgam of “simultaneous transgression and respect.” In the original 1968 recording, Beuys recites the title over and over for an hour; Kippenberger sticks close to Beuys’s vocal delivery but adds techno-disco backings, a madcap tribute/subversion reminiscent of his sly turnaround of Beuys’s famous statement “Every person is an artist” (“Every artist is also a person”). Likewise, Kippenberger’s slurred performance of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” (recorded live in Brazil with Oehlen) is no more a parody than the untitled 1988 self-portraits, at once goofy and grotesque, that he modeled after a photograph of Pablo Picasso in his underwear. In these works, Kippenberger compares himself to Beuys, Sinatra, and Picasso, yet the joke is always at his expense.
Kippenberger’s exact relationship to the music he made is difficult to pinpoint. Oehlen has commented that “Martin wasn’t so interested in music,” and one might view the records as simply part of the flood of ephemerabooks, catalogues, posters, invitation cardsthat sprang from his notion of ubiquity via artistic engagement. But in fact, as Jutta Koether has written, Kippenberger’s “first public appearance was his work as an impresario in the early Berlin punk and avant-garde scene,” namely his brief but notorious involvement in managing the club Süd Ost 36 (S.O. 36), where he hosted bands such as Throbbing Gristle, Red Krayola, Scritti Politti, and Wire. As Diedrich Diederichsen has noted, “his social energy, his impatience . . . demanded a rather different mode of artistic communication, something with quick results and answers and more dynamic social circumstancesas in the more performative arts of that time, from rock music to New German Cinema.” This tendency toward the immediate coincided with the phenomenon of non-musicians picking up instruments and forming bands as part of New York’s No Wave movement (of which Kippenberger, who invited No Wave stars Lydia Lunch and James White, aka James Chance, to perform at S.O. 36, was well aware). So it comes as no surprise that during a stay in New York the artist took the opportunity to make his debut recording, with Eric Mitchell and Christine Hahn from the New York scene, as a “band” called Luxus. Mitchell and Hahn’s participation, combined with the archetypally untutored sonic ingredients of Kippenberger’s stiff drumming and Hahn’s skeletal guitar noise, make the 1979 Luxus double seven-inch perhaps the missing link in No Wave histories.
Yet while many No Wavers (including Hahn) were also visual artists, it may be that Kippenberger, who had once pursued professional acting, was playing the role of a drummer or a vocalist, on his records or onstage (and in addition to the role of a club manager, a garrulous drunk, the great artist, etc., his performativity extended far beyond the conclusion of No Wave circa 1980). Nevertheless, the Luxus project stands as a reminder that the artist’s emergence is inseparable from those of the original punk and post-punk movements, and that he is often associated with the “punk generation” of artists. Certainly his various upendings of art-world protocol gave him a kinship with the punk music enfants terribles of the time, and the various defacements of popular music found on Musik speak to this as wellbecause in his own mind, for Kippenberger to make music was just as inevitable and just as ludicrous as for Kippenberger to be ranked in the twentieth-century pantheon.
Alan Licht is a musician, writer, and curator based in New York.