May 2013


Martin Kippenberger at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum


Martin Kippenberger is the Klipspringer of modern German painters. You might have thought that Gerhard Richter deserves the title, but Kippenberger makes Richter’s shifts among styles and subjects look studious. Kippenspringer leaps and leaps. He lands on the sharp point of a style, with a bang, and takes off again.


The 300 or so works currently on show in Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof museum form a small selection from his prodigious, hardly collectible output, work that some sixteen years after his death at 44 from an alcohol-rotted liver, at last seems destined for big-museum eternity.* (Ahead of Berlin, MOMA and MOCA put on belated show of his work in the mid 2010’s, a decade after his death.)


An artist with a vision, you may grumble, would be more settled; one would know what to expect from painting to painting, not to mention the photographs, sculptures, and installations. Consistency would be an earnest of, oh, sincerity. Leave that to Baselitz, a greater painter but a more monotonous artist. Loaded to popping with the artistic restlessness of his time, Kippenberger is a painter of brash attitude, not of vision; of irreverence, not of solemnity. His paintings jibe at the expectation that painting will be in love with its own perfection. We’ve had that. It changes nothing. And what is there for a Narcissus to celebrate when he develops a balloon belly? He pulls on big white shorts, like Picasso, and paints himself undressed, parading his own failure to be beautiful.


Kippenberger portrays the pains of existence with both chagrin and “here’s a neat biting off of the matter.” The dramatic Raft of Medusa series, the spoofing crucified Fred the Frog series, give us “Man” regretted in the secondarity of myth. But almost always Kippenberger stops short of earnestness. His paintings strike at the interface of suffering and laughter—as also of “homage and irony,” as Manfred Hermes notes in Nach Kippenberger, which collects commentaries by various critics. But all the paintings—the striking exhibition posters, too—are painting’s celebration of its own free spirit. By comparison, the Joseph Beuys sculptures in another wing of the Hamburger Bahnhof are grimly dark or mousy gray or a fatty yellow, and heavy, inert, chunkish, clunkish, completely lacking in esprit, for all that Beuys (the darling of ideologue-critics) talked a gleaming in esprit, for all that Beuys (the darling of ideologue-critics) talked a gleamingstreak about “substance processes” and “evolution” and “giving life meaning.” 


Prominently placed in the survey is an unusual Kippenberger, hence a typical one: the painting Pleasant Communist Girl. Here, a big face on the big canvas, one: the painting Pleasant Communist Girl. Here, a big face on the big canvas, close up, smiles out at you and you wonder why she looks flushed and crazy with geniality and heavily made up and not pretty, just made up in rouge with a red-starred Russian hat on her head. Who does she think she’s fooling? Or is she just naïve—really nice? Maybe the picture is a satiric thrust at cold war fears of Communists. Or an illustration of the Fold mentality of party members. But the immediate vitality of the image supersedes the question. Kippenberger’s paintings are always more than ideas. 


Where Richter deliberates—his precision “ruined” by belated squeegee smearing—Kippenberger extemporizes. He has juice, autoerotic exuberance, the mischief of a cut-up. He's impatient with an eked-out aesthetic. No wonder he thinks of Frank Stella as Minimalist Kitsch, “absolute color trash, colorshit.” The effect of his production is one of unstoppable spontaneity. He has a swift- kill pictorial instinct. The painting beside Sympathische Kommunist consists of a complicated snarl of right angles, but the title smiles on the anarchy: With the Best Will in the World I Can’t See a Swastika. His motto is “COOL IT. DIG IT. DO IT,” to cite one of his posters. Even his sketchy, impromptu paintings on 52 sheets of hotel stationary (the curators’ selections from many more) are taut with abrupt movement, rude contemporaneity. He elbows his way about in even thesmallest spaces. A near approach to caricature’s simplifications and emphasis— that is his hallmark. (There is a similar element in Maria Lassnig’s nonetheless more trenchant coeval paintings out of Austria. See pages 89-96 of this issue. Kippenberger was a fan of her work.) Such cynical wit, such painfully funny pathos, are European, not American; our painters are more earnest. In contrast to Beuys’s overintellectualized art (which, however, is unpretentious next to Bruce Nauman’s huge, solemn installation in the same museum, Room with My Soul Left Out, Room that Does Not Care), Kippenberger’s paintings are a drunken fencer’s somehow brilliant demonstration of thrusts. They aren’t deep, but they interest me more than his conceptual sculptures and installations. You don’t just instantly get the idea (e.g., a subway entrance in nowhere leading nowhere) and move on. The composition has vigor. The colors stain you, linger. 


Different as Kippenberger’s art is from Richter’s, it shares the latter’s hyperproductivity and creative restlessness, and one may feel that in both the great rare towering or unsurpassably exquisite work is lacking, even as the general quality is superb. Thomas Raab: “it is pointless to discuss individual woks in a hierarchical manner” (Nach Kippenberger). Like Picasso’s, each painting is yet another in remarkable demonstration of bravado and fertility. Excepting his few photorealist paintings, Kippenberger was indifferent to finish (“A well- painted picture is a well-painted picture. If there is not a break in it . . . you won’t be able to stand it for life”). Not that the paintings are unfinished; they are all they need or want to be. But they are cynical about art’s sacred absorptive and instructive power, its redemptive role. They would rather look slightly dashed onto the canvas, and slap, than subscribe to artistic pieties.


Good going. But obviously Kippenberger is not the great artist that, say, Anselm Kiefer is, as the three Kiefer works in the same museum remind us (especially the stunning Lilith at the Red Sea). Though not born until 1945, Kiefer took on Germany’s history as his subject. This was heroic. He and Paul Celan are the major artistic sufferers of that history and both were, as counterforces, equal to the appalling challenge. The void in them was large enough to hold the inexhaustible sorrow. 




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