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The German prankster who joked his way to the truth

The YBAs learned a lot from the late Martin Kippenberger, says Sean O’Hagan. Now the Eighties shockmeister’s work is due a reappraisal

Towards the end of his short, unruly life, Martin Kippenberger made a print called Matisse’s Studio Sublet to Spider-Man. In it, the great French painter is pointing with a long stick at a detail of one of his big drawings, while the action hero encircles him in a variety of dramatic poses as if fighting the very idea of art itself.

For Spider-Man, read Kippenberger, a kind of self-styled art anti-hero, whose life represented a similar battle of wills with the art establishment, whom he constantly provoked and often offended. With hindsight, though, the Joker might have been a more apt alter ego for a man who attempted to turn his life itself into an ongoing work of art.

Having come of age in the punk era – he ran a Dadaesque night club in Berlin in the late Seventies – Kippenberger initially revelled in shock tactics, though some of his provocations were seen by many as evidence of a juvenile tendency to take things too far. This was a man who once created a sculpture of a toad being crucified, who opened his own museum without walls in an old slaughterhouse on a semi-deserted Greek island, who purchased a run-down petrol station in Brazil, and reopened it as ‘Gas Station Martin Boorman’. He made headlines but, amid the controversy, it was easy to overlook the fact that he also made some powerful art. And, in constantly confronting the limits of taste and behaviour, he asked some uncomfortable questions about what it meant to be an artist, and what it meant to be German.

‘What you have to understand is that everything Martin did was very intense,’ says his younger sister, Susanne, who lives in a Berlin apartment adorned with her brother’s work and images from their childhood in the industrial Ruhr Valley. ‘From an early age, he was someone who demanded attention, who seemed naturally to rebel against order. He was provocative, but always for serious reasons, and this did not make it easy for people to like him. He did not think that art should be easy on people.’

He most famously caused offence with one of his early paintings, a kind of Cubist puzzle of lines and blocks, entitled Try as I Might, I Cannot Find a Swastika. It was a painting about collective denial and, simultaneously, about the populist reaction to abstract art, but it inspired a chorus of dismay and disapproval in the German press.

‘In Germany, in the Eighties, he did things and said things that some people thought were funny but many people perceived to be offensive,’ elaborates Susanne, herself a journalist, ‘but, in a way, he was behaving as a satirist should. He was exposing our weaknesses to show us some kind of essential truth about ourselves. It was often an uncomfortable truth.’

Now, nine years after his premature death from liver cancer at the age of 44, Kippenberger has been granted a British retrospective at Tate Modern, where his prodigious output of paintings, prints, sculptures, books and often huge installations will give some idea of the man’s restless energy and extraordinary range. It is timely. As the hype and hullabaloo around the YBAs finally subsides, it seems fitting that the legacy of an artist who is a kind of bridge between them and the more politically engaged work of Josef Beuys be examined. Both Gavin Turk and Sarah Lucas have acknowledged his influence, and the young Scottish painter Lucy McKenzie wrote a penetrating essay about his work for a recent Dutch show.

I met Susanne and her older sister, Bettina, in Cafe Einstein in Berlin, one of their brother’s old haunts. This is where he held court, often jumping on to a table for a drink-fuelled impromptu public performance. Sometimes he would retell an old joke that everyone present had heard a hundred times before but, to the delight of his coterie of friends – and the mounting dismay of everyone else – he would make it last a torturous half hour.

This was art, Kippenberger style, as much as the paintings, sculptures and performances he made for the so-called cognoscenti, many of whom mistook his loudness and his prankster ideology for simple attention-seeking and a lack of seriousness.

‘He was a very complex personality,’ says Susanne. ‘He wanted to be loved and accepted as an artist but, in the end, he didn’t care what people thought. He was not a clown. He made jokes, he liked to laugh, he had fun doing what he did, but he was very serious about his art. This made him exhausting to be around. He was very demanding about his work.’

Born in Essen, the middle child of five, and the only boy, he was, says Bettina, a ‘born showoff and a rebel, someone who saw even school as a form of entertainment’. On his first day there he was punished for sticking his foot out to trip up the teacher. The family grew up in a house that was always bustling with people, but, from early on, Martin ousted his father as the centre of attention. Kippenberger senior was, according to the artist and family friend Albert Oehlen, ‘an extreme version of his son’, a self-taught painter, writer and performer. Bettina remembers a particularly fractious family holiday in Scandinavia, after which he presented his wife and children with a self-made book entitled, ‘Poor Father’.

At home, Martin constantly bossed and cajoled the girls into posing for elaborately staged photographs. In one, the children are arranged in order of age on stone steps, all pointing in the same direction with outstretched arms. ‘It’s not the Nazi salute,’ says Susanne, quickly. ‘Its a homage to the TV series that the pop group the Monkees starred in.’ He called the photograph Hey Hey, Here Come the Monkeys which, either by accident or design, announces the wordplay that would feature in many of his later titles.

In the catalogue for the Tate Modern show, Susanne writes poignantly about Martin’s childhood hut in their garden: ‘His very first house. It was to be his only house’. Ever on the move, always in search of company, conversation, drink-fuelled conviviality, Martin Kippenberger lived as he worked, frantically, intensely, impatiently. His odyssey took him far and wide, from Berlin to Florence, then on to Cologne, Paris, Madrid, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Greece, always in search of a place he could call home. ‘I never managed it,’ he once said, ‘but the will is still there, as it ever was.’

Kippenberger possessed the frantic restlessness and disregard for social protocol common to many alcoholics, and would often arrive at his own openings with a sidekick in tow. He would sing or dance for the assembled guests, accompanying himself on a variety of instruments, none of which he could play. Once, Susanne remembers, he led everyone in a dance which ended with him doing a handstand, his head in the loo. His life echoed his art: the madcap loner who never quite knew when to stop. Unsurprisingly, he got on many people’s nerves, and was accused of everything from vulgar self-promotion to wilfully bad painting to Nazi sloganeering.

After a German art critic accused him of the latter, Kippenberger made one of his signature works: a self-portrait in which a life-size mannequin of himself stands in a corner, red-faced, hands clasped behind his back, like a punished and humiliated schoolboy. He called it, Martin, into the Corner, You Should be Ashamed of Yourself. A self-mocking joke, maybe, but a deeply resonant one. He was the eternal outsider, often derided and ignored by an art world who could not, or would not, see the seriousness behind the prankster’s facade.

‘People who knew of him but did not know him could find him overpowering, and even bullying’, says Gisela Capitain, his one-time gallerist and the director of the Kippenberger estate, ‘but that was not the case if you spent time with him and got to know him. He was brutal on those who took art for granted, and he was always provocative towards any audience, especially his own. For him, art was always a test. How far can I go? How much can they take? It is not an attitude that endears an artist to collectors, but perhaps, in the end, it is the most honest attitude.’

A year before he died, Kippenberger seemed finally to have found some peace, marrying the photographer, Elfie Semotan and approaching his work, according to Capitain, ‘with a new, more focused level of intent’. This is reflected in his last two series of works, entitled Medusa and The Pictures that Picasso Couldn’t Paint Anymore. Whether he knew how ill he was is open to question: if he did, he certainly did not want anyone else to know.

He left behind an extraordinary, and, among the experts, still contested body of work, which ranges from the vast series of small sketches done on hotel stationary to epic installations such as 1994’s vast The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika’, which is included in the Tate’s show.

‘He questioned the whole notion of the towering artist, the heroic Picasso figure,’ elaborates Gisela Capitain, ‘and yet he took such big risks all the time, constantly reinventing himself, constantly confounding his critics and even, especially, his audience.’

It may be that Martin Kippenberger’s conflicts and contradictions still define him as an artist: the sense that he wanted to be both ubiquitous and elusive, knowing and naive, cruel and tender. In the process – and the process is all-important – he walked a tightrope between the intellectual and street smart, the politically aware and the wilfully offensive, the provocative and the downright funny. And often in the space of one work. He worked hard, and his best work requires us to do the same. As Albert Oehlen once said of him, ‘All day long and with all of his heart, he really does believe in nothing else but art.’

Last night in the Toscana restaurant in Kemang, Jakarta over a glass of wine or two my wife asked me to write about my life and my work. I have never thought it (my life) that interesting or that my views differ from a great many others, so the need to write about my life does not resonate or sit too well with me.

I continued thinking about our conversation and thought that my work does present an aspect of what my life is about, but it is never autobiography. After all the Irish have a saying ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’.  Did Beuys get rescued by Tartars? So I have been reflecting on the purpose of an autobiography. A personal truth?

What did strike me was that talking about the creative process is a different thing, that although autobiographical it has a critical gap that edits outside the author.

This video, an interview conducted by Tim Marlow (great suits Tim!) with Anselm Kiefer, this is what an artists interview should be: not about them but about the discipline of creation.

So for my beautiful caring wife I shall make an attempt to write. In the meantime enjoy this interview it is great.

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