Martin Kippenberger

Among the slew of obituaries and exhibitions sparked by Martin Kippenberger’s death two years ago was a show of the artist’s self-portraits curated by Peter Pakesch and Daniel Baumann at the Kunsthalle Basel. These self-portraits have now arrived in Hamburg, as part of the first comprehensive Kippenberger exhibition in Germany. The survey also includes installations (such as Heavy Burschi, 1989–90, and Sozialkistentransport, 1989), a selection of Lanternen (Lanterns), 1990–91, a great number of hotel drawings, paintings, and other works from throughout the artist’s career, as well as the large-scale furniture installation, The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika,” 1994.

The Hamburg show takes place at a time when, surprisingly, reservations still persist about the Kippenberger phenomenon. These qualms seem somewhat misplaced since Kippenberger’s work, despite its seeming radicalism, doesn’t ever “fall out of the frame,” in the sense that his explorations subscribe in many ways to well-established artistic concerns: There is his Goyaesque critique of society, his continual representation of himself as a “great artist.” The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika” obviously engages with a literary model, which is also quite typical of modern artistic practice.

Kafka intended his unfinished 1927 novel Amerika to end with a successful job interview for his protagonist in an open-air theater. Kippenberger relocates the whole event to a sports arena and multiplies Kafka’s single job interview into forty-two, with an installation of forty-two tables and twice as many chairs. The furniture in the installation is of varied origins and styles—from chairs and tables created by artist friends and well-known designers to referees’ seats and hunters’ tree stands—and throws the particularity of the job interview into relief. The German “Einstellung” of the expression “Einstellungsgespräch” (job interview) signifies both “attitude” and “employment,” and with this allusion to interior and exterior “engagement,” Kippenberger subjects the interview process to the dictates of modern self-exploration. In the context of an arena with open bleachers, however, he turns this private process into a game under the purview of society.

The numerous self-portraits on view, from Kippenberger’s last years, are particularly striking in their unsparing portrayal of the artist’s body as it aged into a huge, shapeless mass. Images of him in his underwear recall the famous photo of Pablo Picasso in his bathing trunks. Kippenberger’s ironic posturing is often chalked up against him, but this seems unfair, since it might merely be the result of his attempts to liberate himself from the dogmatism of dialectical thought and its binary states of veracity and falsity, interior harmony and estrangement.

Wolf Jahn

Translated from German by Laura Hofmann.