First the Feet

By Roberto Ohrt. Excerpt from the book 'Kippenberger'

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There has been no shortage of Martin Kippenberger exhibitions and publications in the last few years. Admirers of his work have been steadily increasing in numbers, especially among young people. In some art colleges his example is researched almost as though it formed part of basic studies, especially his works from the 1980s with their background humor and a sharpness of representation that often deploys extreme malice without beating around the bush. More staid members of the art world are less enthusiastic. While a few institutions have conceded him some measure of the fame and recognition denied him before his premature death in Germany, the artist remains largely suspect to the powers-that-be. His frivolity, combined with the fact that he did not scorn pure silliness, is ever welcome as a pretext for keeping him at arm's length.

The public have had even greater difficulties with the darker colors of his art. Unfortunately this applies even to happy young people. Once account is taken of his dramatic side, their sense of enjoyment disappears. For his part, he did not want to separate the two moods - preferring instead to mix the "mask of tragedy" with the unambiguous "punch line" to the point of confusion. Many polemics and bitterly serious attacks by public critics, to which he had to accustom himself from a very early stage, originated in reaction to his incautious jokes, as revenge for their injured sensibilities. The link was there willy-nilly.

Nor was that the only reason he liked to play the "unluckly fellow". He had a weakness for the wallflower role. Some architecture standing somewhere in the townscape, its offer of support not being used or noticed, was just the place for him. Here he sat, on exhibit in his isolation like the bench-and-table gesture, the only one to take the concrete up on its offer to sit down, for the well-meant promise of the robust building material had long since degenerated into a security measure, and exchanged its friendliness for precautionary, firm defense against maltreatment. And he stayed there, naturally, sitting, hand on glass (p. 96/97). On the surface at least the pebbledash concrete hinted at artistic openness. The picture was painted likewise in a pointillist style, in the spirit of a free observation of light; at the conference table a similarly lonely lamp post, the symbol whose loyal companion the artist would later prove to be.

Even so, even in his distress he wanted nothing to do with excuses or defenses. For him, there was no refuge in whining. Hence the situation was not easy: if there was no other choice, he would go against even his fellow sufferers, his last possible allies: Ich hab' kein Alibi, höchstens mal ein Bier, hör auf zu mosern, so geht's nicht nur Dir.

The self-portrait with head-bandage (1982, p. 95) formulates the simultaneity of unadorned hopelessness and unswerving confidence in a different way. To sketch in the background: in 1978-79, Martin Kippenberger was "managing director" of S.O. 36, a bare hall in Berlin Kreuzberg designed for concerts, excessive drinking and "freedom of movement". It became the leading rendezvous of the punk scene at the time, famous well beyond the city limits. Often enough in his organizational capacity he had - if it's not too inappropriate a term - the "grass-roots" of the movement at his throat, accusing him especially of charging too much simply in order to take money out of the pockets of "the youth". After all, as his accusers could see, he still dressed smartly, and not as one of them, was always drawing attention to himself as a dancer and performer, and, since the scene was always short of money and everyone wanted luxury, when the inevitable topic came up had no scruple cutting short the protagonists of the mob. Compared to other artists, he adopted an unusually aggressive public stance ... until, one day, the young punks turned out the lights on the night-life and the arrogant fart got to see some stars. By the time they finished, his head was flying like a football, back and forth between their boots.

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Martin Kippenberger, 1988. Foto: Andrea Stappert