PRINT Summer 2012


Kippenberger: The Artist and His Families

Martin Kippenberger painting at his family’s home in Essen, Germany, 1960. Photo: Ilse Pässler.

Kippenberger: The Artist and His Families, by Susanne Kippenberger, translated by Damion Searls. Atlanta: J&L Books, 2012. 592 pages.

ON ONE OF MY FIRST VISITS TO COLOGNE, over supper and Kölsch, an older friend told me how he once reverentially brought Martin Kippenberger a bottle of liquor as a gift. And how did Kippenberger like it? No, my friend explained, he didn’t go meet him. Perhaps he didn’t dare. He put the booze in a locker at the train station, and mailed Herr Kippenberger the key.

True or embellished, this tale has stuck with me for something it typifies about my generation’s relation to the Kippenberger myth. And myth, of course, it is. Often brandished as a point of reference, he’s not as often understood. For American art students in the 1990s such as myself, Kippenberger seemed to disappear into his own reputation, leaving a trail of bread crumbs, nourishing but suspect. This reputation was mostly about his appetites—the sense that he would want that bottle of booze—and it gathered around him a cloud of apprehension and awe, undispersed by his untimely death in 1997. How do you pay respects to a wild man? Was that even a useful way to understand him? In the past several years, a rash of major Kippenberger shows have filled in gaps about the work and sought to come to terms with the artist, almost exhaustively. (Could it be we’re already “done” with Kippenberger for a while?) Yet, predictably for an artist whose work so often hinged on his own demonstrative self, one can’t help but feel the vacuum he left behind. Certainly this drives the interest in Kippenberger: The Artist and His Familes, the English translation of the largest and most intimate biography of the artist to date, published in German in 2007 and written by his youngest sister, Susanne Kippenberger.

In a way, Martin Kippenberger wrote his own story. I don’t just mean the large body of self-portraits (and body may be central here, whether posing as a corpse from Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa or as Picasso’s big belly) or his own books (some of these, like Café Central [1987] and Durch die Pubertät zum Erfolg [Through Puberty to Success, 1981], are quoted frequently in the biography), but the very character of Kippenberger’s work: its self-reflexivity, its constant forging of alliances between his art and his life. On a dime, he could turn experience into gold. Hours after being ambushed and beaten by punks in Berlin, he called friends to the hospital to take pictures, and Jutta Henglein’s photo of his bizarrely bandaged head was used for his painting Dialog mit der Jugend (Dialogue with the Youth), 1981–82. More obscure is the personal iconography: pasta (and its German cousin, noodle casserole), frogs, eggs, etc.—banalities that baffle first-time viewers and become touchstones for the initiated. The recourse is often to his predilections, his force of personality, his tastes; and (just as here) few texts omit a knowing warning about the distracting glare of his exploits. This is a boon to biographers, as connections drawn between the life Kippenberger lived and the work he made rarely seem forced.

The risk, of course, is hagiography, and the elephant in the room is one word: sister. To her great credit, Susanne Kippenberger lays it out in the first two sentences: “He was my big brother. My protector, my ally, my hero.” And she proceeds with deftness, building on the strengths of this intimacy while laying it bare, circumscribing, castigating, then returning to her vantage and the insights it affords her. This biography is workmanlike, which I mean as a compliment—well researched, well organized, well told. It sails between two shoals: on one hand the limitations of a “family” story, on the other the biographer’s mandate to stay objective and complete. One could want something different from a Kippenberger tome. We might imagine that we long for a rollicky, debased, and taboo-busting epic. Maybe we wouldn’t want that, though. The past fifteen years have been full of Kippenberger testimonials that often (and appropriately) sound like toasts, but if Susanne Kippenberger invokes the justification for her biography that her brother is a public figure, he is by now also, increasingly, a historical one. And, perhaps surprisingly, one strength of this book is its evenhandedness. I, for one, find Susanne Kippenberger’s tempered yet undiminished respect for her brother to be a useful compass (I’d even cheer to hear the tale told over again by each of his other two surviving sisters, with an ear to the different fault lines) and—dare I say?—an emotional center.

One could read this book for pleasure alone. Indeed, Kippenberger stumbled such an antic and outrageous path through his life’s many swerves that a laundry list of glorious excess—and distress—could overflow this page. Much of it you’d guess already. Martin is articulate and charming yet flails at boarding school; he grows into a sex- and drug-fueled adolescent, very much of his time (“long bedouin robe, long hennaed hair, bright orange overalls, and red toenails”). More surprising is an ironic and frank relationship with his parents (returning home from leaving a girlfriend, Kippenberger greets his mother: “You have your son back, chaste as Joseph!” “I always wished that originality was rewarded more at school,” she says. “Then our children would do a lot better.”) Things pick up in the late 1970s when he gets to Berlin. Here is the oft-recounted wild man: proprietor of the hardcore nightclub SO36, tie-clad go-getter of the Büro Kippenberger, manic dancer, tireless drinker, moving target. (Kippenberger the man is more gripping than Kippenberger the child. Though one can’t imagine a more knowledgeable narrator, I found myself rushing through the tales of his birth family, though I am glad of them, as I am for a tantalizing discussion later on comparing the grown Martin with his aging, free-spirited father.)

It’s a challenge to make a thousand all-night benders read fresh each time, and the great stuff here comes in at the margins. We have Kippenberger in his studio in the Black Forest, playing the sound track to The Bodyguard “over and over again,” singing along with Whitney. A couple of dear friends sit huddled in the dark in their apartment, pretending not to be home. “We thought: What if he comes by again! What if he comes by again! We just wanted a break, a little peace. We didn’t have the energy.” The Swiss banker father of a girlfriend is impressed by his ability to talk for hours: “Fidel Castro can do that. . . . Martin was a kind of Fidel Castro of the art world, minus the Marxism.” Anecdotes pile up amid reflection, especially on the reception of Kippenberger’s work and the networks that laced through it, and this makes for a thorough, charmed and charming account, not just of one artist but of a particular milieu. There is something formidably specific—even paradigmatic—about Kippenberger’s origins in a cultured West Ger­man middle-class family and his passage through punk Berlin, art-world Cologne, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Sankt Georgen im Schwarzwald, and Vienna, along with his sorties into New York and Los Angeles. This history of time and place—an epic swath across the postwar German scene—is rare and useful for the English-language reader.

Susanne is eloquent about Martin’s Germanness: “The canary flitted through his work, not the German eagle; irony, not lugubrious pathos. Martin drew his material from German everyday life—soccer, politics, tabloids—but who in New York had ever heard of Loki Schmidt or Hansjörg Felmy?” Who indeed? Productive and mutual misunderstanding is a recurring theme, even as she builds a case for the artist’s regionalism and fills in his context. The embrace of Kippenberger by foreign critics—and especially artists—is recounted against a slowness of serious recognition (not the same as notoriety) in Germany, while at the same time stories are told of bemused misunderstanding abroad. (Stephen Prina tells of a party given by John Baldessari where guests drifted away from Kippenberger midroutine, leaving Baldessari’s dog, Raisin, as his only audience.) The real differences between these scenes, and yet the mutual benefit of these encounters—the catalyzing effect of Kippenberger’s ceaseless hosting and guesting—emerge as a hopeful thought about an international circuit without an international style.

“American artists seem to have had an easier time with Martin’s language: since they didn’t understand German anyway,” writes Ms. Kippenberger. She takes pains to relay the weirdness of her brother’s speech. “Words come to him like a stray dog rolls up to you on the street,” she quotes from a German newspaper, and Jutta Koether’s account of his “jive” (“you couldn’t understand Kippenberger’s way of talking in terms of words or statements, but as part of a performance, almost like a concert”) is one of many testimonials to his verbal mumbo-genius. If, as Pamela M. Lee has argued, Kippenberger made a Conceptual art of “itinerant values,” his overabundant and slippery language plays a big part, running through sprawling conversation (“literature in situ,” as David Weiss put it), happy self-deprecation (to a prospective girlfriend: “Wrong I write wrong things, never mind, I’m dyslixic [sic]”), humorous comment (“Hans-Peter Feldmann, antique toy dealer, lives sauna-style”), and, above all, to his titles for works and exhibitions. Some examples, in English translation: “Germany, Its Waters”; “Arafat Is Sick of Shaving”; “Helmut Newton for the Poor.” The critic Niklas Maak is quoted suggesting that works may have been made as excuses for great titles. In any case, Kippenberger’s language—his disarming, unstable misuse of it—is a star of the biography, and the laugh-aloud lines are often his own.

Likewise, we get a glimpse of his teaching—a specific kind of interaction, distinct from his broad influence. Like most things, he brought it to a crescendo. In 1992 he took his students to the office of Jan Hoet, the head of Documenta 9, to ask whether he would be invited to take part in the show. (He wasn’t, but as a compromise he produced a famous poster showing his hunched-over lamppost [Untitled (Lamp), 1992] installed in Kassel.) Or he took them to the zoo, or to a collector’s factory (the syllabus: “Where does the dough come from & who hands it over where?”). He sent one student, Matthias Schaufler, on a trip across Africa, explaining, “An artist should be curious about the world, a kind of research traveler.” Yet the lesson may also be something else: a generosity of shifting boundaries. And this brings me back near where I started, thinking of Kippenberger’s influence and myth. It’s a myth that has arguably changed in the past few years, as some claim Kippenberger as a painter, while others paint him as a conceptual wielder of charisma. Neither rings complete.

I’m mindful, as a latecomer, of how I approach Kippenberger: The Artist and His Families. I never knew the man. To some extent, the biography has to stand at face value, but it’s also an important part of an ongoing accounting—the assessment of what Kippenberger did and should mean. What part biography should play in this is debatable, but it’s undoubtedly tangled together, largely through the artist’s own doing. When he taught at the Städelschule in Frankfurt, his class produced a kind of guidebook to the art world titled Virtuosen vor dem Berg (Virtuosos Before the Mountain, 1991). For anyone seeking the bearings for starting out, Susanne Kippenberger offers as stable and expansive a guide as any.

Matt Saunders is an artist who divides his time between Berlin and Cambridge, MA.