Martin, ab in die Ecke und schäm dich (Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself) is a landmark sculpture that stands among the most iconic works to emerge from Martin Kippenberger’s complex, irreverent and wildly inventive practice. Executed in 1989—during which year it was acquired directly from the artist by the present owner—it is the first of a series of six sculptural self-portraits made in response to an article by the critic Wolfgang Max Faust, who had decried Kippenberger’s activities as cynical and infantile. Rather than contesting the charges, Kippenberger gladly incorporated this hostile reception into his self-image, furthering the daring, all-out conflation of art, life and performance that defined his artistic strategy. Striking the pose of a naughty schoolboy—facing the corner of the room, hands clasped behind his back—the Martin sculptures implicitly mocked the bourgeois values of his critics, while also playing with romantic ideas of the artist as a misunderstood outsider.
Art was not a reflection of his life: it was his life.”
In the present example, Kippenberger’s head and hands are carved from wood: those in later iterations—which include a brown resin version held in the Glenstone Museum, Potomac (1989), and one in gleaming aluminum in the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1992)—were cast from these original components. The work has been widely exhibited since its creation, including in the posthumous survey Martin Kippenberger at the Kunsthalle Basel and Deichtorhallen Hamburg (1998-1999), in the inaugural show Sculpture on the Move 1946-2016 at the newly enlarged Kunstmuseum Basel (2016), and, more recently, in the Kippenberger retrospective BITTESCHÖN DANKESCHÖN at the Bundeskunsthalle Bonn (2019-2020).
Striking the pose of a naughty schoolboy—facing the corner of the room, hands clasped behind his back—the Martin sculptures implicitly mocked the bourgeois values of his critics, while also playing with romantic ideas of the artist as a misunderstood outsider.”
The real Kippenberger cut an elegant figure in his heyday, standing over six foot two, and impeccably tailored at public appearances. In the sculpture, he presents himself as gauche and diminished, with his head gently bowed, and some four inches shorter than life-size. He is awkwardly attired in cheap brown leather shoes, a checked white shirt and too-short slacks held up by suspenders. The shirt’s sleeves have been visibly taken in, aping the way in which hand-me-down clothes were made to fit during Kippenberger’s postwar childhood. With these ill-fitting, old-fashioned garments, he pictures himself as a well-behaved stiff, conforming to the ideal seemingly demanded by critics like Faust. Facing the corner, he places himself at a sharp formal remove from sculpture’s usual heroic pedestal. At once humorous and abject, this avatar for the artist is a powerful distillation of Kippenberger’s approach to his audience, in which self-promotion and self-abasement were two sides of the same coin. The motto he lived by, as his sister Susanne Kippenberger recalled, was “Peinlichkeit kennt keine Grenzen. Embarrassment has no limits” (S. Kippenberger, quoted in M. Purves, “Susanne Kippenberger on ‘Kippenberger’”, The Paris Review, March 13, 2012).
His work is not simply about getting to the truth or unearthing dirty secrets, but about uncovering the mechanisms that produce meaning and the ways in which they define the role and position of the artist.”
The critic Diedrich Diederichsen has characterized Kippenberger as a Selbstdarsteller: literally a “self-performer.” In a practice far broader than that accorded by the term “artist” at the time, he took on myriad different guises throughout his career, traveling incessantly and constantly exploring new avenues of production. Even a brief account of his movements is dizzying. In 1976, with a large inheritance following the death of his mother, he set off to Florence in search of acting work, aiming to capitalize on his resemblance to Visconti’s handsome muse Helmut Berger. He moved to Berlin in 1978, where he managed the post-punk nightclub SO36. In 1980, he attempted to write a novel while based in Paris. The following year he visited Siena and Stuttgart, and created the first of what might be called his unorthodox “self-portraits”, for which he employed a poster painter to make paintings from his photographs, styling himself as an airbrushed movie-star. In Cologne, alongside his friends Werner Büttner and Albert Oehlen, he became the charismatic center of the hard-partying, boisterous and iconoclastic scene that surrounded Max Hetzler’s gallery, which opened there in 1983. Kippenberger blossomed in this performative milieu. He and Oehlen, in particular, collaborated on countless musical and artistic projects, spurring each other on in creation and debauchery alike. “This exciting relationship, in which each person in the circle would try to surprise the others, was the most beautiful thing in my artistic life”, Oehlen remembered. “Just to get a smile from Martin and Werner was much more valuable than doing something with other people” (A. Oehlen, quoted in D. Birnbaum, “Ripening on the Rhine: the Cologne Art World of the ’80s”, Artforum, March 2003).
Not everybody enjoyed the Hetzler boys’ antics. Oehlen reflected that “we made asses of ourselves and made everyone hate us. We climbed on the tables and pulled down our pants—extreme artist-behavior. It was also extremely exhausting” (A. Oehlen, quoted in S. Kippenberger, Kippenberger: the Artist and his Families, New York 2011, p. 246). For critics like Faust, the joke soon started to wear thin. He accused Kippenberger—“little more than a petit-bourgeois German trying to make his mark”—of cynically presenting the offensive language and attitudes “favored by German pub-going plebs … as showstoppers, twistedly facilitated and masochistically excused by alcohol” (W. M. Faust, “Der Künstler als exemplarischer Alkoholiker,” Wolkenkratzer Art Journal, 3, May/June 1989, p. 21). In fact, Kippenberger—born to a thoroughly middle-class family in 1953—toyed with vulgar jokes and uneasy subject matter precisely to critique the “petit-bourgeois” society he came from. Postwar Germany faced an identity crisis, with the options seemingly either a corrosive national guilt or blinkered, pious optimism at the country’s Marshall-Plan-era economic miracle, which itself was inseparable from the shadow of the war. In their provocative, post-punk approach to the confused comedy of values into which they had been born, Kippenberger and Oehlen were challenging their audiences, and German popular culture at large, to look at themselves anew.
The problem of postwar, peacetime Germany was, most emphatically, a problem of the model.”
A dialogue with authority in its various forms lay at the heart of Kippenberger’s “self-performance.” Living with Oehlen in Spain in 1988, he had painted a breakthrough series of hilarious, wretched self-portraits, burlesquing the image of Picasso as the genius-king of painting by picturing himself as an overweight alcoholic in his underwear. The Martin sculptures followed soon afterwards. They responded not just to Faust’s attack, but also—like the “Picasso” paintings—to more broadly received Modernist clichés about the role of the artist in society. Great artists, it seemed, had always followed their own rules: the narrative surrounding artists like Jackson Pollock, in particular, framed self-destructive alcoholism and tumult as the necessary, mythic suffering of a heroic protagonist. Kippenberger toed a fine line, at once taking behavioral license from this lineage and clownishly parodying its excesses. Sent to the corner as a pariah, was he not another brilliant outcast, a martyr to his creative demons? Further art-historical satire is visible in the Martin sculptures, too. German Romantic painters like Caspar David Friedrich had used the Rückenfigur, or figure seen from behind, as a device to bring viewers into the picture, contemplating the sublime vastness of creation before them. Kippenberger’s bathetic Rückenfigur—blank, chastised, and meekly passive—faces an empty wall.
The work’s vision of juvenile disobedience also had a personal resonance for Kippenberger. In 1989, at almost exactly the moment Kippenberger’s own daughter was born, his father died. He had been a dominant figure in the artist’s childhood, and a fierce enforcer of the staid values against which he later rebelled. (Kippenberger himself was a gifted but unruly child, and left school at fifteen, angry at receiving only the second-best mark in his art class.) He recalled being taken with his siblings to the Folkwang Museum in Essen, where his father “would declare a contest, where the five of us had to go off on a search for the very best picture in the whole place. The winner was given a mark. Of course, we always went to hunt for the picture we thought our father would like the most, and not for the picture that seemed personally most important to any of us. We always started on the basis of the pictures that were hanging at home in the living room, and that led quickly to Franz Marc’s horses. So everybody came away with his mark. That wasn’t really much stimulus for free thinking. All our father really wanted was self-confirmation” (M. Kippenberger, quoted in J. Koether, “Martin Kippenberger”, Flash Art International, No. 156, January-February 1991). For Kippenberger, aesthetic and filial defiance had long been intertwined.
He enacted the artistic drive in the extreme, flirted consistently with failure, and in his manic, exaggerated, remorseless way, exposed the human vulnerability behind all great art.”
By sending himself into the corner, then, Kippenberger stages the burden of a particular form of Germanness, and enacts his own oedipal revolt against the complex figures of father and Fatherland. As part of his Gesamtkunstwerk—the brilliant, totalizing theatrical construct that was his art and life—the sculpture asserts his humanity with mercurial humor and bathos: countering his solemn, mystical pedagogic predecessor Joseph Beuys, who said that every person was an artist, Kippenberger makes the claim that every artist is a human being. In 1989, the cultural landscape of Germany was changing. The Berlin Wall would fall in November, and the intense Cologne art scene began to drift apart. Kippenberger continued to diversify his prolific, nomadic and decentralized practice as he held shows in Cologne, Los Angeles and New York—making plans for a simultaneous, tripartite exhibition across all three cities—and moved to the LA neighborhood of Venice towards the end of the year. Martin, into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself marks the culmination of a groundbreaking decade, and presages the ever-more ambitious years that would follow, until his death, in 1997, at the age of just forty-four. “I’ve reached the point, in any case, of finding myself by now incapable of living a normal life”, he told Jutta Koether in 1991. “If that’s what I wanted I’d have to give up making art. Everything you present to the world is something you have to stand by” (M. Kippenberger, quoted in J. Koether, ibid.).