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One of the great series of so-called underpants or Picasso self-portraits painted in Spain in the summer of 1988, Untitled is a work that marks an entirely new and uniquely Kippenbergian approach to the art of self-portraiture and the ways in which an artist can use their self-image to project their work, their attitude and their aesthetic.
With its centralized image of the artist both immersed in and seemingly rising from the most recognizable and monolithic of his celebrated Peter sculptures, the painting is, in many respects an anti-self-portrait and a major testament to Martin Kippenberger’s fierce sense of self-identification as an ordinary man entirely devoted to his work and as an artist who saw himself as a ‘living vehicle’ of his art. One of the most cohesive and instantly recognizable images from this great series of paintings, Untitled is, however, in its deliberately ambiguous, anti-heroic, anti-iconic and un-monumental nature also a highly appropriate symbol of Kippenbeger’s life and aesthetic. As such, it is a painting, that paradoxically now stands as a kind of monolithic testimonial to Kippenberger and as a suitably ambiguous and iconic monument to who the man was and what he represented.
The genesis of this extraordinary series of paintings began on a spring day in 1988 when Kippenberger checked into a small, run-down B in Vienna named the Pension Elite. The artist, raconteur, impresario, poet, DJ, night-club owner and enfant-terrible of the Berlin and Cologne art-scenes had been invited to open a disco in the city and had agreed, solely on the condition that its organizers put him up at the best hotel in town. Unbeknownst to them, Kippenberger’s visit had coincided with Vienna’s Festival Week and all the hotels in the city were booked. The grubby, dilapidated and misleadingly-named Pension Elite was the best that could be arranged. Standing alone in the shabby room of the hotel, dressed solely in a bright new pair of large white underpants, this now bearded and middle-aged-looking man, seems to have paused for a brief moment of calm self-contemplation in the mirror and to take stock of himself. He had, at last, arrived on the international stage and yet, from his distended belly Kippenberger would have seen how the exuberance of his exhausting life had begun to take its toll. Sticking it out further to exaggerate it, as he had once done seven years before in an earlier self-portrait, the artist also appears to have experienced an intriguing mixture of both pride and embarrassment in his physical condition.
Appearing to be part-monument, part-collage, this simultaneously self-mocking and self-aggrandizing image is also a lampooning of the myth of the great artist in the form of Picasso and in particular David Douglas Duncan’s famous photograph of the great Spanish artist also standing proudly in his underpants alongside his Afghan hound outside La Californie in 1951. Showing Kippenberger standing in the same pose and clothing but, shabby and very much within his own milieu, Untitled is a painting that spans the gulf between the grubby room of the Pension Elite and the Olympian heights of Picasso’s art-stardom on the Côte d’Azur and is, like Kippenberger himself therefore, an extraordinary and fascinating blend of contradictions.
Created at a time when many cultural observers believed painting to be either a dead or largely redundant medium, this picture is a work that marks not just Kippenberger’s sense of his own arrival and achievement but also an entirely unique and original development in what a painting can both be and do. It is a painting that breathes new life and complexity into what was previously considered to be the rather dusty and outdated painterly tradition of self-portraiture and is one that has since come to be singled out as a symbol of the ‘triumph of painting’ in the post-modernist era. Grandiose and yet also deliberately banal, awkward, ambiguous and open-ended, Untitled is a work that, as in so many of Kippenberger’s self-portraits, ultimately derives its resonant power from the extraordinary collision of art and life that the man himself embodied. In particular, in this case, the enduring appeal of this painting lies in its powerful, provocative but also open-ended and ambiguous imagery— an imagery that deliberately expounds precisely the same paradoxical mixture of pride, embarrassment, banality and fearless, naked honesty about himself that had first prompted the artist to photograph himself as a kind of Homer-Simpson-Everyman languishing in the grotty interior of the Pension Elite.
Because a self-portrait represents a meeting point between the artist’s life and his work, and because, for Kippenberger, his life was so inextricably wound up with his work that, to a large extent, it became indistinguishable from it, self-portraiture formed one of the cornerstones of his art. In a manner that seems to both anticipate and warn of the folly and banality of today’s self and selfie-obsessed generation of Facebook and Instagram users, Kippenberger, in a host of media that included posters, photographs, invitations and flyers, as well as exquisite drawings and ambitious full-blown oil paintings, produced an almost endless stream of self-portraits and self-images in which he developed the medium to the point of its becoming a kind of performance art. Appearing in a range of guises that ran all the way from the ecstatic and the self-laudatory to the downright abject and embarrassing, he established himself as an artist who toyed with and undermined the conventions and concepts of self-portraiture like no other painter before or since.
The artist who was, as his many drawings attest, in fact a prodigiously talented draughtsman, often chose at this time, to work directly against his natural ability, adopting, a deliberately clumsy style of painting that suggested a lack of ability and bestowed his work with an intriguing aura of ordinariness and failure. His preoccupation with a celebration of the ordinary was to culminate in 1987 and 1988 with the creation of his Peter cupboard sculptures and, as in Untitled, with the pictorial fusion of these sculptures with that of his own self-image. Representing what has variously been described as a “defining moment in Kippenberger’s oeuvre” and as marking the artist’s “contribution to the international art world’s ongoing discussion of the body,” both these seminal series of works represent a collision of utopian functionalism and botched human failure. (A. Goldstein, “The Problem Persepctive,” Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2009, p. 87 and Daniel Baumann, “The way you wear your hat,” in Martin Kippenberger exh cat., Basel, 1998, pp. 64-65).
Painted in Spain in the summer of 1988, Kippenberger was now in Picasso’s native land and this can only have brought this artistic god further forward in Kippenberger’s mind. From his early childhood onwards, Kippenberger had been keenly aware of Picasso ever since his father, a keen amateur painter, had filled their house with reproductions of work by the great artists of history that, of course, included works by Picasso. As a nine-year-old Kippenberger had even appropriated some of these reproductions of Picasso’s work for use in his own collages. Picasso’s example as an artistic giant who stood in direct contrast to that of Kippenberger’s own amateur-painter father’s unfulfilled dreams of being a professional painter would, from early on in Kippenberger’s life, have played a significant role in the young artist’s mind and in his own developing sense of self and his identity as an artist. In the 1970s, when Kippenberger set up his own publishing enterprise in Berlin, he replaced the “c” of Picasso’s name with the “k” of his own, calling the company, Pikasso’s Erben Verlag (the Heirs of Pikasso Press).
More than as a painter though, it was as an idol, as the supreme king of modern art that Kippenberger most revered Picasso; because of the way ‘he’d made it Kippenberger once said, “independent of his works.”(M. Kippenberger, “Interview with Jutta Koether,” Martin Kippenberger: I had a Vision, exh. cat . San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1990, p. 161) With perhaps the exception of his first self-depiction in underpants in the 1981 Lieber maler male mir… series, Kippenberger’s first appropriated use of David Douglas Duncan’s famous picture of Picasso was in 1985 when he reproduced the photograph as a flyer for an exhibition of his in Tenerife amusingly entitled “I could lend you something but I wouldn’t be doing you any favors.” Alongside the underwear paintings he made in Carmona and Madrid in 1988, the culmination of this tendency in his work came in 1996 with Kippenberger’s series of paintings based on David Duncan’s 1980s photographs of Picasso’s widow Jacqueline which he entitled Jacqueline: The paintings Pablo couldn’t paint anymore.
In referencing Picasso in the self-portraits that he made in Spain, Kippenberger was both undermining the great artist-persona that Picasso had set up—poking fun at it by re-translating Douglas Duncan’s picture into his own shabby environment, and reclaiming the territory occupied by Picasso’s posturing. At the same time as lampooning the Picasso brand, however, Kippenberger was also knowingly elevating his own self-status, legend and public profile to the same level, simultaneously both de-bunking the Picasso-myth and claiming his own place in it as an ‘heir-apparent’. This is a feature of these paintings which in the late 1980s seemed both impertinent and preposterous, but one which over time, and as perhaps Kippenberger indeed knew, has come to be seen as a more justifiable or even rightful pairing and inheritance. When Charles Saatchi, for instance, was asked by a journalist in 2005 why he had included Kippenberger’s work in his exhibition titled “The Triumph of Painting,” he immediately answered by making a Kippenberger-Picasso comparison: ‘Kippenberger!’ he said. He’s ‘the Picasso of our times! …I’m certain of it. In twenty years people will see it. Like Picasso, he was never committed to any one style. Perhaps I should have just done a Kippenberger show.’ (C. Saatchi, quoted in J. Wullschlager, “A Joyless Triumph in Saatchi’s Labyrinth,” Financial Times, London, 25 January, 2005, p. 13).
Whether the image of himself in his underpants that Kippenberger projected as a counter pin-up to the Picasso image is a “true” image of the private Martin Kippenberger or just another projection is, of course, a matter of conjecture. As Robert Storr has written, Kippenberger in his self-portraits often “hams it up not to draw us close to his true self but to direct our attention away from the very possibility that such a self exists within the hall-of-mirrors that multiply and distort his image.” (R. Storr, Martin Kippenberger Self-Portraits, New York, 2005, p. 15) The open-ended ambiguity of Kippenberger’s middle-aged-travelling-salesman-in-his underpants-figure and of the series of self-portraits it gave rise to is an important aspect of these paintings that Kippenberger himself was very much aware of, even actively reinforcing it through the motif of the balloons that accompany several of these works.
These light, fragile entities, that rise and fall, that are delicate, full of hot-air and prone to suddenly bursting and disintegrating, bestow these works with a sense of novelty, movement and transience that counteracts the grim sense of gravitas that Kippenberger’s self-image appears to project. In Untitled there is just the vaguest trace of a Kippenberger-balloon in the form of a single curving line drawn as a dramatic outline around the central image of the Kippenberger-Wittgenstein box. As in several of these 1988 self-portraits, its appearance generates a sense of lightness and elevation that opposes the bulky sense of weight given by the sagging figure of Kippenberger and the density of the Wittgenstein cabinet. In other paintings from the series, balloons are depicted with greater and lesser degrees of clarity, obscuring the face of the artist in one, and rising behind him like wings in another. In both these works the artist is shown attempting to secure the rising balloons with a string, as if fearful of their flying away.
The symbolism and meaning of these balloons is not known and has therefore given rise to much speculation that ranges from their representing the fleeting nature of the avant-garde and the mortality of man to the fragile art-market bubble that crashed and boomed in the late 1980s. Anke Kempkes has written that the balloons are symbolic of Kippenberger’s art as a whole and of his aspiration and hope that they might grant him immortality. Perhaps Kippenberger was hoping, she writes, “that his pictures would be able to take from him some of the ballast of an artistic identity which had become history but was still attached to his body,” and that when, as in Untitled, Kippenberger places his “objects in the sign of the balloon” he is “infusing them, ready for take off.” (A. Kempkes in Nach Kippenberger, Eindhoven, 2003, p. 117).