'I am not an easel-kisser, I actually have nothing to do with painted pictures. That's why one of my solutions for this problem has been to let others paint for me, but only in the way I need it, the way I see it' (Kippenberger, quoted in A.M. Gingeras (ed.), Dear Painter, paint me... Painting the Figure since late Picabia, exh. cat., Paris, Vienna & Frankfurt, 2002, p. 69)
Self-portraits were the cornerstones of Kippenberger's entire artistic practice, a perfect arena for him to explore, exploit, undermine and question the entire role of art and the artist within society. Just as Kippenberger's personality and self-presentation were central to his strategies of disruption, confusion and iconoclasm, so the self-portraits became the key battlegrounds. Given that most of Kippenberger's hugely expansive oeuvre represented some form of self portrait, it is only natural that arguably the greatest paintings he made were self-portraits. From his first important series of paintings, Uno di voi, un Tedesco in Firenze of 1976, a group of disparate paintings of the same size and technique which when stacked upon each other were supposed to measure his own height (something he famously failed to achieve), to the acclaimed picutres in which he painted himself as an obese figure wearing over-sized underwear, inspired by and lampooning a famous photograph of Picasso. However, it is arguably the series Lieber Maler Male Mir (Dear Painter, Paint me), which most directly questioned the nature of self portraiture in art history. The overall cycle of twelve paintings in Lieber Maler, male mir..., which were the subject of Kippenberger's first solo museum exhibition held at the Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst in Berlin in 1981, remain one of his greatest artistic statements. Untitled shows one of the four self-portrait images from this celebrated series, in which the artist is viewed from behind, arm in arm with a friend, strolling along a street in Dusseldorf, seemingly in contemplation of where the night will take them. With the artist dressed top to toe in a suit, all seems fairly harmless and fine, until we realise that Kippenberger has turned the entire notion of self portraiture on its head by asking a renowned local poster painter, Werner, to paint the painting for him, hence the title of the series. Thus a self-portrait, which has traditionally been a forum for the artist to bear his soul and show us the inner self, simply becomes a commissioned depiction of 'self'. In a very cold and photo-realist manner, Werner has massively enlarged the scale of a photographic snapshot. When Kippenberger's sister visited the original exhibition, which was itself such a bold and highly-publicised early statement of intent for the artist, she was so struck by the original version of Untitled that Kippenberger arranged for the present work to be made, which is on a slightly smaller scale than the rest of the series.
The series comprised twelve images which Kippenberger selected from a repertoire of photographs at his disposal and gave them all to Werner to paint on the same scale of canvas, each two by three metres. At a time, when two of the driving trends in art were Appropriation Art and Neo Expressionism, this series was a sly comment on both concepts and actually assisted with diverting the direction of both. Whilst the Neo Expressionists were re-claiming the heroic individuality of the artist through the revival of the most tangible form of paint as reflection of personality, Kippenberger was deferring the painting of self to another, commercial or professional, artist. Where the Appropriation artists, such as Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman were re-presenting the art of others, as their own, Kippenberger was commissioning new art as his own. This is a tactic which would become commonplace for this generation of artists, like Jeff Koons and later Damien Hirst, but was incredibly controversial at the time. Here was an artist who was not only embracing the commercial world of professional art, but presenting it as his own work in the 'serious' arena of Museum exhibition. Other images in the group were almost overtly 'commercial' in their imagery, a sweet painting of a dog, a still life, a close-up of pens in a jacket pocket and so forth, but it was the four paintings of Kippenberger himself, which formed the centrepiece of the series and have come to be seen as some of his most important works. In one, continuing the touristic theme of his Florence paintings, he was shown in New York, sitting in a debonair pose on a discarded sofa in the street next to bags of trash; in a second he was shown dressed up in a fur-trimmed coat and hat, leaning against a wall decorated with East German slogans; in another, he was shown wearing large underpants, badly lit, carrying hoops of what appears to be rubber.
Untitled is perhaps the most revolutionary composition in this group, as it manages to gnaw at a number of issues while, through its photorealist appearance, retaining an air of aloofness and inscrutability. The idea of turning one's back on the viewer so that one cannot even see his face in a self-portrait is itself an assault on the expectations of the genre, yet one that invokes the legacy of German Romantic painting. Almost as if to turn the sacred concepts of the great German Romantic painter on its head, Kippenberger here presents himself not alone, but almost in need of the support of a friend; not in front of a gorgeous landscape which speaks of the oneness of man and nature, but outside the Ratinger Hof. This bar in the Altstadt in Dusseldorf was an important hang-out for artists at the time, as well as being one of the great apexes of the punk scene in Germany, with which Kippenberger was himself deeply associated. Indeed, as well as a painter, a writer, a collector, a curator and numerous other badges and labels, Kippenberger was himself a musician, and even released a greatest hits album some years after Untitled was painted, reflecting the breadth of the arsenal at his disposal that he used in order to get his profoundly discordant and disruptive message across. Kippenberger was a Selbstdarsteller, a self-promoter, peddling himself and all the baggage that came with him, and this was most apparent in his self-portraits. After all, what are they, if not painterly arenas for self-promotion? 'I am a traveling salesman,' he declared. 'I deal in ideas. I do much more for the people than just paint them pictures' (Kippenberger, quoted in A.M. Gingeras (ed.), Dear Painter, paint me... Painting the Figure since late Picabia, exh. cat., Paris, Vienna & Frankfurt, 2002, p. 69).
This series threw into question the entire notion of authorship upon which so much of the cult of the artist relies. Kippenberger has enacted a Duchampian manoeuvre, having his own self-portrait painted by another hand; indeed, in Untitled he doubtless took glee in further complicating the issue by duplicating the 1981 original. In a sense, he was chipping away at the entire notion of painting as a discipline. 'I am not an easel-kisser,' he explained. 'I actually have nothing to do with painted pictures. That's why one of my solutions for this problem has been to let others paint for me, but only in the way I need it, the way I see it' (Kippenberger, quoted in ibid., p. 69). It is a tribute to the importance of his success that, over a decade after his death, he remains a key figure in the development of contemporary art, a legacy recognised in the recent retrospectives given to him at Tate, London in 2006 and more recently at MOCA, Los Angeles and MoMA, New York. Furthermore, a recent survey of contemporary painting, which included all of the major painters of our time, like Peter Doig, Marlene Dumas and Luc Tuymans at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris in 2002-2003, was named after this series, Dear painter, paint me.