‘Art was not a reflection of his life, it was his life’
‘You can’t stand yourself next to every picture you paint and explain things. Pictures have to talk for themselves. Mostly the pictures you first set store by are not the interesting pictures. It’s the imperfect pictures that go on creating some sort of tension’
‘My father said that if I wanted to be an artist, I’d have to find my own style. That was the hardest thing of all for me. Finding my own style, I got very stuck until I suddenly realised that having no style is also a style, so that’s what I did. That set me free. Don’t worry about style but about what you want to say’
A masterpiece among Martin Kippenberger’s acclaimed series of multi-paneled paintings, this outstanding suite of nine individually-titled portraits is a landmark compendium from the watershed years of the artist’s practice, created in 1984. Playing the role of subversive impresario in a work of exceptional painterly and conceptual vision, Kippenberger assembles an unlikely cast of characters: an eclectic group of famous and unknown figures that includes Der Sohn von John Lennon als Frau verkleidet (John Lennon’s Son Dressed as a Woman), Walter Thieler + Freundin Renate Strobl (Walter Thieler + Girlfriend Renate Strobl) and the pornography star John Holmes. Within Kippenberger’s ninepart congregation, Die Mutter von Joseph Beuys (The Mother of Joseph Beuys) is a work of particular significance, presenting a smaller version of his same-titled painting of the same year. As Kippenberger’s great friend Albert Oehlen recalls, the artist based the work on a found photo. ‘We, in other words Büttner, Kippenberger and I, having dealt with the house-and-garden theme, went on to that of “mother.” And then Martin found the photo of Joseph Beuys’ mother. That is really something - an incredible picture. “Mother” was a theme that was treated with the highest reverence, but which somehow had something banal about it. We still had the song Mama in our ears, and the film title: Deutschland - bleiche Mutter [Pale Mother Germany] grabbed everyone, I suppose. For Martin, the theme had a similar function as the theme “egg.” The most demanding roads intersect with the most stupid’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in interview with T. Groetz, Pop Irony and Seriousness, Cologne 2005). This axiom was to become central to Kippenberger’s artistic language and persona, and it was in the euphoric company of his own comrades – the so-called ‘Hetzler boys,’ including Oehlen, Büttner and others – that Kippenberger took the Cologne art scene by storm during the first half of 1980s. Subversively invoking the language of Pop Art through his vivid portraits laid out like album covers, the present compendium captures something of the heady, creative milieu that spurred Kippenberger’s artistic development during this time. Like Picasso, Kafka, the Eggman and Fred the Frog – motifs that underpin his oeuvre – each of the characters presented here is to some extent a projection of Kippenberger’s own artistic ego, situated in the space between the irreverent and the profound that characterises his unique practice.
Rendered with vivid brushstrokes in delicate tones of light grey, Die Mutter von Joseph Beuys (The Mother of Joseph Beuys), presents an ironic engagement with Kippenberger’s German art-historical legacy. By depicting the mother, and not the artist himself, Kippenberger intentionally shifted the focus away from his larger-than-life predecessor Joseph Beuys, thereby challenging the artistic über-position Beuys occupied in and beyond Germany in the 1980s. As Oehlen recalls, ‘Beuys was the most spectacular artist of the period. He was full of avant-garde clichés, was constantly up to some nonsense or other, even appearing in Bild [Germany’s leading tabloid - and right-wing-newspaper]. So, just as Beuys was punishing social commitment with his quackery until it became art, Martin wanted to replace van Gogh’s sower with Harald Juhnke [a notoriously alcoholic German actor]. Both wanted to get at the roots of social phenomena’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in interview with T. Groetz, Pop Irony and Seriousness, Cologne 2005). Kippenberger directly compared himself to his predecessor, stating ‘he was a man of charisma and I am in the very last generation’ (M. Kippenberger, quoted in H.C. Dany, Stellen sie sich vor ein Mond scheint am Himmel, 58), implying that he, too, shared Beuys’ charismatic and artistic qualities. He embraced Beuys’ all-encompassing approach to art, which was deeply rooted in his theory of the extended definition of art, der erweiterte Kunstbegriff; his practice, too, stretched to music, film, books and poetry, characterized by constant irregularity and unpredictability. As Renate Puvogel has described this link, ‘Kippenberger, like no other, lives the idea of the extended definition of art as coined by Beuys’ (R. Puvogel, ‘Martin Kippenberger. Die Destruktion des Kunstwerks,’ Noema Art Journal, 1992, p. 33).
Kippenberger also pays homage to John Holmes (1944-1988), who made his fame and fortune in the 1970s and 1980s as one of the most prolific actors in American pornography. He also became infamous for his alleged association with the so-called Wonderland Murders, four unsolved killings which occurred in Los Angeles’s infamous drug house ‘Wonderland’ in 1981. Smiling broadly at the viewer and set against a golden background, however, nothing of the way in which Kippenberger depicted Holmes would give away this complex background. A similar play with his audience’s perception is at stake in Terroristennachwuchs aus dem südlichen Mittelmeer (Junior terrorists from the southern Mediterranean). Painted at a time when the memory of Germany’s left-wing terrorist group the Red Army Faction was still vividly present in the minds of his peers, Kippenberger irreverently evokes the political as well as social hypocrisies defining his contemporary environment, particularly through his reference to the Mediterranean – the preferred holiday destination of the German bourgeoisie.
The panel Gib Gas, Bulle (Step on it, Pig) equally incorporates conflicting cultural registers. Rendered in thick, expressive brush strokes it depicts the close up of a figure wearing what seems to be a military uniform and hat, with their face covered entirely by a gas mask. Staring directly at the viewer, the figure’s eyes are wide open as if in utter shock. Opposed to the figure’s clearly-rendered facial features is the torso, which is abstracted except for a military insignia visibly gracing the sleeve. Bright whites paired with dark blues, hues of grey and expressive strokes of black dominate the panel, creating the atmosphere of a rushed, nocturnal cloak-and-dagger operation. This is further emphasized by the title, urging the figure to ‘step on it,’ as if to avoid getting caught. Yet, placed within its cultural context, the title also relates to the musical Gib Gas – ich will Spass (Step on it – I want fun!) by Wolfgang Bueld, which hit the German box office in 1983, and proved a huge success, featuring teen music star Nena caught in a love triangle. As an artist who frequently misappropriated found sentences or images from popular culture, Kippenberger’s title Gib Gas, Bulle! may well be a direct quotation of the 1983 movie. In typical Kippenberger manner, however, this seemingly light-hearted reference is harshly opposed to the politically charged imagery of the gas mask, as well the work’s title, figuratively translated as ‘Step on it, cop!’
The epic format of Kippenberger’s compendium extends from his first-ever painting series Uno di Voi, un Tedesco a Firenze which, painted over a period of three months in Florence in 1976-77, presented an ironic reference to Gerhard Richter’s acclaimed 48 Portraits of 1972. In a wry subversion of Richter’s encyclopedic presentation of famous men, Kippenberger painted banal situations documenting his Italian sojourn, adorned with witty, misleading titles such as Detail of a child’s postcard, Palazzo Pitti Portier or The pigs of today are the hams of tomorrow. In Uno di Voi Kippenberger introduced a painterly aesthetic, which he would perfect in the 1980s, with the present work standing as a central example. His multi-paneled paintings tap into the very essence of his oeuvre. As an artist whose practice is founded on multiplicity and motivic layering, the compendiums collide and juxtapose autobiographical, cultural and historical reference alongside painterly experimentation. Here, the everyman mingles with the pseudo-celebrity; worlds collide, from fine art to pornography to music to politics. It is a fractured spectrum of a society through which Kippenberger would repeatedly examine, question, define and undermine his own artistic self-image.