“Sehr gut / Very good” – Remembering Martin Kippenberger

in Conversations
by Max Dax about
Kippenberger-OhneTitel

“Einer von euch, unter euch, mit euch” (“One of you, among yourselves, with you”), wrote Martin Kippenberger on his self-portrait in 1979. He was the master of profligacy, but at one point everything was too much: on March 7, 1997 he died in Vienna—at the age of 44.

What he left behind was a life on the fast track. Kippenberger painted, he played in a punk band, published several books, together with his painter colleagues Werner Büttner and Albert Oehlen he founded a secret society called “Lord Jim Loge”, he planned a global subway network, he ran the Berlin pendant of Andy Warhol’s Factory for a few years and basically ruined himself with this exhausting and self-destructive lifestyle. During his lifetime he was denied the fame and appreciation that a lot of his contemporaries experienced. 16 years after his death he is now considered a classic modernist painter and conceptual artist of world fame. The most important museums all over the world show his paintings and auctions of his works keep on breaking records. Due to the great opening of the Kippenberger retrospective at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, five of his associates and peers–Michel Würthle, owner of the Paris Bar in Berlin; art collector Bärbel Grässlin; galerists Christian Nagel and Gisela Capitain; artist/friend Werner Büttner–, as well as Kippenberger’s sister Susanne commemorate him. They tell his story, a story of an artist, a self-publicist and a provocateur from six different angles—fused together into an oral history, which is to be understood as an attempt at honoring an ingenious dilettante. The conversations are collected by Max Dax.

Susanne Kippenberger: Our father was a building engineer, who would’ve loved to be an artist himself. He always painted, photographed, drew, wrote, made collages and built objects from stranded goods. He also produced little books and magazines for his closest friends, containing personal letters or writing about our vacations. Martin grew up with the belief that everyday life can be the richest source of inspiration. Our father also used to stage photos of us when we were children. A camera was always with him and unlike us sisters, Martin always enjoyed posing and having pictures taken of him.

Werner Büttner: Martin was unbelievably good at striking poses. That’s why so many amazing photos exist of him. Whenever there was a photographer present, he would strike a pose. These vast amounts of photos of course helps us remembering him.

Susanne Kippenberger: It wasn’t just L’art pour l’art, it was a special kind of self-manifestation that our father encouraged him to indulge in. He always gave speeches—just like Martin would later do as well—no matter if anyone paid attention or not. Albert Oehlen and Werner Büttner both have met our father and confirmed that in that regard he was even worse than our brother.

Gisela Capitain: Martin Kippenberger wasn’t tied up in doubts. He was never like Beckett, who couldn’t continue to write once he’d started and who became increasingly blocked and as a result even fewer lines came off.

Susanne Kippenberger: We knew from the beginning that Martin would become an artist. Unlike other boys he didn’t play with toy cars, he rather always painted. On one wall in our kitchen father had written the words: “Martin, our artist”. When he was only eight or nine years old he used to say that he wanted to become a famous artist. He was never doubtful about it.

Werner Büttner: Martin was a special case. He simply couldn’t do anything else. He had to be an artist—and only that, day and night. He wasn’t meant to do anything else. The only apprenticeship I ever heard him do was a brief stint as a window dresser. He wasn’t even able to cope with that. He rather chose the path of total freedom, a fool’s life, doing whatever he felt like doing—and hoping that some day he might get some reward for it. Which he eventually did.

Susanne Kippenberger: School was a disaster for Martin. He left home at a very early age, when he was nine, to go to boarding school. Our parents received a letter from the headmaster in which he states that Martin showed an enormous amount of creativity. He wasn’t sure if Martin was copying anyone. But if not he surely had a future in art ahead of him. Of course, Martin later used this letter for an artwork and exhibited it. He basically turned everything he found into art.

Christian Nagel: Martin Kippenberger was restless from the beginning. It was a restlessness that was mirrored in an inflationary conception of art production that shunned exclusivity. Basically there are only two approaches in art: either one floods the market with as much as possible, or one acts as exclusively as possible. Kippenberger always did things to excess. He simply created too much art–not just because he tried to skirt the art scene, but maybe also because he knew he’d not much time left.

Werner Büttner: To put it nicely, one could say that half of Kippenberger’s oeuvre can be considered disposable, the other half is genuinly brilliant. There is no mediocrity to be found in his body of work.

Gisela Capitain: Kippenberger had an all-encompassing and interdisciplinary approach. Unlike other artists his reputation wasn’t damaged by showing weaker pieces in an exhibition as they were always contrasted with very strong ones. He was never ever anxious about giving away a piece from his studio that he knew wasn’t a masterpiece. That was an immediate expresion of his beliefs, and he was very certain about this. And if he still started doubting, you could bet he used that doubt to create something new.

Werner Büttner: Everything has to be evaluated in context of its time: the ’80s were a strange decade within art history. The mechanics of the art scene were very peculiar then. In the Eighties everybody seemed to believe in the daft idea of “autonomous art”—which basically meant that art is art and everything else is everything else. I never believed in this. And neither did Oehlen and Kippenberger which is why we never had to discuss this on a theoretical level. We didn’t even ask ourselves if we had to fight the idea of autonomous art–so absurd the concept was to us. Instinctively we knew that this just couldn’t be it and that art had to be related to reality. Time proved us right: Nowadays there are only very few people left who believe in that theory.

Bärbel Grässlin: The late ’70s were dominated by minimal art, concept art and performance art. Opposed to these disciplines, Kippenberger’s paintings were provocative, fresh and new. The boys all listened to the same music as us, also they convinced us with their intellect. My siblings and I started early with buying Oehlen’s, Kippenberger’s and Büttner’s works. Why? Because their art was clearly beyond the established.

Michel Würthle: Martin never began with constructing a theory, trying to realize it in the next step. He always produced right away. In hindsight it was always easy to then contextualize what he had just created. He processed the content from the form. He lived his ‘work in progress’.

Susanne Kippenberger: Every aspect of his life was rendered into art. He took, whatever it was, and made art out of it. Everyone and everything fascinated him, from Austrian woodcutters to the headlines of tabloids like the German Bild Zeitung.

Werner Büttner: Our enemy wasn’t just the art scene, but almost everything that was surrounding us. Our enemies were certain newspapers, television channels, those other idiotic alcoholics in the same bar as us–it basically was the world around us. We could always agree pretty fast on who was the enemy. But that didn’t mean at all that we weren’t competitive. Our careers probably flourished over the years because we were always merciless with each other and ridiculed the other as soon as one of us made a mistake. We were ruthlessly speaking our minds, even if it created awkward situations. That’s how we learned.

Michel Würthle: Kippenberger constantly put himself under immense pressure of production. Even though he was constantly traveling he felt compelled to deliver on a daily basis. He cultivated some kind of love/hate relationship when it came to everything connected to producing art: invitation cards, posters, catalogs, opening speeches and of course the after-show parties were all most important satellites for Kippenberger. Needless to say that such a lifestyle is exhausting in the long run.

Gisela Capitain: Alcohol was an instrument for him, a means to keep himself constantly in a good mood, to keep a never ending communication flow going. Alcohol was never important when it came to work. Kippenberger never drank alone. Not even at work. He also never worked under the influence of certain drugs. Drinking for him always had a social and societal connotation.

Bärbel Grässlin: He was an eccentric person, he always boozed. That’s not a secret. He drank to let off steam–but that’s what others did as well. Actually, he created the pressure himself by going public over and over again and constantly demanding appreciation for his work.

Michel Würthle: I remember this one outbreak of emotions he once had at the beginning of the ’90s in this god forsaken pedestrian area in some remote provincial backwater. I told him, “Let us never ever go again to a place like Aschaffenburg or Munich, let’s rather go to Congo. Always the same Italian restaurants after the openings. This is an unbearable routine!” And he responded, “This is some kind of war. We have to live through it. You can’t just run away.” The problem was that we kept on boozing in these places. We sometimes just couldn’t escape these provincial nightmares. In the weakness of a post-exhibition hangover we always had to drink more–otherwise we would have never ever endured these situations. And this way we’d spend just another precious day in no-man’s land. With every hour that went by we increasingly felt stuck. We once hung out at the Salzkammergut for three days after the wedding of Cosima von Bonin and Michael Krebber–Kippenberger’s assistant and friend. We almost lost our sight from the beauty of the snowy mountain panorama and, of course, the too many Fernet Branca digestifs. A slight panic seemed to break out. In those cases the only thing that helps is taking a taxi – even if it’d cost us a fortune. Hiking on glaciers, bus or train rides were not an option in such a situation.

Bärbel Grässlin: Kippenberger was always able to work, even if he had partied hard the night before. He would even continue to excessively work when he took his yearly health cures in Austria. There, for instance, he did an enormous amount of drawings for his series “Hotel”–he had to draw as canvas and oil paintings couldn’t be produced in a cure hotel room. These “Hotel” paper drawings were also some kind of compensation as he simply couldn’t access his studio.

Michel Würthle: Kippenberger went to a clinic in Innsbruck once a year where he would live off of bread and milk for one month. From that clinic he always returned amazingly fit, looking splendid with his even skin and healthy tan. These health cures always worked for him. But after three, four weeks tops, his old lifestyle caught up with him.

Bärbel Grässlin: In Innsbruck he befriended a traditional woodcutter who carved some of his most famous multiples for him, for instance the famous “Frog on the Cross” [“Zuerst die Füße”]. No matter if health cure or vacation, suspension of production was not allowed.

Susanne Kippenberger: The worst case for Martin would’ve been to limit himself to one single style. He studied in Hamburg at Rudolf Hausner’s, who in his lifetime basically painted the same heads over and over again. Martin never wanted that. Still one can find Hausner’s very own ‘handwriting’ in each one of his pieces.

“Zuerst die Füße”, Martin Kippenberger, 1990

Bärbel Grässlin: His working strategy was to focus on a certain topic at a time, for instance the self-portrait, the egg, other art phenomena and so on. As soon as one of those topics was dealt with, he immediately commited himself to the next one. Every exhibition differed from the one before. Back in the day if you’d attend two Kippenberger exhibitions in a row, you could easily think you’d seen shows by two different artists. Eventually his ‘fingerprint’ was easier to recognize.

Susanne Kippenberger: He always saw the bigger picutre. Barbara Straka, who curated his exhibition “Lieber Maler, male mir…” [“Dear painter, please paint for me...”] in 1981 at the NGBK in Berlin, once stated that she witnessed Martin’s completely different approach. Instead of just preparing the exhibition he curated a whole week of happenings around it. The opening for instance was just one of many related events–there was also a concert at Café Einstein, a festival at Michel Würthle’s Paris Bar, another opening at Galerie Petersen and he even incorporated our father’s 60th birthday into his week of events. It was one big art installation.

Michel Würthle: Martin could be a stubborn character if he became fixated on a certain idea. He could switch into attack mode from one moment to another, especially when things slowed down or went wrong. He wouldn’t accept no for an answer if someone didn’t take him seriously.

Susanne Kippenberger: He was very determined while working, always straightforward. His declared goal was always to become a famous, celebrated artist. He did have minor goals too, that he couldn’t realize while still living–for example he dreamt of being a writer. I don’t know if he really, really believed in it, but he actually went to Paris for a few months, rented out a hotel room and started to write a novel there. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out, he didn’t become a famous writer. He also used to always say that he would’ve loved to become an actor, a second Helmut Berger. Suffice to say, this also didn’t work out.

Michel Würthle: One of his unrealized projects was his wish to appear as a cameo in a big budget Hollywood production—it would have been enough for him to just prominently walk through a scene showing his presence. That would have been all he wanted. It didn’t matter who would have starred in the movie–it only needed to involve helicopters and such things. He envied José Luis de Villalonga, who, in the 1950s, managed to have cameo roles in almost 50 movies—among other roles he played a Brazilian ambassador in the film adaptation of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He would have loved to have had such an impressive list as well, but he had to write that off as just another failed project. Martin was very sad that his film career never got started.

Bärbel Grässlin: Accessibility in the Beuys’ sense was a top priority to him. Everybody should know. He always carried a stack of invitation cards with him which he would then hand out to everybody he met–be it a boozer in a bar or a man on the street. As many people as possible should come to his gallery openings, these weren’t meant only for an exclusive inner circle. Instead the family was permeable and supposed to always be extended. Permanently. Perpetually.

Michel Würthle: He was always accompanied by a ever-changing troupe of fans, an entourage which didn’t have to neccessarily match his wit. In this scenario he always was reminiscent of a circus director who constantly recruited new performers and bystanders for his next show. Wherever his journeys would take him, he always would spot that town’s dives and gin joints. He had an instinct for spotting the most desperate of all public bars. That’s where he would go and start drinking and generously recruit assistants for the upcoming exhibition opening.

Gisela Capitain: Martin Kippenberger was always the center of attention, no matter where he was.

Bärbel Grässlin: He loved openings, because it was him who was celebrated and he enjoyed that excessively. Artistic recognition was more important than anything else. The question was, “who is there? Who isn’t there?” As a member of the family you simply weren’t allowed to be absent. And if you were, he would remember it. For him presence was some kind of testimony: “I honor you that’s why I’m here”.

Susanne Kippenberger: He wasn’t the type who would let anybody control him. Like an animal he had a precise instinct for another person’s weak spots. He wouldn’t hesitate to bring up the most painful subjects—and he did, extensively. I mean, nobody likes being told painful and also true facts about oneself in front of an audience.

Christian Nagel: Kippenberger was really good at dredging the shit up and throwing it in the other’s faces.

Werner Büttner: If you cultivate a confrontational relationship, good and evil start to surface. I always quote from the most gruesome book of the Bible–The Revelation of John—when I teach my students: “You can be hot, you can be cold. But if you are lukewarm, the Lord will spit you out.” Nobody had to remind us of this. We were never tepid neither with each other nor with our audiences.

Christian Nagel: I remember how Kippenberger once insisted on serving croquettes and other Dutch fast food ‘delicacies’ at the after-show dinner as part of his grand exhibition opening in Rotterdam. He used to love those croquettes as a teen when he went on holidays to the Netherlands with his family. The director of that museum was very embarrassed about this–his staff originally planned on serving something sophisticated, but Kippenberger insisted on having this greasy, fried, unhealthy convenience food. The director was confronted with a working class cliché of the Netherlands born out of the Ruhr area in Germany.

Susanne Kippenberger: The German art set of the ’80s was convinced that humor doesn’t belong in art. For them it meant lack of seriousness. In their eyes any art that used humor was irrelevant. That explains why Martin had only one solo museum exhibition in Germany in Darmstadt and a second one in Mönchengladbach right before his death—but dozens in the United States.

Christian Nagel: Kippenberger cultivated a love/hate relationship towards the art scene. He wanted to be Picasso, Beuys and Warhol at the same time. But he felt disgusted by the art market. He tended to get pretty mad when he felt confronted with meaningless praise, wrong arguments or vanity. He definitively had a moral code and could thus be easily offended.

Bärbel Grässlin: You can trace an anarchic sense of humor, as well as irony, especially self-irony in Martin Kippenberger’s work. He always displayed a critical distance towards everyday life and towards art. He kept a distance from the art scene, but at the same time he absolutely wanted to be part of it. The legions of art historians, curators and museum directors definitively had their problems with Martin Kippenberger while he was still alive.

Werner Büttner: Martin wasn’t allowed to receive the recognition he so eagerly had fought for all his life—a participation in the Venice Biennale, the Documenta or even the huge retrospective at Tate Modern in 1997. It was a cruel and cynical aspect of his life that he died in 1997–the same year his career internationally went through the roof.

“Paris Bar”, Martin Kippenberger, 1993

Susanne Kippenberger: Everybody says that if you die young, you’ll become a legend. But I personally believe this is only one possible explanation for why Martin is now honored with huge international retrospectives and merits. Many people didn’t even see his art, they only saw him, the provocateur. And more often than not, they got him wrong.

Bärbel Grässlin: Martin Kippenberger lived twice or three times as fast as the rest of us. Maybe that’s why he died so young. I watched him closely when he was in Frankfurt as a guest professor at Städel-Schule. Socializing on a nightly basis was a must–which was a drag. Being alone was never his thing, so he always had to gather an audience around him. No one was able to keep up with his speed.

Susanne Kippenberger: Until today not many are aware of Martin’s last series, especially the litho-series “Floß der Medusa” [“Brail of Medusa”] and “Bilder, die Picasso nicht mehr malen konnte” [“Pictures that Picasso Wasn’t Able to Draw Anymore”]. Some people still see him as a clown and an ironist.

Werner Büttner: Many people think he didn’t anticipate his death. But I doubt that. I think he lied to himself as I feel he knew deep down. You can actually see it in “Das Floß der Medusa” [“Brail of Medusa”], which he created in Denmark referencing a motif by Theodore Géricault. There is no doubt that someone is bidding farewell. If I look at the prints, I see a disfigured, bloated, destroyed body waving goodbye. And on some of the prints this body even strikes the Imitatio Christi pose—reenacting a crucifixion. When I saw his last series of lithographs I realized that this cycle implied a foreshadowing of the end and that it was a goodbye to the world.

Christian Nagel: I am quite sure he knew the end was near. Interestingly enough, this didn’t lead him to push even harder, instead he tried to enjoy his life. He married, he even went on his honeymoon and started to live in a house with a studio in Austria. This house to him became his home—and not just a stopover. But, of course, he still was constantly working until the end.

Susanne Kippenberger: I believe that even facing his imminent death he couldn’t completely change. He still couldn’t really slow down. Looking back, there was always this enormous desire to live and work. And yet Martin wanted to become an old man. A fortune teller once told him he’d live past his 80th birthday–he enjoyed telling this story so much. But then again he was a smart guy. He knew he was drawn to a dangerous lifestyle.

Werner Büttner: I got this phonecall call and the other voice said, “He is dead”. So we all traveled from every corner of the earth to this rotten hill, which guards the exit of the Pußta and its worthless setting. The weather was so terrible that you could’ve been jealous of the dead. Frozen-stiff and weighed down with morbid minds we approached the pit painfully slowly. At a certain moment, when almost a hundred of us still hadn’t faced up to his grave, suddenly the gravedigger started to fill the grave. The widow froze, the mourners froze. Asked what he was doing, a loud and drunk reply in the meanest of all Austrian dialects spewed forth from his stinking mouth, “Well I’m in charge, I’m closing this hole now, it’s getting dark soon.” Michel Würthle took the drunken Catholic creature aside and bribed him with some pennies, which, aside from schnapps, was his only interest. Then we proceeded with the rituals of piety. I am sure that even during this very last episode, Kippenberger would have unearthed some odd pleasure. And certainly, he would have made something out of it. ~

Main picture: “Ohne Titel” [from the series “Lieber Maler, male mir”], Martin Kippenberger, 1981.