Martin Kippenberger, Korrekte Syntax (Correct Syntax) (detail), 1987, wood, silk-screen print on Plexiglas, stickers, filing-card holder, 48 7/8 x 11 x 18 7/8". From the series “Peter-Skulpturen” (Peter Sculptures), 1987. All works © Estate Martin Kippenberger. Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne.

Martin Kippenberger, Korrekte Syntax (Correct Syntax) (detail), 1987, wood, silk-screen print on Plexiglas, stickers, filing-card holder, 48 7/8 x 11 x 18 7/8". From the series “Peter-Skulpturen” (Peter Sculptures), 1987. All works © Estate Martin Kippenberger. Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne.

Martin Kippenberger

Martin Kippenberger, Korrekte Syntax (Correct Syntax) (detail), 1987, wood, silk-screen print on Plexiglas, stickers, filing-card holder, 48 7/8 x 11 x 18 7/8". From the series “Peter-Skulpturen” (Peter Sculptures), 1987. All works © Estate Martin Kippenberger. Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne.

Hi, here I am, that must be enough.
—Martin Kippenberger

ALL OF BERLIN IS DELIGHTED: Martin Kippenberger is back in town. Contrary to popular belief, it was not in Cologne but here that the artist launched his career. It was in Berlin that he opened Kippenbergers Büro (an “office” specializing in communication) and where he served as bustling manager to the legendary punk club SO36. Inevitably, mention of his name is accompanied by nods to his unbounded lifestyle—as is currently the case at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof, where “Martin Kippenberger: Sehr Gut | Very Good” is framed (via introductory wall text) by a retelling of the storied painter’s “life of excess.” No doubt a wealth of anecdotes accompanies the circulation of his work, and no doubt this is largely due to various market players, art historians, and journalists building a posthumous legend around him. But this is hardly the whole story of Kippenberger’s oeuvre. Rich semantic density and conceptual complexity amount to much more than an expression of this artist’s persona, however incessantly his work brings the personal into play.

Take, for example, Kippenberger’s self-portrait Bitte nicht nach Hause schicken (Please Don’t Send Me Home), 1983, which is installed near the show’s entrance. Within the painting’s rapidly sketched four-by-three-foot area, the artist appears dressed in a suit, his face fixed in sheepish embarrassment. Around his neck hangs a large placard bearing the titular request. Behind him, the black ground suggests night or the dark interior of a club as the telltale square border of a Polaroid (defined in loose strokes of white) indicates the image’s source material. Kippenberger captured this snapshot of himself “bad painting” style in dry brushstrokes on rough canvas. But the photo itself incorporates yet another work—The Night Is Alright, 1982, a piece comprising both the wearing of the sign and its particular message, BITTE NICHT NACH HAUSE SCHICKEN. The tableau thus expands from a painted representation of a party photo to a mise en abyme of discursive objects—both the painting and the depicted placard as performative speech acts, rooted in a personal history that was as much the artist’s own as it was emblematic of life in West Germany at the time.

One can imagine how Kippenberger, a notoriously bad pupil, would have been particularly tortured as a child by the strictures of postwar pedagogy—and the accompanying threat of being sent home from school for breaking the rules. And so, as it is in the work of Hanne Darboven and Mike Kelley, school became something of an omnipresent theme in his oeuvre. School is likewise the literal site evoked in his well-known series of sculptures “Martin, ab in die Ecke und schäm dich” (Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself), 1989. These mannequins (one made of resin was on view here) are styled as the artist would typically dress himself. Installed as suggested by the title, they effectively turn the phenomenological space of Robert Morris’s 1964 Corner Piece into the disciplinary space of a common juvenile punishment. With Kippenberger, the personal always contains social and political dimensions, too.

This is certainly true of Bitte nicht nach Hause schicken, its title a line that evinces Kippenberger’s phobic resistance to the private sphere. Of course, Kippenberger was not alone: His circle of artists in ’80s Cologne famously tended to favor a life in public—specifically, the public life of the bar, where they would keep on drinking. Indeed, the work’s skewed alignment even suggests that the image’s maker (if not its viewer) was (or is still) drunk. The plea also recalls the distinctly negative connotations of femininity that the artistic universe of the early ’80s ascribed to the domestic realm. Yet perhaps the most pointed social reference in this work is that of Kippenberger’s pose, seeing as it evokes the famous photographs of Hanns-Martin Schleyer, the former Nazi officer and powerful industrialist who, in 1977, was held hostage by the Red Army Faction for forty-three days. During that period, the RAF photographed Schleyer multiple times holding a sign identifying him as their prisoner before shooting him dead. The comparison may be absurd—Schleyer’s situation was a matter of life and death, Kippenberger’s that of “merely” being a prisoner of himself, tortured by various teen traumas and an alcohol problem—but the artist’s politics have never claimed to be entirely serious. Rather, the gravity of this reference is mobilized to the same degree it is emptied out, as if to insist on an approach to history that is necessarily mediated by his individual persona and therefore insists on the possibility of mocking that history as well.

In light of Kippenberger’s singular imbrication of private and public, curators Udo Kittelmann and Britta Schmitz made a critical choice by presenting individual works apart from their respective series, emphasizing not so much the significance of macro themes or modes of production as so many isolated moments drawn from the artist’s personal life. The resulting display, however, feels oddly clinical. For instance, the awkward plywood object Korrekte Syntax (Correct Syntax), 1987, seems out of place appearing as a lone file cabinet rather than as it was typically shown, ensconced within a grouping of other “Peter Sculptures.” The common hinge of that 1987 series—Conceptualist aesthetics hilariously encumbered by existentialist pathos—is no doubt still intelligible, but the isolated work, covered on one side with pictures of the artist (in fact, copies of the very image on which Bitte nicht nach Hause schicken is based), focuses the viewer’s attention on Kippenberger’s social persona, privileging the microsocial details of the night portrayed over whatever broader questions the work might raise. Paradoxically, it is precisely the show’s wealth of biographical material that counteracts the exhibition’s painfully sterile atmosphere and ultimately redeems the show. And in this—the artist’s witticisms printed across the gallery walls; the glass cases containing invitation cards, letters, and catalogues; the myriad allusions to the artist’s early activities as an actor and band member, as well as the monitors looping old footage in which he was featured—the ghost of Kippenberger has been unleashed, as if back from the grave to bring this dead party to life.

The effect is especially strong within earshot of the audio piece Ja, Ja, Nee, Nee (Yes, Yes, No, No), 1995, which features Kippenberger’s own voice as he reenacts Joseph Beuys’s 1968 performance of nearly the same name. Unlike Beuys, however, whose meditative chant oscillates between ja and nee (Cologne dialect for nein) to satirize modernist art criticism’s penchant for apodictic assessments, the younger artist delivers his routine in the slurred vocalizations of one who’s had too much to drink. This persiflage of Beuys reveals the abyss, as it were, that lurks behind any subjective assignment of aesthetic value, showing such judgment to stand on no more solid legs than those of a drunkard.

In a separate section of the show installed on the museum’s upper level, an installation of Kippenberger’s so-called White Paintings similarly incorporates the act of critical evaluation (both aesthetic and pedagogical). In typical Kippenberger form, the story of how these paintings came to be is integral to the work’s meaning: In the winter of 1990–91, the artist reportedly asked a nine-year-old boy who lived nearby to have a look at some of his exhibition catalogues. The boy was then instructed to rate a selection of works “very good,” writing out a short description of each. The resulting texts, penned in the child’s own hand, were subsequently projected by the artist onto primed white canvases and traced in white gloss paint. The completed surfaces are barely legible.

Not unlike Mel Ramsden’s Secret Painting, 1967–68, Kippenberger’s White Paintings enact the old conceptual trope of having text stand in for image. But proffering childlike associations—such as the German for “old and new shoes” or “an old geezer vomits on the picture”—the words assigned to Kippenberger’s paintings are hardly commensurate with the august solemnity of their linguistic proposition. And this is precisely the point. Even while exploring the limits of Conceptual art’s linguistic games, they puckishly suggest that such discourse had by then (the early ’90s) become mere child’s play. The placement, therefore, in the adjacent room of Andrea Fraser’s Kunst muß hängen (Art Must Hang), 2001, seems misleading. This video (projected onto a wall containing a painting) shows a performance that Fraser gave at Cologne’s Christian Nagel gallery in which she recited, slurs and all, a drunken speech Kippenberger once gave. But this work was hardly intended as an act of unadulterated homage, and thus the juxtaposition here effectively misses the mark, asserting, instead, a sort of forced continuity between the two practices, disregarding the differences between their respective conceptions of institutional critique. Annexed to the Kippenberger empire, Fraser’s work is unable to exercise its full critical potential.

Yet this survey does bring out with unprecedented clarity the Kippenbergerian habitus that Fraser must have studied so carefully—postwar Germany’s prototypical disciplinary society. Appearing on video shot in the early ’80s, Kippenberger possessed a kind of military sharpness, the same hardness to which punk and new wave aspired. To whatever degree he embodied the hegemonic ideals of masculinity, he rebelled against them with equal force. For instance, the artist, in several later paintings included in this show, portrayed himself as a grotesque exaggeration of the hetero-male archetype—posing like Picasso in knit underwear but with beer belly exposed and the rest of his figure bizarrely atrophied. In these works and others, Kippenberger refracted disciplinary compulsions through the demands of a new economy obsessed with self-presentation. In another body of work—an early group of photographs made in 1975 while Kippenberger was still a student—he stands on a pedestal assuming a range of statuesque poses, from Adonis to bare-assed buffoon.

Unfortunately, such trouvailles cannot cover up the fact that The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika”, 1994; Jetzt geh ich in den Birkenwald, denn meine Pillen wirken bald (Now I Am Going into the Big Birch Wood, My Pills Will Soon Start Doing Me Good), 1990–91; and Heavy Burschi, 1989/90, as well as the series “Krieg Böse” (War Wicked), 1983, and “Preis-Bilder” (Prize/Price Pictures), 1987/94, among other benchmark works from Kippenberger’s career, are missing from this show. As if to compensate, the curators have emphasized the artist’s posters, which occupy nearly every room and are treated as on par with the paintings—deservedly, given the significance Kippenberger accorded this promotional format. But in some areas the posters’ presence only seems to underscore the exhibition’s weaknesses. This is particularly true in their unconvincing confrontation with Gartenskuptur, a room-size installation from 1968 by Dieter Roth and his son Björn. Indeed, Kippenberger’s manner of turning self into product has little to do with the diaristic strategy deployed by the Roths, and it is a shame, then, that the organizers rely on such a Roth-like deployment of personal effects and biographical framings to buoy this show, when Kippenberger’s own work could have so dynamically framed itself. After all, it is this ability—the capacity to produce one’s own context, social or otherwise—that has emerged as the central accomplishment of Kippenberger’s legacy.

“Martin Kippenberger: Sehr Gut | Very Good” is on view through August 18.

Isabelle Graw is a Berlin-based critic and the publisher of Texte zur Kunst.