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'During the 80s and 90s there was no artist in the international scene who expanded the sphere of his activity, his responsibility and initiative further than Martin Kippenberger. Whether in the field of the poster or the invitation, the catalogue text or artist's book, painting or sculpture, photograph or drawing, gallery situation or transport, architecture or furniture, spectators' bench or speaker's rostrum, music or dance, art collection or museum, theory or card game, entertainment or private life, history or the present... he probed every aspect of the matter, on the lookout for opportunities in every last detail of the procedure. Nothing of what sets the operation in motion remained unexploited, and nothing was taken for granted' (R. Ohrt, 'Introduction', pp. 18-28, A. Taschen (ed.), Kippenberger, Cologne, 2003, p. 26).
Martin Kippenberger remains, over a decade after his untimely death at the age of 44, one of the most influential artists of our era, as has been recently recognised with major retrospectives at Tate London, MOCA, Los Angeles and MoMA, New York. His artistic legacy is legion, and takes an almost baffling array of forms while tackling an incredible number of subjects. Kippenberger deliberately and knowingly created an output whose very multiplicity was its driving force; a consistent, career-long strategy of destabilisation. Railing against the constraints of style and ideology that he considered hampered so many artists in the post-War period, especially in Germany, he created a protean range of works which constantly and consistently challenged notions of what art, and indeed artists, should be, in social, political, stylistic and moral terms alike. By its many turns deeply intellectual, consciously provocative and cheekily evasive, Martin Kippenberger's multifaceted art was deliberately pre-occupied with the mechanics of style in society as a reference to society itself.
Growing up, Kippenberger explained that he was surrounded by 'prints, covering the walls from floor to ceiling: works by Beckmann, Corinth, Heckel, the German Expressionists, Marino Marini, Picasso and lots of kitsch' (Kippenberger, quoted in D. Baumann, 'Parachever Picasso/Completing Picasso: Interview between Martin Kippenberger and Daniel Baumann', pp. 59-65, D. Krystof & J. Morgan (ed.), Martin Kippenberger, exh. cat., London 2006, p. 59). This encouraged him to take matters into his own hands, digesting these influences and then spitting them out systematically in a manner that would set the tenor for much of the rest of his career:
'When I was ten, I started producing things in my own room. I worked my way through the whole of art history, as I found it on the walls in our house. First this way, then that, I imitated all the different styles, but not by copying them, I realised that it wasn't that great, what they'd been doing...'I drew my way through all the art books on the book shelves. That helped me to see things more clearly than if I'd just looked at the pictures. You find out how difficult it is to do certain things, that you're just not able. Then 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' (Kippenberger, quoted in ibid., p. 59).
Kippenberger's freedom, his embracing of 'no style,' allowed him to explore, exploit and investigate the cult of the artist in works that took in styles stretching from Neo-Expressionism to Pop to Photorealism to Minimalism to Appropriation. And each style that he touched emerged far from unscathed, knocked from its pedestal by this committed conceptual iconoclast. As he said, 'Don't worry about style but about what you want to say.'
It is this chewing up and spitting out of the past, as well as his role as artist-cum-entertainer, that lie at the heart of both Paris Bar and Kellner Des.... In these large, important paintings, Kippenberger paid his own knowing and irreverent tribute to the interrelationship between the world of the bars and the world of art that had reached such a furious peak a century earlier, in the age of Edouard Manet and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. 'Entertainment and art are not isolated,' Kippenberger explained. 'Entertainment is in art like colour in pictures' (Kippenberger, quoted in Taschen, op.cit., 2003, p. 84). This he demonstrated in Paris Bar and Kellner Des... both in the fact that these pictures showed bars and in the fact that they were shown in bars in which Kippenberger himself often held court. In a sense, these pictures, so tied up with his own life, lifestyle, friends and environment, are an extension of the artist himself, a facet of self-portraiture made all the more impressive by their rare scale and all the more playful by the fact that while each motif contains his work as either artist or curator, he himself plays an artistic game of hide-and-seek and is visible in neither.
It seems no coincidence that it was in the Paris Bar that Kippenberger was so often to be found. Throughout the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, the names of certain bars became legendary in their own rights, the source of their reputation often being the meetings that had taken place there and the decisions made. Perhaps the greatest art historical precedent was the Café Guerbois, where so many of the Impressionists would meet in a regular salon at the dawn of the movement in order to compare their works and their ideas. And they became invaluable subjects in their own right, the nightlife so heartily embraced by many of the artists of the past 150 years being captured in scandalous images of the cabaret, of drinking women, of the demi-monde which so often inspired the great advances in art. Be it Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso or Sartre, Paris' bars appear to have paved the way for other venues in other cities such as Zurich's Cabaret Voltaire, London's Colony Rooms and New York's Cedar Bar and Studio 54, and indeed in the Café Deutschland paintings of another Paris Bar client, Jörg Immendorff. Still today the names of the Moulin Rouge, the Lapin Agile, the Folies-Bergères, the Café de Flore resonate and exert their fascination. Kippenberger took these societal and cultural legends as the theme for his life as art and brought them to their ultimate philosophical conclusion.
Nowhere is this more true than in Paris Bar and Kellner Des.... Both pictures show the incredible network of associations that make Kippenberger's works so fascinating and intellectually engaging. Each depicts a bar at almost lifesize, one from the inside, the other from the outside; and both hung in the bars that they depict. They therefore blurred the line, already so gleefully disregarded, between Kippenberger's life and art. Both show works related to the artist himself: Kellner Des... shows one of his Laterne an Betrunkene sculptures installed in a street, while Paris Bar records an exhibition he himself curated of his own art collection. In this way, each work becomes a sort of self-portrait-by-other-means, an extension of the artist's persona but also an extension of his vision for the integration of art and society. In a reality TV and celebrity obsessed culture, these theories seem more relevant now than ever before.