‘In the Cold War era, Kipppenberger not only indiscriminately placed politicians from the East and West side by side. He also put them next to stars from German popular culture and thus chose a theme in the eighties that today has become part of daily life: the medial construction of identity, which reduces people in the public eye to an image outside their various motivations’
(P. Kind, ‘Martin Kippenberger: Of Painters and the Painted’, in Dear Painter, paint me... Painting the Figure since late Picabia, exh. cat., Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2002, p. 66).
‘The fulcrum of his artistic ideas was his own persona. It was always the person Martin Kippenberger that faced up to everyday reality. He described himself as “one of you” and declared that “every artist is also a human being”, turning Beuys’s famous dictum the other way. His own individuality, with all its vulnerability and particular life circumstances served as a source of inspiration for his art’
(E. Meyer-Hermann, ‘Yes, I am also a woman. Tragedies of the Flesh’, Kippenberger Meets Picasso, exh. cat., Museo Picasso, Malaga, 2011, p. 63).
‘Persistent analysis has resulted in finding that every artist is a human being’
(M. Kippenberger, quoted in S. Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artist and his Families, Berlin 2007, p, 525).
‘1980 was a rupture in Germany. Painting had just recently seemed empty invalid and irrelevant, and suddenly “to paint again” was an unavoidable slogan among contemporary artists’
(M. Hermes, quoted in S. Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artist and his Families, Berlin 2007, p, 200).
‘Here was an artist you could reach out and touch – someone you could go out with at night. Martin really was an amazingly entertaining person, who got people excited and intrigued with him’
(M. Hetzler, quoted in S. Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artist and his Families, Berlin 2007, p, 218).
Painted during the watershed year of 1981, Martin Kippenberger’s twenty-one-part compendium Bekannt durch Film, Funk und Polizeinotrufsäulen (A celebrity in film, radio, television and police call boxes) is among the largest and most significant of the artist’s celebrated multi-panelled works. As the centrepiece of Kippenberger’s first solo exhibition at Max Hetzler’s Stuttgart gallery – a show that effectively launched his career – the work captures the zeitgeist of the 1980s media circus on the brink of the artist’s own rise to fame. A rare early self-portrait – Kippi kleines Arschloch (Kippi little asshole) – represents an irreverent subversion of van Gogh’s 1889 Portrait de l’artiste, anticipating his later self-depictions as Pablo Picasso. It rubs shoulders with a motley assemblage of heroes and anti-heroes who dominated the headlines of the period – from look-alikes of Ronald Reagan and Prince Rainier of Monaco, to Leonid Brezhnev, Yasser Arafat and Prince Charles, as well as the West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the musician Peter Maffay and the celebrated footballer Horst. Like a yearbook, cast list or series of mug shots, the work represents a sardonic inversion of Gerhard Richter’s 48 Portraits – a reverential encyclopaedia of famous men painted less than a decade earlier. Reducing the respective achievements of his subjects to a set of cryptic slogans, doppelgängers and piercing caricatures, Kippenberger probes the idea of public identity – a notion that went hand in hand with the rise of global communication, and which would come to form the conceptual backbone of the artist’s own mercurial practice. Created at a time when painting had recently come back into vogue, the work presents an odyssey of experimental technique, demonstrating the depth of Kippenberger’s early engagement with the medium. Acquired in the year of its creation by one of the artist’s most important early patrons, and held in the same collection ever since, the twenty-one panels were subsequently exhibited together at the Forum Kunst, Rottweil, in 1982, and were later included in the landmark exhibition Dear Painter, paint me... at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
The early 1980s was a time of great political, social and cultural change, reported, documented and scandalised through an increasing proliferation of media channels. In West Germany, free from the state control imposed upon the East, celebrity culture was on the rise. It was during this climate that Kippenberger first came to public attention. Whilst his Berlin days had been marked by notoriety, infamy and uproarious behaviour, it was in 1981 that he first began to channel this persona into a sophisticated artistic output marked by nuanced humour, complex irony and virtuosic technique. During a summer spent in Italy, away from the distractions of the city, he poured himself into an unprecedented stream of painterly activity, and arrived at Hetzler’s door a few months later with a VW full of canvases. A life-changing deal was struck, and his first exhibitions at the gallery brought about a complete change of fortune for Kippenberger. He was welcomed into the euphoric fold of the ‘Hetzler boys’ - AlbertOehlen, Werner Büttner and many others who were to become his comrades over the next few years in Cologne. He acquired a network of collectors and friends, many of whom would remain lifelong supporters. As his sister Susanne recalls, ‘He had done it … For the first time, Martin was taken seriously as an artist, not just seen as a character on the Berlin scene; for the first time, the public was not just being entertained by Martin, they were buying his work too’ (S. Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artist and his Families, Berlin 2007, p. 217). Hetzler himself recounts how ‘They bought them out of real pleasure. Here was an artist you could reach out and touch’ (M. Hetzler, quoted in S. Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artist and his Families, Berlin 2007, p. 218).
Bekannt durch Film, Funk und Polizeinotrufsäulen was at the very centre of this breakthrough. As a young artist testing the parameters of his own identity – and who would go on to operate through a variety of different alter-egos throughout his career – Kippenberger’s interrogation of public image is particularly pertinent. The concept of being ‘known’ through representations alone – through political cartoons, head-shots and paparazzi photographs – spoke directly to his own fascination with the relationship between his life and his art. Over the course of his oeuvre, Kippenberger would cast himself in the role of showman, jester, martyr, idol, failure and genius, and his self-depiction in Kippi kleines Arschloch represents an early example of this tendency. His angled stance, sober attire and expressionistic, exaggerated impasto invoke van Gogh’s iconic self-portrait in the Musee d’Orsay. At the same time, however, his face is blown out of proportion into the shape of buttocks – a deliberately debasing gesture that references his own predilection for exhibitionism. Pulling down his trousers in public had already become something of a signature move; indeed, his 1988 self-portraits as Picasso drew inspiration from a photograph of the master in nothing but his underwear. In Kippi kleines Arschloch, the artist brings together two competing facets of his persona: the desire to be taken seriously as an artist – to inscribe himself in the same canon as van Gogh – and the irreverence with which he continued to present himself to the world. In the many self-depictions that followed – not only in the guise of Picasso, but as Fred the Frog, as the shipwrecked victims of Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, and ultimately as Picasso’s widow – the dialogue between pathos and profanity would continue.
Across the breadth of the work, Kippenberger extends this treatment to the faces that saturated the global media landscapes of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Working from a variety of popular source images, he unabashedly places world leaders, Cold War politicians and royalty side by side with actors, football players and musicians. Identity is deflected and encrypted at every stage – like Kippenberger himself, no-one is quite who they seem to be. Ulrich Koch, 58 (Schokoladenfresser) (Ulrich Koch, 58 (chocolate gorger)) impersonates Ronald Reagan, the American President who had been elected the previous year. Ehegatte einer Metzgerstochter aud Düsseldorf (Spouse of a butcher’s daughter from Dusseldorf) bears an uncanny resemblance to Prince Rainier of Monaco. Mein Freund aus Russland (My Friend from Russia) is Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Central Communist Party of the Soviet Union; Unser Mann aus Hamburg – Langenhorn (Our man from Hamburg – Langenhorn) is Helmut Schmidt, Chancellor of West Germany from 1974 to 1982, with his eyes pulled out and brandished before him. Schmidt’s wife, Hannelore ‘Loki’ Glaser, is also depicted; a keen gardener, her portrait is emblazoned with the words ‘let weeds grow’. Mao, who had died in 1976, is represented as an abstract cartoon, his nose transformed into a breast in deference to the increasing popularity of body painting during this period. Yasser Arafat, theleader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, is branded with a childish rhyming couplet ‘Arafat hat das Rasieren satt’ (‘Arafat is sick of shaving’). Ehegatte von Lady Di (Lady Di’s spouse), irreverently signed ‘Carlo’, is Prince Charles - a nod to the royal wedding that had taken place earlier that year.
The compendium also depicts some of the key figures in entertainment and sport during this period. Der Indianerfreud (The Native American’s friend) is Marlon Brando, known for his close relations with the American Indian Movement. Peter Krauss was a popular musician and entertainer; Peter Maffay’s album Ich will leben reached number one in the German charts in 1981. Horst (Hrubesch) was a Hamburg footballer - denoted by the team’s symbol in the top left hand corner of his portrait – who became a hero in the UEFA Euro 1980 final against Belgium when he scored a trademark bullet header in the 89th minute of the game. Pierre Littbarski was another West German footballer who earned his first cap for the team in 1981 in the World Cup qualification against Austria. Other figures are less well known: Gabriela Manzona was Jörg Immendorff’s girlfriend, whom Kippenberger shamelessly seduced. Perhaps most interesting, however, is Harald Juhnke, an entertainer whom the artist painted more than once. Like Branko Zebec – the Croatian football manager to whom the work’s title refers - he was heavy drinker, and was notorious for airing his private life in public. Here, Kippenberger depicts the cover of his book Das Kunst ein Mensch zu sein (The Art of Being Human) – a title that resonated strongly with the artist. It was in 1981, on the back of a postcard from Italy, that Kippenberger had made his seminal declaration ‘every artist is a human being’. This inversion of Joseph Beuys’s famous maxim (‘every human being is an artist’) was to become one of his most important guiding principles, informing his conception of the artist as a figure laid bare – crucified, at times – before a braying audience. This, in many ways, is the condition that unites the unlikely bedfellows of Kippenberger’s compendium: imprisoned within the cage-like format of the work, reduced to a series of stereotypes, doubles and one-liners, they are the hapless victims of their own status.
Alongside his witty cultural commentary, Kippenberger stakes his claim in the revival of painting that swept Europe and America during this period. In London, the Royal Academy of Arts celebrated the ‘new spirit in painting’ with an exhibition of the same title. In New York, Basquiat was taking the art world by storm. In Germany, as Manfred Hermes recalls, ‘1980 was a rupture ... Painting had just recently seemed empty invalid and irrelevant, and suddenly “to paint again” was an unavoidable slogan among contemporary artists’ (M. Hermes, quoted in S. Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artists and his Families, Berlin 2007, p. 200 Typically, Kippenberger had initially poked fun at the new reverence accorded to the artist’s hand by commissioning a poster-painter to produce his works, and flaunting the resulting canvases in the 1980 exhibition Dear Painter, Paint For Me. Now, however, he embraced the physical qualities of the medium, relishing in its capacity for thick, luxuriant impasto, tactile collisions of pigment and wild, impulsive gestures. In A. E.? (Albert Einstein), the paint takes on the appearance of sprayed graffiti, obscuring and overwriting its distinguished subject. In others, the paint becomes almost topographical, mocking the vivid brushwork of his Expressionist forbears and the celebrated fingermalerei (finger-painting) technique espoused by his elder Georg Baselitz. At times, as in Peter Kraus, Kippenberger’s fluorescent palette brings to mind the glare of the media spotlight and the garish vibrancy of the city nightlife he adored. Elsewhere, as in Ehegatte von Lady Di and Mein Freund aus Rußland, monochrome hues recall the indelible authority of newsprint. Throughout the compendium, the artist’s uninhibited collision of styles and techniques – the hallmark of so-called ‘bad painting’ that he and his colleagues would champion – becomes inextricably bound to the subversive nature of the work’s content.
Following on from his earliest compendium work Uno di Voi, un Tedesco a Firenze (One of You, a German in Florence), painted between 1976 and 1977, Kippenberger embraced the multi-panelled format as a means of working with multiple visual registers simultaneously. Within a practice founded on motivic layering and complex self-projection, the format’s potential for contradiction and cross-reference appealed directly to his aesthetic. In Bekannt durch Film, Funk und Polizeinotrufsäulen, Kippenberger asserts his artistic identity in technical, conceptual and – through self-portraiture – personal terms. As an artist whose previous aspirations had film star, musician and writer, there is a sense in which many of these figures – particularly Juhnke – may be seen as faint reflections of his own fractured personality: early candidates in the life-long search for an alter-ego. Situated at the dawn of his practice, just as he was beginning to take his place within the good, the bad and the Bekannt of the German art scene, here the artist writes himself into an uncertain history – an ever-changing global narrative filtered through film, radio, television and police call boxes.