Today, the contemporary art world loves Martin Kippenberger, the peripatetic 1980s German artist who died of cancer at age 43 in 1997. With that mega-magnet for art collectors, the Armory Show 2005, open this week in New York, it's no surprise that Kippenberger's works are on view in three galleries -- Gagosian, Luhring Augustine and the new Nyehaus. These shows are aimed at making you fall in love with the late German prankster. Indeed, at Nyehaus they're even handing out free bumper stickers that say, "I heart Kippenberger."
The fever has extended to the West Coast where dealer Robert Berman's Santa Monica Auctions at Bergamot Station is offering in its Mar. 20 spring art auction a major Kippenberger painting. Though Kippenberger's auction record is $720,000, set in 1999, this work, In Martin We Trust (1990), is estimated at $50,000-$100,000.
At Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue are 10 photo-based paintings from Kippenberger's first solo museum show in Berlin in 1981. The show at Luhring Augustine Gallery in Chelsea is a more general survey, focusing on Kippenberger's self-portraits and including exhibition posters, ephemera and photographs of Kippenberger. And at Nyehaus in the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park is an exhibition focusing on Kippenberger's quixotic "Metro-net" network of global subway stations.
Kippenberger was celebrated for his rambunctious spirit as much as for his artistic output, which encompassed visual art in every medium; performance, innumerable posters and books, a brief stint in a band, and "Kippenberger's Office" his own mock-bureaucratic version of Warhol's Factory. He was the veritable mayor of beatnik Berlin, famous for limitless energy and an admirable ability to make things happen. He was a virtuoso, a walking medium living out the many roles of the artist in the late 20th century -- hero, degenerate, sexual deviant, dumb tourist, pathetic drunk, handsome movie star, and sick and drowning man, like a wandering harlequin always subject to the whims of the audience (before he became an artist, Kippy was a failed actor).
Kippenberger was Warhol's German heir, constructing his fame from his own crazy marvel at himself, at every little thing he could do, in different clothes in varying scenery, whatever he could dream up or get away with. Most of all we fell in love with the tenebrionid who could take from us our own darkness and failures and reflect them back onto the world.
The exhibition "Martin Kippenberger: Lieber Maler Male Mir (Dear Painter Paint For Me)" at Gagosian immediately sets Kippenberger's contradictory and multivalent nature into play. "Dear Painter Paint For Me" is the second exhibition organized by the gallery in an attempt at presenting examples from the entire body of Kippenberger's work. The first show "Martin Kippenberger: The Magical Misery Tour" a series of works made during Kippenberger's three month sojourn through Brazil in 1986, opened this past Sept. and ran through Dec. at Gagosian's London outpost. Gagosian Gallery director Stefan Ratibor vehemently asserted, "We are the only official U.S representative of Kippenberger," meaning that Gagosian has a relationship with the estate of Kippenberger and his agent Gisela Capitan in Cologne, allowing them access to the best examples of his works.
The current show displays 10 of the 12 paintings, none of which are for sale, from the original show of the same title that debuted Kippenberger to the museum circuit in 1981 at Berlin's Neue Gesellschaft fr Bildende Kunst (New Society for Fine Arts). The paintings, all untitled, include several self-portraits as well as still lifes and assorted other subjects. A 200 x 150 cm black-and-white portrait of a scruffy little dog is perfectly painted to insinuate itself as the missing image of one of the terrorist's pets in Gerhard Richter's Baader-Meinhof series -- very funny, MK.
But, in fact, all the paintings are funny, Kippenberger was nothing if not a joker. At first look, the works at Gagosian are all too perfect and banal, too luscious and painterly, many having the polished sheen of American Photorealism. In fact, Kippenberger hired a billboard painter named Werner to execute his ideas onto canvas. He proclaimed, "I declare a painting ban for myself, I let someone else paint for me." Kippenberger's familiar avant-garde strategy -- John Baldessari, for one, had hired a sign painter to do his works a decade earlier out in California -- nevertheless takes on a provocative political dimension unshared by his U.S. cousins. Kippenberger's self-imposed political repression in effect forced his vision to come forth in a homogenized style that is anarchically negated by his quirky content. Then again, maybe Kippy just felt inept.
Outsourcing his work to a billboard painter also gave him a chance to have himself depicted according to a nobler, higher vision. The crispness of Werner's style renders Kippenberger regal and handsome. Each of the five self-portraits are a clever interpretation keyed to Kippy's fantasies. For instance, the "self-portrait" based on a signed, autographed photo of German actor Hansjrg Felmy allows Kippenberger's lost pipe dream to be brought to life. Another black-and-white portrait places the viewer into the thick of an erotic encounter between Kippenberger and a beautiful woman. The most fitting depiction is a large painting of Kippenberger sitting on a discarded couch on a New York City street corner -- a royal reject playing king over his degenerate court of garbage bags and indifferent traffic.
The roving aspect of Kippenberger's life is the focus of the show at the Nyehaus. Titled, "Martin Kippenberger the Bermuda Triangle: Syros, Paris Bar and Dawson City," the show focuses on the artist's Metro-net project -- a fantasized global network of subway stations. The bulk of the material in the show was recently acquired by Tim Nye, owner and director of Nyehaus, directly from Michel Wrthle, longtime proprietor of the Paris Bar in Berlin and the caretaker of his family compound in Syros, Greece, where Kippenberger built his first Metro-net entrance and started the Museum of Modern Art Syros (MOMAS) in an old meat-packing facility on Wrthle's property.
The works on display in the two-story gallery include scale models of two Metro-net entrances, the one in Syros and a second in Dawson City, Canada. Also on view is one of Kippy's trademark drunken lampposts -- their poles waver and bend with comic inebriation -- and a suite of 40 of Kippenberger's famous hotel stationary drawings lined up against a hot pink wall. Rounding out the survey is a sculpture of Fred the Frog on a wooden cross (another Kippenberger alter-ego), plus several photographs, Metro-net memorabilia and models accompanied by a video of Kippenberger and team installing the Dawson City Metro-net entrance.
On the second floor of the space is a wall of posters he designed to accompany his exhibitions, available for purchase at $1,200 each. The posters are an integral part to the artists' oeuvre. According to Kippenberger's close friend, the artist Albert Oeheln, "Very often, Kippenberger makes an exhibition just as a reason to make an invitation card or poster."
Also for sale is the suite of 40 drawings, which are priced at $675,000. In a market so hungry for works by the artist, Tim Nye is the only one out of the three New York exhibitors offering works for sale.
Kippenberger's so-called Bermuda Triangle is formed by three places where Kippenberger spent a significant amount of time, the Paris Bar in Berlin being the apex where he boozed with friends and occasionally organized exhibitions. The name "Bermuda Triangle" was chosen for it's comical denotation of navigational chaos and unavoidable shipwreck, so apt a metaphor for Kippenberger (as well as being a nickname for a popular triad of bar districts in Berlin's Belgian Quarter).
Nye stressed that, more than anything else, this is a show that demonstrates how friendship facilitates art. Specifically, the collection of works reflect the friendship between the two co-owners of the Paris Bar, Reinald Nohal and Michel Wrthle. The two split off into opposite directions of the globe, dragging Kippenberger with them to realize his conceptual visions. While Wrthle was the proprietor of the Syros Metro-net site, Nohal owned the Dawson City Metro-net -- though Nye has now purchased a 99-year lease on it from Nohal. Nohal also served as engineer of the projects. On that note, Nye continues, "They fed him, they housed him, they fronted the expenses and they literally built the components of the most ambitious project of his career."
The Metro-net project gained Kippenberger his triumphant entry into Documenta in Kassel, where he had previously been rejected, an event that inspired his infamous Untitled (Lamp), 1992, a sculpture of a bent and weeping lamp which he made many versions of. Unfortunately, he was not alive to see his work included in Documenta X.
People have perceived the Metro-net project as optimistic. There is something enchantingly beautiful about the fantasy of being able to connect the world in an underground network. One photo-simulation from Documenta X shows his portable Metro-net entrance installed in the center of a lake. A ridiculous and surreal image, its unearthly beauty nevertheless far surpasses its humor. Then there is the rub. The Metro-net entrances, of course, lead nowhere. Those who descend the stairs are met by an iron gate with the double seal of the Lord Jim Lodge, Kippenberger's fictitious exclusive men's club, represented by a logo of a sphere-shaped sickle, a hammer and a pair of women's breasts dangling coquettishly from the bottom. Their motto: NBN, "Nobody Helps Nobody." Basically, nobody helps nobody to go nowhere.
At Luhring Augustine, the exhibition focuses on Kippenberger's self-portraiture. "Martin Kippenberger: Self-Portraits" features 12 paintings, three sculptures and several drawings, photographs and ephemera in a good survey of the infamous symbols from the artists' visual lexicon. At the entrance is a salon wall of framed exhibition posters.
The posters can be used as aids in deciphering some of the symbols that reoccur in his self-portraits. In the center of the wall is a poster with the image of an old bloated, pot-bellied Picasso in white bathing trunks walking his Afghan to the Mediterranean Sea. Kippenberger appears in this form repeatedly in his self-portraits, as if to say "I have decided to skip the accolade earning labor of being a visionary artist and cut immediately to the chase of being a washed up genius." at Luhring Augustine are four examples of this version of Kippenberger, all untitled paintings made between 1988 and 1992.
His self-defacement, while sad, is the humorous and sardonic crux of his work. Kippenberger was an excessive alcoholic, and many believe the poison drove him to his death. Beer mugs and cocktail glasses are regular features of his works, like familiar relatives. The ups and downs of alcoholism are mapped out, too, in his physical appearance, ranging from "Helmut Berger on a good day" to a fat bearded man on the verge of death, each version depicted with his unique but odd combination of self-reverence and irreverence.
Kippenberger's semiology is one part seriousness and three parts humor. His alter ego "Fred the Frog", who appears on canvas and in sculpture alike, is at the same time a comic stand-in for Jesus, and as a spoof on all religious fervor. Luhring Augustine and Nyhaus each have a version of Kippenberger's frog on a cross (1990), where Fred the Frog is hammered (literally and figuratively) to a crucifix with a beer stein in his hand. The translation of the title to English is approx. "What's the difference between Casanova and Christ, when they get nailed the expression is the same."
Ridiculing as well anti-religious sentiment, The Cross of a Frog , is also a satanic ritual outlined by occultist Alistair Crowley's in his book of "Libers." In reference to the frog he orders, "During the day thou shalt approach the frog whenever convenient, and speak words of worshipAlso thou shalt promise to the frog elevation fitting for him; and all this while thou shalt be secretly carving a cross whereon to crucify him." The sadism here is transformed to masochism, as the frog is a form of Kippenberger himself. The ritual continues its instructions uncannily "Then shalt thou stab the frog to the heart with the Dagger of Art." Kippenberger's cross is actually made out of the wood used for canvas stretchers. The artist, one presumes, used his art to crucify himself, but at the same time it liberated him and allowed him to engage with the world.
Kippenberger's body of work, so erratic and varied that it reads more like an epileptic fit, was foraged in the era of German Neo-Expressionism. It was also a time marked by rapid transformation, powered by Germany's efforts to shed the memory of the political horrors that beset it since World War II. Kippenberger poked fun at these attempts by traveling to Brazil to check out the old Nazi hideout, and by making works with titles like No Matter How Hard I Try, I Can't Find a Swastika (1984), and The Friendly Communist (1983). Yet, above all he was the greatest champion of his country's attempts to break free from its past. Kippenberger was the ultimate nonconformist, an individual artist whose anarchic ideals echoed those of Marcel Duchamp and the Dada circle, and mocked Joseph Beuys and his utopian self-mythology.
We lament for the loss of Kippenberger, the ultimate narcissist who, like an altered version of Narcissus of the Greek myth, in which the river he drowned in from looking too long at his own reflection wept when he died, not because it missed him but because it missed his eyes, which reflected back to the river an image of itself.
NICOLE DAVIS is associate editor of Artnet Magazine.