Straddling the line between self-depiction and self-debasement, Martin Kippenberger's Untitled from 1988 is a paunchy and pugnacious antithesis of the revered genre of self-portraiture. Remembered for his conceptual and expressive transformation of the 1980s and 1990s art scene, Kippenberger waged a one-man attack against the art world's status quo in an earnest effort to destabilize the post-War German paradigm. At the heart of his prodigious output lies the artist's own ebullient and exuberant character, most powerfully and famously articulated in his self-portraits. For Kippenberger, the self-portrait was no exercise in hubris; instead it offered an inglorious pathetic tool, launching an assault on the artistic institution.
Looking to the decisive modern icon as a contemporary foil in his most celebrated series, Kippenberger has restaged the well-known 1962 photograph of Pablo Picasso taken by photojournalist, David Douglas Duncan. Exuding an overwhelming abundance of confident masculinity, Duncan's photograph of the eighty-one year old artist exhibits an esteemed amount of buoyant virility. First implemented by Kippenberger in 1985, the image of Picasso standing in a poised state of undress on the steps of Château Vauvenargues was chosen by the younger artist for his invitation card to I could lend you something, but that wouldn't be doing you an favors at Leyendecker Gallery in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Before embarking upon his seminal series based on the 1962 photograph, Kippenberger sought to debase Duncan's iconic image by donning a similar pair of exaggerated briefs, pulled up high over his protruding abdomen for a calendar the artist published in 1988 on the eve of the painted series. Scrutinizing and analyzing his image in the mirror, Kippenberger's attempt to impersonate his hero emerges as self-critique-the antithesis to the coolly composed image of the dominant older artist.
Though dabbling in myriad techniques, Kippenberger was born to be a painter during a time of abject reaction to the medium, Kippenberger's career began to develop when installation and Duchampian concepts held precedence in the 1960s-1970s, and continued to mature through the "death of painting" in the 1980s. Kippenberger and fellow painters such as Albert Oehlen stood in reaction to their "elders,"-such as Joseph Beuys who was the appointed leader of the time-and their advocacy for painting as the noblest form of art emerged as a patricide against their predecessors. Campaigning for the rebirth an earlier era where the artist held the title of the mythic hero and painting stood at the summit of culture, Kippenberger championed Picasso as the painter who grew to embody the modern era. Admiring Picasso's largesse of talent and personality, and more so, his immense impact on culture, it became Kippenberger's desire to do the same and his self-portraits chart his changing perception of this venture.
Untitled and its five sister paintings emerge as a direct result of Kippenberger's contemplation of the Duncan photograph. Parodying his famous antecedent, Kippenberger playfully subverts the machismo associated with the genre of self-portraiture in his fleshy, underwear clad depiction. Conceived while travelling with his friend and fellow artist, Albert Oehlen, in Carmona, Spain, Kippenberger pictures himself with a visually arresting lack of vanity. An exaggerated gut, folds of fat, a thick neck, and dejected posture present a melancholic, awkward and somewhat cantankerous figure wearing immense white underpants pulled up high on his hips. This is not a celebration of the beauty of the self, but an intense psychological examination of the decadence of self-destruction by means of excess and the subsequent demise of the corporeal self.
Indicating that the genre of self-portraiture lends a privileged insight into the mind of the artistic genius, the subject of the artist yields a singular undying truth: the talent for perceiving and revealing the nature of the sitter remains a mysterious and honored trope in art history, from Rembrandt to Bacon. Superficially deploying the notion of self-portraiture in a way that did not glamorize his own image, Kippenberger implemented the genre as a provocative contemporary statement on a subject, which he deemed to be both finished and anachronistic. "They were based on a very reasonable observation," Albert Oehlen recalled of Kippenberger's self-portraits, "what profit is there in presenting yourself in a self-portrait as good looking? None at all, for, either no one will believe you and you make yourself look ridiculous, or they won't like you. But if you portray yourself ass-uglier than you are, both artist and painting benefit" (A. Oehlen quoted in, A. Goldstein, Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Persepctive, exh. cat., The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2008, p. 92). Throughout his lifetime, Kippenberger rejoiced in playing up the stereotypes of the artist: the artist as drunk, as showman, as jester. In Untitled, Kippenberger is seen confronting these axioms through the medium of paint.
And yet, Kippenberger's grand portrait with its meticulously sculpted and fleshed out torso is largely incomplete. With its decapitated head and truncated limbs Untitled is a haunting depiction of mortality. Foretelling the artist's own tragic demise less than a decade later, Kippenberger's self-portrait has left the artist deprived of his most important tools-his hands and eyes. While Oehlen has explained, "The hands were a theme that we competed about. I once mentioned to him that I had heard that one could see from painted hands whether someone could really paint. We were standing in front of one of my self-portraits where the hands were really bad. He wanted to do one better," Kippenberger has seemingly delved further into the psyche of the human anatomy (A. Oehlen quoted in, ibid., p. 92).
From Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to Rodin's The Cathedral, the human hand has been central to artist's concerns about their relationship to the world. For many, the hands connect them to the physical world and they are also the means by which their ideas become reality. Jean-Paul Sartre, writing the introduction for a 1948 exhibition of Alberto Giacommetti's work featuring La Main (his haunting evocation of an outstretched human hand) wrote, "I can consider separately from the tree itself this wavering branch, but I cannot think of an arm rising, a fist closing, apart from a human agent. A man raises his arm, a man clenches his fist: man is the indissoluble unity and the absolute source of his movement," (J. Sartre, The Search for the Absolute, exh. cat., Pierre Matisse Gallery, 1948, p. 3). The hand is our prime intermediary between the mind and the world, it allows thought to act upon and transform the world. The outstretched hand expresses the human need to grasp, to reach out towards the world and to aspire within it; the hand enables us to realize our potential in accomplishing all things-for an artist it is their greatest tool. In the face of another, the hand may embrace in love or ward off in fear, extend itself in joy or lamentation. No part of the human body, except for the head itself, is a more potent symbol for the totality of the human endeavor.
The balloons, which appear in many of the Self-Portraits, and here completely disrupt any subtle rendering of the visage, are a melancholic metaphor for Kippenberger's own incapacity. Signaling a nostalgic nod toward past revels and their bodily effects, Robert Storr observes that the orbs are "upwardly mobile testicular balloons that bear an unflattering relationship to his sinking belly and hiked up genitals," (R. Storr, op. cit.). Indeed, the symbol of the balloon has emerged as a sort of mass culture momento mori-a modern day soap bubble used by artists such as Jean Siméon Chardin, Sir John Everett Millais and Jacob van Oost to illustrate the transience of life through the exceedingly fragile symbolic vessel of air.
Yet, the balloons have also been interpreted as an allusion to the buoyant art market of the 1980s, where the trickster artist, Kippenberger, reemerges as only impersonating failure in order to criticize the hubris of success. "The Eighties, which these paintings sharply punctuate and puncture...was largely devoted to a rematch between the followers of two distinct schools of thought. The first adhered to Duchamp...The second camp was the latter-day converts to 'The New Spirit in Painting' for whom Picasso was, in most cases, the ultimate source...Although Kippenberger opts to personify the degeneration of Picasso's lineage-the protean Minotaur gone to flab-he does so with inverse mastery, making the most of his studied maladroitness...Anyone who recalls the adoring photographs of Julian Schnabel in bathing trunks painting vast canvases at the beach will immediately see the correlation between his Pablo act and Kippenberger's. Nor will they miss the difference between the Camp earnestness of the American impersonator and the pitiless satire of his blimpish German counterpart...Kippenberger mounts a devastating challenge to the painting revival in its own idiom...By tacitly exaggerating his own feigned incompetence, Kippenberger accomplishes modernism's fundamental purpose by superficially anti-modernist means; he criticizes the medium from within to strengthen it in the area of its incompetence,'' (ibid., pp. 22-23).
Throughout his career, Kippenberger continually embraced art historical quotation in order to make a provocative contemporary statement. In fact, the artist explained himself, "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," (M. Kippenberger quoted in, D. Baumann, "Parachever Picasso/Completing Picasso: Interview between Martin Kippenberger and Daniel Baumann," D. Krystof & J. Morgan (ed.), Martin Kippenberger, exh. cat., London 2006, p. 59).
He recognized the painted self-portrait as an old-fashioned, perhaps even anachronistic genre, and so recycled art historical imagery as an ironic strategy. In his last series, Das Floss der Medusa (The Raft of Medusa) (1996), the artist asked his wife, the photographer Elfie Semotan, to take pictures of him in the poses of Thódore Gricault's shipwreck victims. Translated to paint, Kippenberger used these nineteenth century scenes of human struggle as allegories, using the histrionic pathos of the original to create a witty, sardonic comment on his own life as it became increasingly subsumed by his vices. As Eva Meyer-Hermann so poignantly concluded, "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, Mlaga 2011, p. 63).