If painting is a highway to hell, then Sigmar Polke rode it fast - but not as fast as Martin Kippenberger. This, in short, is the heroic view of Kippenberger's life and work. To see the art without the legend is particularly difficult, as Kippenberger has probably given birth to more myths than any German artist apart from Joseph Beuys. His work tends to come filtered through eye-witness accounts - and as witnesses become experts, so anecdotes become art history. The discussion of Kippenberger's work has so far taken place chiefly among the artists, critics and collectors who belonged to the artist's inner circle of friends, disciples or victims. Beyond this coterie a vast cult was generated by the magnetism of Kippenberger himself, a painter who emerged from the Punk scene and whose extreme lifestyle was brought to an abrupt and untimely end with his death in 1997, at the age of 44. In art academies across Germany and Austria he is possibly the most influential role model for, in particular, boys infatuated with the magic of his bad-painting, bad-guy posturing. In Frankfurt, Vienna or Berlin, Kippenberger's children, little rebel angels, squeeze into the corners of bars, competing fiercely over who will be the first to make their stomach bleed.
The idea of looking behind the social context to find the meaning of the work, however, is very problematic. What essentially makes Kippenberger's approach fascinating is its dynamic relationship to that context. He used art as a medium to respond to, criticize, celebrate or simply take the piss out of issues, phenomena or people he had just encountered. There are, for example, dozens of paintings from the early 1980s, which look as if Kippenberger employed the canvas as something disposable, so that he could be as quick to respond to certain events as the daily papers. 'Was ist bloß am Sonntag los?' (What on Earth Happens on Sunday, 1982), for instance, is a series of ten small paintings in which he mixes Polke with porn, throws in some Georg Baselitz Expressionist nonsense and adds tabloid imagery about love, terrorism, speeding cars and sausages - the flotsam of visual culture that rises to the surface of the canvas. The content is embodied in the title: 'What on Earth happens on Sunday?' could be the question haunting a party animal confronted with the horror vacui of lonely Sunday afternoons. Given this premise, the various visual motifs fall into place as examples of the different kinds of relationship that people imagine as a way of make themselves happy on Sundays, ranging from the stereotypical bourgeois couple through self-styled Bonnie and Clyde adventurers to a couple who have achieved complete sexual fulfilment.
In some works the joke is right in your face. The painting Ich kann beim besten Willen kein Hakenkreuz entdecken (For the Life of Me I Can't See the Swastika in This, 1984) shows a mess of twisted angular forms, absurd mutations of intertwined, yet still recognizable, swastikas. The work is a poignant commentary on the skills many of the born-again democrats in postwar West Germany developed in order to repress the continued evidence of Nazism in every aspect of daily life. In other works the joke is less easy to get. Many of Kippenberger's sculptures and installations (a medium in which he became increasingly interested from the mid-1980s on) are physical embodiments of complicated jokes or witty asides. Familie Hunger (The Hunger Family, 1985) is a pastiche of a generic Henry Moore sculpture, a group of abstract figures with a hole in their middle. It's easy to grasp the joke suggested by the title: perhaps the hole in the Moore represents an empty stomach and perhaps the modern masters would have made some less desperately heroic art if they had been given something decent to eat. What you might only figure out by accident (as it's not commonly known) is that Kippenberger's piece is a copy of the sculpture standing in the courtyard of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954). Now, where does that reference take you?
Things become even more esoteric in a series of works known as the 'Latexbilder' (Latex Pictures, 1990). The canvases are covered with latex and an obscure symbolism. Frankly, these objects look like shit and are impossible to decipher. If you want to know what they refer to, you will have to track down someone who can tell the story about the joke behind the work. Kippenberger made the in-joke a central principle of his work, part of his artistic strategy, deliberately barring access to certain levels of understanding. But any joke likes to be able to communicate with the audience, to be deciphered, which is why the curators of this retrospective at the Museum für Neue Kunst, Karlsruhe would have been well advised to look into providing some crucial reference points.
Sadly, however, no attempt was made to elucidate any of the social, cultural or political background on which the work thrives. On the contrary, the show takes its cue from later works in which Kippenberger portrays himself in painterly poses, for example in Untitled (1988), in which he parades in Picasso's underpants. The show then retrospectively interprets the whole of his oeuvre as relating to the theme of artistic self-reflection. Many of the more discursive works, such as Kippenberger's outstanding artist's books, are thus missing. Dialogue is replaced with monologue and the fiction of the masterly artist emerges.
A more appropriate approach was offered by the retrospective of Kippenberger's multiples at the Kunstverein Braunschweig. The show reconstructs the setting up of various actual exhibitions, thus capturing some of the spirit of Kippenberger churning out multiples with a humour bordering on abandon. There are bath mats in support of high culture: Klovorleger Goethestadt (Bath Mat Goethe's City, 1990), drunken frogs nailed to crucifixes (Fred the Frog Rings the Bell, 1990) or a set of empty frames by Imi Knoebel reused for a game of noughts and crosses (Tic-Tac-Toe, Tae-Kwon-Doe, 1990). Evidently no pun was too feeble - Kippenberger drastically undercut the unspoken law that art after Conceptualism is all about sophistication. There is nothing precious about the ideas behind the multiples. Some are brilliant, many are not, but all of them have the throwaway character expressed in the artist's frequently quoted slogan 'Heute denken, morgen fertig' ('Think today, be finished tomorrow'). The work seems to snarl at the audience 'You want art? Here, have some. Satisfied now?' If you were looking for proof of the Punk legacy in the work, it was right here.
Kippenberger and Candida Höfer have recently been nominated as the German representatives at the forthcoming Venice Biennale. A lot will depend on whether the curator succeeds in translating Kippenberger's idiosyncratic humour for an international audience. If he or she fails, Kippenberger will look like just another eccentric German genius. If the show succeeds, however, it could be the beginning of a critical reception that goes beyond a clique who are in on the joke.
First published in Issue 75