Nothing motivated Martin Kippenberger more than the chance to realize an exhibition. But no trace of this enthusiasm is to be found in his current Hamburger Bahnhof show. It is ‘not a retrospective’, as the press release explicitly states, but rather ‘an approximation of both the private and public persona of the artist’. Don’t get me wrong: the result is well worth seeing, the biggest Kippenberger solo show ever put together in Germany, with around 300 works. Sixteen years after his death, it must inevitably be understood as a long overdue apology, laid on the grave of this ‘difficult artist’ by one of the high horses of Germany’s exhibition-making industry. During his lifetime, decision-makers in public institutions avoided him so resolutely and with such unanimity as to give the impression of having been driven by fear to sign a pact to this effect. Other countries have been far more generous, beginning some years ago, though also without the artist’s direct involvement: extensive solo shows have been devoted to his work by MOCA (Los Angeles), MoMA (New York) and London’s Tate Modern (the latter being the only one seen in Germany, at Düsseldorf’s K21). The fact that these exhibitions took place at the world’s most prestigious international venues is especially significant in view of the fact that much of Kippenberger’s art defies translation. His ‘language’ is so deeply and awkwardly rooted in the wealth and misery of German cultural history that multiple diversions and aids are usually called for before the unusual power and significance of any given work can be defined.
For Kippenberger, an exhibition was not just an opportunity to put a few objects from his studio onto the waiting walls. Instead, it was a special challenge and perhaps even the key element in his strategy. Hamburger Bahnhof responded to this challenge by withdrawing to a position of mediocrity, using stock-in-trade museum techniques: the works were slightly sorted and loosely spread, punctuated by the occasional enlarged photograph or pithy statement by the artist. There was absolutely no reason not to apply the usual label of ‘retrospective’ to this faceless affair. Perhaps this is just the way things go in such cases where the artist – as we all know – had to die to gain recognition. Since his passing, exhibitions of his work have reflected the way a bureaucratic culture views its task of securing cultural assets: a more or less neutral hanging, posing no threat to good taste and giving no cause for concern, without traps or detours. And above all without humour – a lack that is especially striking when applied to Kippenberger.
The show’s managerial distance from the material was further enhanced by its airy hanging, an obvious enough approach in the spacious Rieckhallen. But the works can take it. They are effective even in isolation. It should be emphasized at this point that paintings and sculptures by Kippenberger are astonishingly powerful when encountered ‘in the flesh’. They tend to possess a carefully gauged eye-catching potential that ensures impact even in reproduction. Adapted to the tempo of image overload, they initially come across in the exhibition as old acquaintances, before developing a very different preciseness. Kippenberger was never a mere accessory to his concepts. When executing a picture, he would build on an idea until it became visible in the material. Painting had to serve by all means necessary and be willing to make any sacrifice.
Taking the exhibition as theme was by no means the comical quirk of a droll solo entertainer. In the 1970s, discussions of the ‘extended definition of art’ (Joseph Beuys, etc.) had so strengthened artists’ claims that little stood in the way of a ‘friendly takeover’ of all fields still in the hands of institutional bureaucrats. Kippenberger pursued this campaign with both rigour and lightness of touch, jovially or, if necessary, with violence, step by step and then as a whole. Invitation card, poster, catalogue, official opening … at every point, he called the shots and demonstrated a different kind of attentiveness, a different responsibility of the artist, a different social significance. By the end of the 1980s, his praxis had become established as something akin to a style: especially in the Cologne art scene, a corresponding nomenclature existed. It was a contest of ideas, extremely praxis-orientated. The deal was: only come to an agreement with ‘the business’ if a new type of artistic takeover can be demonstrated.
In the 1990s, however, this ‘style’ was formalized. What previously had been an expansion of the artist’s own scope for action was strategically reduced and not a little simplified. Things took a more theoretical turn and – fittingly – a minimalist tendency. Now, the comparatively extravagant unpredictability of Kippenberger seemed inappropriate. It was no wonder, then, that adherents of the new art style (sometimes referred to as ‘Context Art’) increasingly saw themselves called into question or felt compromised by the older man’s less easily formalized escapades. Certain former friends suddenly concluded that this ‘Kippenberger with his circus’ was no longer necessary – differences which then evaporated as soon as he died.
Capitalizing on one’s own scarcity, withdrawing from ‘the business’ and inflating the value of what little is left with ‘theory’ – such an approach was out of the question for Kippenberger. He fought recuperation with takeovers: extend your territory, give each work a clearer voice within its context, integrate it. This resistance was rehearsed in the various series he made in the early 1980s: Vom Einfachsten nach Hause (Home from the simplest) is featured in the Hamburger Bahnhof show, including Alkoholfolter (Alcohol Torture, both 1981–2), an assemblage that draws together two strands of the series and presents singling out a single canvas from the diptych as ‘pain’. The Berlin show was able to deploy the drinking joke as a prophetic interlude. Present in spirit, Kippenberger came to the aid of his own historicization. For when this ‘exceptional artist’ is discussed today, the focus is almost exclusively on his person, the available attention being more or less exhausted – as one might expect from moralists – by his drinking and his early death as its negative consequence: ‘Tod böse!’ (Death Evil!) This much he knew. What he couldn’t know was that such a large exhibition would not be accompanied by a proper catalogue (apart from a small publication on the White Pictures of 1991 that has yet to appear) – the second innovation of this ‘non-retrospective’. Here, too, the ‘approach’ taken avoids the artist precisely where he manifested himself most distinctly, in the elevation of the exhibition catalogue to the status of an artist’s book. No retrospective, no catalogue … this is the trademark of a high-handed bureaucratic culture that has learned to give its failures a positive spin, openly promoting what it ‘doesn’t do’ as something special. Every accounts department is happy if something can be sold that doesn’t cost anything. These officials do not care for art in the first place, so talking about it overly much would be superfluous. And this is reflected in the way art is treated in the context of this exhibition: say nothing about the work, and say all the more about the artist and his personal history. Such an approach really does make a catalogue unnecessary. Kippenberger knew that he stood in the way of his own success and that he would have to exit the stage before the grand reception could take place. His parting words were: never give up before it’s too late. Anyone who works through this statement from beginning to end will surely ponder its meaning. The meaning is there, but these few words are not enough to name it.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
First published in Issue 10