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Performing the self: Alison M. Gingeras on Martin Kippenberger.


Martin Kippenberger, to lift a lyric from Elvis Presley, "was born standing up and talking back." At least that's how the legend goes. Anecdotes concerning the countless misdeeds of this enfant terrible at times nearly eclipse the physical "substance" of his art. His lifelong campaign to shroud his work in an aura of rebellious behavior started early. Shuttled around various private schools in West Germany in the late 1960s, Kippenberger was the type of kid who performed outrageous acts to win the admiration of his peers, and masterfully taunted the teacher. But if Kippenberger was not the typical academic type, he was nevertheless a quick study, particularly when it came to the lessons of his mentor in absentia, Andy Warhol.

In Warhol, Kippenberger found a model that accorded the careful construction of a public persona the same status as any other artistic discipline. For the academic establishment, this colorful and controversial image, which reached its peak during Warhol's "business art" phase, was evidence of his decline from the avant-garde heyday of the pre-'68 Factory. To them, his indulgent participation in the spheres of entertainment and commerce in the '70s and '80s confirmed his capitulation to the system he once "critiqued" (however deadpan or ambiguously). Yet such a view misses the point that the sum of his supposedly ancillary non-art activities--selling his "aura" for commercial advertisements, working for the Zoli modeling agency, making appearances in the popular press and on television, establishing Interview magazine as a vehicle for accessing celebrities, and generally cavorting with the jet set--constitutes Warhol's great conceptual chef d'oeuvre: his persona.




Whereas Warhol grew more and more dedicated to entrepreneurial extracurriculars in the later part of his career, Kippenberger focused on the cultivation of his persona from the start. Unlike most young artists who spend their formative years struggling to establish the parameters of their aesthetic practice, Kippenberger refused to adopt a specific discipline or to forge a signature style. From 1976 to 1982, he embarked on a campaign of hit-or-miss experimentation, the only constant being his drive to generate a complex mythology by disseminating his image and creating outlets for his charisma.

"Looking like Helmut Berger on a good day," or so he proclaimed, Kippenberger left Hamburg in 1976 to pursue an acting career in Florence. After his theatrical talents proved inconsequential, he took to the easel for a brief period. Despite his flop in Italy, he relished the fact he was often mistaken for Berger, the handsome star (and lover) of Italian director Luchino Visconti. The actor, a flamboyant playboy on-screen and off, was almost certainly a source of inspiration for Kippenberger's own nascent persona. Admitting failure in Florence, Kippenberger returned to Germany, eventually landing in the charged atmosphere of West Berlin in 1978. Determined to make a mark on his new hometown, he published a book and a poster to commemorate his twenty-fifth birthday. The broadside, which he posted up around the city, featured an image of Kippenberger standing next to an old tramp, with a German headline reading: "1/4 Century of Kippenberger as one of you, among you, with you." A halo of text surrounded this soon-to-be-infamous Berliner's head: show-off, hypervoyeur, pretender, informer, organizer, ringleader, long a painter, big spender. With this flurry of self-designated epithets, Kippenberger ensured that people would get the "right" idea about him.

The opening of the Buro Kippenberger (with Gisela Capitain) later that same year coincided with the formal start of his career as a "serious" artist. Located in the heart of the Kreutzberg district in West Berlin (a neighborhood akin to the East Village of the 1980s), his "office" echoed the effervescence of the Factory. Yet if Warhol partially hid behind his managerial role and a gaggle of celebrities, Kippenberger always positioned himself up front, in the center of the action. His Buro was a tool for inserting himself into as many social and creative contexts as possible. In addition to serving as a hangout for his gang of friends and collaborators and as a set for several experimental film productions (including one directed by Ulrike Ottinger), Kippenberger actually started making "art" there too. Mocking the neo-expressionism of his German peers, he used hasty, impasto-laden brushwork to recount, of all subjects, his drunken nocturnal escapades. Self-portraits such as Alkoholfolter (Alcohol Torture), 1981-82, were painted from snapshots taken of Kippenberger during the period when he played in a band and managed S.O. 36, a nightclub at the center of the punk and New Wave scene. Youthful misadventures were immortalized on canvases like Berlin bei Nacht (Berlin at Night), 1981-82, which depicts the bandaged face of the artist after being beaten up by a gang of punks. Kippenberger treated self-portraiture as yet another venue for the elaboration of his public persona, defying the trite assumption that the genre should offer a glimpse of the artist's inner self, while also rejecting Warhol's empty yet glamorous concealment of the self behind a theatrical mask.


German critic Diedrich Diederichsen spared Kippenberger's early maelstrom of creative activity from being dismissed as an avant-garde charade or bad-boy bohemia. He invoked the German word Selbstdarsteller to theorize Kippenberger's programmatic construction of himself. Translated as "self-publicist," "self-promoter," or, more literally, "self-performer," the term is most often used in contemporary parlance to dismiss the vanity or bravado of politicians and pop stars. As Diederichsen carefully notes, Selbstdarsteller oscillates between the promotion and the performance of the self, providing a nuanced key for understanding the complex economy underlying Kippenberger's life and work. His persona was based on a system of checks and balances, teetering between self-promotion and self-effacement, exuberance and humility, offensive humor and profound melancholia, cult adoration and public rejection. In this way, Kippenberger broke with Warhol's detached theatricality in order to forge a model that aggressively asserted his own base humanity.


Every artist is a person"--with this deadpan slogan, Kippenberger slyly inverted the maxim of yet another persona-driven artist, Joseph Beuys, who famously declared, "Everyone is an artist." Beuys was practically a saint by the time Kippenberger emerged on the German art scene in the mid-'80s, and his calculated public appearances and affected dress and behavior offered a perfect anti-model for the young artist. Despite their shared talent for self-promotion, Kippenberger violently rejected Beuys's shamanistic and humorless brand of mythmaking. His contradiction of Beuys's famous dictum stemmed from a deeply anti-utopian view of the world. As a child of the cold-war era, Kippenberger could only endorse a personal mythology firmly rooted in the disillusion and (black) humor that permeated his everyday existence. If Beuys's paradigm of artist-as-redeemer was marked by pious values and recognizable signs of political engagement, as evident in another of his slogans, "La rivoluzione siamo noi" (We are the revolution), Kippenberger proposed a radically different form of humanism--excessive, antagonistic, grotesque, and politically incorrect.

This brand of humanism was already evident in Kippenberger's very first works, such as Uno di voi, un tedesco in Firenze (One of You, a German in Florence). This cycle of one hundred paintings made after Kippenberger's acting career stalled in 1977 is tantamount to a declaration of his "everyman" philosophy. Rendered in black and white oil paint deliberately reminiscent of Gerhard Richter's grisaille 48 Portraits of Important Men, Uno di voi presents scenes from Kippenberger's daily life during his brief Florentine stint. There are portraits of local personalities (a milkman, the concierge of the Palazzo Pitti) and of more (in)famous subjects (a wanted criminal, an Italian singer, an archetypal German soldier, a copy of a Botticelli portrait in the Uffizi), as well as architectural details, interiors, street scenes, and fragments of advertisements and public sculptures. At first, this compendium of diverse images might appear to be a painted travel journal recording foreign exotica. Yet the choice of subjects tends to focus on the grim and gritty aspects of everyday life (graffiti scribbled on a public monument; a man squatting over a hole-in-the-ground toilet; a stuffed pig; a pigeon's corpse squashed on some cobblestones). A step beyond (or below) Pop's mix of high and low, Uno di voi betrays Kippenberger's chronic sympathy for the banal and less-than-noble side of the human condition. Even the work's title, "One of You," suggests that Kippenberger, unlike Warhol or Beuys, completely implicated himself in life's wonderful mess.

Kippenberger's insistence on his "all too human" condition was an evolving theme in his self-performance and -promotion program, as three major cycles of self-portrait paintings attest. In the first group of pictures, from 1988, the former Helmut Berger doppelganger felt compelled to register the effects of time and the excesses of alcohol on his thirty-five-year-old body. Painted while he was living in Spain with his friend and frequent collaborator Albert Oehlen, these tragicomic pictures portray a half-naked Kippenberger with a bloated abdomen, flabby torso, and bearded face. In several works from this series, the artist's heavy body is juxtaposed with a few yellow balloons floating in the background--a wistful nod toward celebrations past. Kippenberger chose to portray himself wearing dowdy white underwear, in a deliberate reference to a well-known photograph of Pablo Picasso from the 1950s (an image Kippenberger had already appropriated in 1985 for a poster for his exhibition in Tenerife). Responding to Picasso's own fabricated persona--a bourgeois genius masquerading as a "common" man in proletarian dress--Kippenberger makes an analogy between his swelling weight and his inflated stature as a star of the Cologne art scene. These melancholic paintings demonstrate the physical effects of Kippenberger's vice-ridden lifestyle as much as they cast doubt on the cult of genius that haunted him.

When Kippenberger's macho antics and drunken excess began to make him the target of harsh criticism at the outset of the politically correct '90s, the artist again used self-portraiture to respond to his public reception. In the 1992 series "Hand-Painted Pictures," for instance, he depicted himself as a robust middle-aged man. Painted during a sojourn on the Greek island of Syros, the canvases portray the artist in a series of contrived poses suggestive of sporting activities. Fragments of text (in German, written in the Greek alphabet) such as "Enfant Terrific" or "Suspicion of Complicity" echo the negative reviews that began to appear in the press at the time. In response to one of the most vicious attacks, an essay entitled "The Artist as Exemplary Alcoholic," Kippenberger made a realist self-portrait sculpture, Martin, ab in die Ecke und Scham dich (Martin, Go in the Corner and Shame on You), 1989. Instead of refuting such hostilities, Kippenberger directly absorbed them into these works--conflating his negative reception and his likeness.


Confrontational to the end, Kippenberger mocked his own impending demise in his last cycle of self-portraits, from 1996. Miming the poses of the dying sailors in Theodore Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, 1819, Kippenberger directly addressed the cancer, exacerbated by legendary drinking, that would end his life the following year. His allusion to Gericault's tableau--an icon of human suffering--is not only an audacious appropriation of artistic greatness; Kippenberger also exploited the uplifting story behind this masterpiece to feed his own myth. While Kippenberger's playacting certainly made deliberate reference to his real afflictions, he was more interested in the promise of a happy ending--ten men on the raft survived the gruesome ordeal. In keeping with his self-promotional tactics, these paintings express simultaneously Kippenberger's (albeit theatrical) lamentation of his own mortality and his provocatively narcissistic embodiment of the artist as existential hero. Kippenberger's farewell "performance" was his final plea for survival--not for his physical body, but for his painted persona.

This narrowly focused discussion of Kippenberger's persona accounts for only a fraction of the heterogeneous trail of objects he left behind. While these self-portraits are a key part of his oeuvre, they cannot be divorced from the entirety of Kippenberger's "open system"--a nebulous web of interrelated subjects, styles, activities, and techniques. His motley amalgamation of paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs, posters, catalogues, writings, and invitation cards touched on a range of subjects: the political ideologies du jour (Sympathische Kommunistin; Rasse und Klasse; "Cost and Profit Peaks"), psychological aspects of architecture (the series of paintings and sculptures "Designs for Rest Centers for Mothers"; the "Psychobuildings" photographs; METRO-Net public sculptures), and the repression of collective memory (With the Best Will in the World I Can't See a Swastika), to name a few major themes. Similarly, Kippenberger played freely with different formal languages, from hastily rendered figurative canvases to parodic yet virtuosic iterations of gestural abstraction, from photorealistic paintings executed by a professional sign painter to realistic drawings made by the artist's own skillful hand. His refusal to make his work conform to a signature "look" mirrored his iconoclastic presentation of himself. Unlike Warhol, or even Kippenberger's close friend and artistic peer Jeff Koons--whose stylistic consistency corresponds with the slick surfaces of their personas--the form and content of Kippenberger's work project an aura of permanent experimentation. Yet it is perhaps too easy to chalk up this stylistic inconsistency to his capricious character. Instead, his experimentation with form and style might be better understood as part of an ongoing dialogue with his avant-garde predecessors. Judging from his frequent references to the protagonists of European modernism like Picasso, Giacometti, and Wols, Kippenberger understood well that stylistic inconsistency has traditionally been associated with artistic courage and virtuosity. Even if his own formal zigzags were often made in a spirit of irony and irreverence, his experimentation was firmly rooted in the same calculated, conceptually sophisticated program as the rest of his practice.

When I did my self-portrait, I left all the pimples out because you
always should. Pimples are a temporary condition and they don't have
anything to do with what you really look like. Always omit the
blemishes--they're not part of the good picture you want.
--From The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again)

An insatiable thirst for the depiction of human weakness seems to drive most forms of pop culture these days. Sex addiction, dependence on drugs and alcohol, eating disorders, and cosmetic surgery are staples of the relatively new pop genre of reality television. Simple pictures of the rich and famous no longer boost magazine circulation; photos of unguarded, disheveled, and distraught celebrities do. Even celebrity itself is no longer the domain of the glamorous or accomplished. Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson are proof that anyone with an exhibitionist streak, a fetish for humiliation, or a novel concept for "selfsploitation" can attain mind-boggling stardom. If anything, Andy Warhol's prediction that "in the future everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes" has proved rather modest, considering that now seemingly anyone can land a full season on TV. The paradigm shift in artistic persona--from Warhol's staged perfection to Kippenberger's bold embrace of imperfection--prefigured the trends that dominate mass entertainment. With hindsight, Kippenberger's motto "uno di voi" appears to foreshadow mainstream culture's obsession with vulnerability and self-exposure. Like Warhol's "fifteen minutes," Kippenberger's desire to show his blemishes seems prophetic.

Kippenberger was not always given this kind of credit. In his lifetime, critics often claimed that his vast output of painting and sculpture did not "stand up" without the help of the controversy that his antics so readily generated. While Kippenberger has come to be appreciated in recent years for his formal contributions as well as his mythology, his influence on a current generation of artists is linked primarily to the construction of his persona. He managed to obliterate the distinction between "persona" and "practice." Taking Warhol's legacy even further, Kippenberger demonstrated that an artist's work does not stop at the edge of the canvas or at the base of the sculpture. Every gesture--exhibition poster, invitation card, evening out at the bar, summer vacation, or any encounter that could be recorded in oral history--could become part of his work, without having to be framed or declared as art.

While plenty of artists have attempted to cover Kippenberger (to borrow Rob Pruitt's analogy between art and pop music), like Warhol he somewhat paradoxically represents both a model and a singular, unrepeatable position. Whether showing up drunk and acting rowdy at an opening, spouting off macho jokes, or adopting a brazenly self-promoting posture, many of the so-called YBAs, including Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, and Tracey Emin, latched onto Kippenberger's behaviorial tactics as hallmarks of their artistic identities. Although this "cover" is rather superficial, Emin perhaps best exemplifies the Kippenbergian blurring of work and persona. With self-exposure as her raison d'etre, it would seem to matter little whether she uses artworks or tabloids to deliver her autobiographical wares. In a similar vein, Maurizio Cattelan has borrowed from Kippenberger for the conceptual underpinning of one of his more infamous "performative works." While Cattelan hides behind a Warholian mask and is careful never to divulge much about his "real life," he devised his Caribbean Biennal as a framing device to expose the different "roles" that are played within the art world. For this "exhibition" he invited ten artists for a weeklong holiday in Saint Kitts and essentially turned them into sociological specimens by documenting their merrymaking and later exposing unscripted images to the public in magazine articles and an "exhibition catalogue." Cattelan's project echoes Kippenberger's interest in self-promotion, as well as his taste for portraying humanity in all its candid splendor.

Even Kippenberger's iconoclastic attitude toward style has begun to crop up in a diverse range of artists' work, from fellow Germans Kai Althoff, Cosima von Bonin, and Jonathan Meese to quirky figurative painters such as Brian Calvin and Dan McCarthy, as well as in the eclectic formalism of Piotr Uklanski and Urs Fischer. While it is premature to judge the "Kippenberger-ness" of these oeuvres, his formal legacy has clearly been codified into some sort of avant-garde sign value--where awkwardness, unfinished finish, and stylistic irregularity are understood as markers of an antagonistic position and of politicoaesthetic gravitas. Still, Kippenberger is not an easy act to follow, and few artists have better understood the difference between being "marked as" and simply being.

Alison M. Gingeras is curator of contemporary art at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
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Author:Gingeras, Alison M.
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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