Created in 1989, Martin Kippenberger's Das Ende des Alphabets presents the viewer with three letters, X, Y and Z, which loom over the viewer. Each of the letters has been created out of different materials mounted on wood: the X from inflated rubber, the Y from cork and the Z in acrylic. Kippenberger has shown a perhaps surprising practicality: included in the work is the crate emblazoned with its title, and also a bicycle pump. These are not behind-the-scenes storage elements, but are instead part of its very fabric: the very device used to inflate one of the letters also serves the purpose of deliberately deflating its authoritative appearance. This work perfectly and eloquently demonstrates Kippenberger's incredible ability to create works that manage to function on a number of levels, both conceptual and autobiographical, forming part of his general, unbridled assault through myriad media upon the art world at large. It comes as no surprise to find that examples of this work have featured in several of Kippenberger's most important exhibitions, not least the retrospective that opened in Geneva in 1997, only shortly before the iconoclastic and hugely influential artist's untimely death.
The title of Das Ende des Alphabets has a grandiose, rhetorical air that seems to introduce intellectual, political and ontological concepts and debates; at the same time, it is resolutely just what it claims to be: the end of the alphabet. This title appears in part to have evolved from Das Ende der Avantgarde, an earlier work consisting of a group of numbered wooden silhouettes of balloons with numerals attached to
them. This numerical theme continued in his contribution to the Aperto exhibition at the 1988 Venice Biennale, where an installation also entitled Das Ende der Avantgarde was shown alongside his famous Tankstelle Martin Bormann and one of his earliest lamppost sculptures. Das Ende des Alphabets thus dates from the period of Kippenberger's first major sculptures, also coming just after his so-called 'Peter' works, which it resembles in its pseudo-practical appearance.
In 1989, Kippenberger had created a book in a small edition which continued the numbering theme of Das Ende der Avantgarde. The book, the deliberately-misspelt Das Ende der Avandgarde was in part a tribute to the imminent birth of Kippenberger's child, a daughter born in 1989. Looking at the wood-mounted cork, acrylic and rubber letters in Das Ende des Alphabets, the themes of children's toys and education can be seen to play their role here, invoking Kippenberger's own status and role as a father, one which he himself questioned when taking his drinking into consideration. The ABCD taught to children is here approached from the opposite, less practical end.
The appearance of this box of only three letters from the 'far' end of the alphabet, which is like an over-sized toy, also references Minimalism. That seminal art movement from the 1960s, which has been referred to as 'ABC Art', for instance in Barbara Rose's 1965 essay of the same name in Art in America, is here undermined with bravado by Kippenberger, an artist who himself worked in the United States, where Minimalism was centred, and lived in Los Angeles, frequenting many of the American artists who worked and exhibited in Germany. The forms of the X, Y and Z all have an abstract quality when shown at this scale, yet that abstraction is undermined by the unavoidable, inherent presence of meaning, of signification in these letters.
Even the materials wryly undermine the Minimal aesthetic. The presence of the box, which itself recalls, say, Donald Judd's sculptures, adds another layer of disruption to the Minimal legacy; here, the cuboid sculpture has been demoted, denigrated, by acquiring a purpose and becoming useful as a container for the letters and for a humble bicycle pump which can inflate the 'X'. Just as, a year earlier, Kippenberger had gleefully desecrated a grey painting by Gerhard Richter by incorporating it in a coffee-table which he then deliberately sold at a loss (Modell Interconti), so here too, the artist is questioning the entire nature and cult of the art world, challenging and toppling its hierarchies, insisting as he did in so much of his work that every artist is a human being. It was in this way that Kippenberger embodied the end of the self-proclaimed avant-garde, or at least, its nemesis.