From Impression to Expression
Martin Kippenberger at the Bundeskunsthalle

"Mr. 1,000 volts" – this is how Gisela Capitain, his long-time gallerist and current estate administrator, characterizes him. With Martin Kippenberger, “everything was very intense," his art as well as his life. All the energy and creative passion of the artist, who died in 1997 at the age of 44 and is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, can now be felt in Bonn: with a whopping 360 paintings, drawings, photographs, posters, artist's books, sculptures, and expansive installations, the Bundeskunsthalle has revived a myth of German art history.

“Kippi” showed – and lived – the nihilism and all the madness of the media and consumer culture of the late twentieth century. He created his paintings in an era in which the invasion of Afghanistan, the first Gulf War, and Chernobyl conjured up an impending apocalypse. In view of the bad prospects, people partied hearty; after all, they wanted to get the most out of life while they still could. In the big cities, a new, “cool” attitude to life emerged as well as a culture characterized by ironic ambivalence, intensity, and acceleration. This was reflected not only by punk and new wave, but also a new kind of painting, which at that time was often called “young,” “wild,” or “violent.” However, artists like Rainer Fetting, Walter Dahn, and Kippenberger adopted very different strategies. While Fetting and Dahn tended to pick up on Expressionism and Primitivism, Kippenberger and his friends Werner Büttner and Albert and Markus Oehlen questioned the image, the subject, and authorship. They also shared a penchant for sarcastic humor that is evidenced by Kippenberger's unmistakable work titles: Think Today, Finished TomorrowBig Apartment, Never HomeAlcohol TortureAshtray for SinglesI’m Breaking Down, Are You Coming Along? These titles should also be viewed as autobiographical references.

The title of the retrospective was also taken from a painting: Bitteschön. Dankeschön plays on Kippenberger's constant giving and taking. His extensive work resembles an image-processing machine that never stands still, driven by influences from pop culture, everyday life, politics, and art history. “Martin Kippenberger was a catalyst for all impressions,” says Rein Wolfs, director of the Bundeskunsthalle. “He strengthened, exaggerated, changed, and transformed things, ironized and satirized, created new contexts.”

This is already shown by his first series of paintings. Uno di voi. Un Tedesco in Firenze was executed in 1977 in Florence, Italy. In that city, Kippenberger actually wanted to emulate his idol Helmut Berger and become an actor. However, the ex-student, who at the Hamburg Art Academy was primarily interested in photography and experimented with the artistic possibilities of photocopiers, developed into a painter in Florence. In these serially arranged pictures in coarse black, white, and gray, he deploys his own reality of life and environment as material: a man with a Vespa, store window displays, the Ponte Vecchio bridge, or something very private like his visit to one of the country’s typical standing toilets. In these works, which are mostly based on his own photographs, everything is established that distinguishes his later works: the simultaneous confrontation with daily life and art history (here he parodies Gerhard Richter’s “gray painting”), provocation, and absurd humor. The conceptual goal was to paint so many pictures that, stacked on top of each other, they corresponded to Kippenberger’s height. In the exhibition, the wall with the Uno di voi works looks very contemporary. With this armada of painted snapshots, all in 60 x 50 cm formats, he seems to anticipate the image grids on Instagram.

The artist also shared his inclination for public life with today's social media generation – of course still in a quite analog way. On his 25th birthday, he put up a poster all over West Berlin with his portrait and the words: A Quarter Century of Kippenberger as One of You, With You, Among You. He also had stamps printed with his portrait. Kippenberger’s painted selfies did not need beauty filters. Although he had himself immortalized as a glamorous big-city cowboy by a cinema poster painter in 1981, he no longer looks like a modern dandy in another picture from the same year. After "Ratten-Jenny" beat him up at the Berlin punk club SO36, he had himself photographed with a bandaged head and painted his work Dialog with the Youth of Today based on this photo. In his later self-portraits there is nothing left of the former glamour. Following David Douglas Duncan's famous photographs of Picasso, which show the aging painter as a virile, self-confident macho in bright white boxer shorts, “Kippi” poses in worn-out, dingy, fine-rib underpants and unabashedly shows his paunch.

Some of the numerous self-portraits in the exhibition testify to his involvement with the art world, which he constantly provoked but to which he always wanted to belong. With the life-size sculpture Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself, executed in six variants, he reacts to an article in the art magazine Wolkenkratzer, which characterizes him as a misogynist, cynical alcoholic with politically questionable views. For many critics at the time, the artist, who liked to make fun of any form of political correctness (he even titled one of his works What Is Your Favorite Minority?), is a bête noire. For example, Marius Babias wrote in 1996: “Serious German museums refuse to mount Kippenberger retrospectives to this day.”

Fortunately, the days of such harsh rejection are over. And in Bonn, in addition to all the provocations, you can now also see works from his touching Medusa cycle, which he created just a year before his death. For these self-portraits he adapts the gestures of the castaways in Géricault's famous painting The Raft of Medusa (1819). These images speak of the great existential need and despair behind the façade of the cynical joker.
Achim Drucks

Martin Kippenberger
BITTESCHÖN DANKESCHÖN – A Retrospective

Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn
Until February 16, 2020