Martin Kippenberger - Biography and Legacy
German Painter, Sculptor, Photographer, Installation Artist
Dortmund, West Germany
Biography of Martin Kippenberger
The third child of five (a brother to four sisters), Martin Kippenberger was born, in 1953, in Dortmund, Germany to upper-middle-class parents. His father, Gerd, ran a colliery while his mother, Helena, worked in the field of dermatology. Gerd, a true force for parental good by all accounts, was both a gregarious socialite and a passionate art collector. It became apparent from an early age that Kippenberger would become heir to his father's passion, his elder sister Susanne recalling for instance how almost "as soon as he could hold a pencil, he drew and painted, glued and stapled." Soon he was copying paintings from his father's collection by the likes of Picasso, Klee, Chagall and Kokoschka and all the while receiving enthusiastic praise from his father for his "beautiful drawings".
In 1956 the family had moved to Essen where Kippenberger attended the Frillendorf Protestant State Primary School. There he assumed the mantle of the class clown (his teacher, Frau Linden, described him rather unkindly as a "Harlequin") before he moved to the Tetenshof boarding school in Hinterzarten in 1962. He would thrive at Tetenshof under the mentorship of one Hans Groh who encouraged Kippenberger's artistic inclinations. Indeed, Dr. Grob was so taken with his student's potential that he felt moved to write a letter to the boy's parents: "sometimes [Martin] seems to me too mature in his pictures [...] it seems to me his path in life is already decided" he predicted. Kippenberger graduated from Tetenshof in 1965 and moved to Honneroth, a boarding school near Altenkirchen in the Westerwald. Already something of a free-spirit, Kippenberger did not take at all to the strict regime at Altenkirchen, referring to it in fact as a "horror school". He later moved to a private high school in Essen, but, after failing his final exams three times, he left school without graduating.
While at high school Kippenberger had found a means of personal expression when he attended classes at Aenne Blomecke's dance school ("not so much shaking your behind back and forth please" was Blomecke's common, gentle rebuke). As he moved into late adolescence Kippenberger would turn heads at Essen's Youth Cultural Centre thorough a unique personal style that combined long hennaed hair, bright orange overalls and varnished red toenails. The local Bohmer shoe store rejected his job application as a window dresser, but he managed to secure paid employment as a decorator at the Boecker clothes store in 1970. However, Kippenberger soon found himself hospitalized following an accidental drug overdose. By way of recovery, he travelled aimlessly around Norway and Sweden before returning to Essen in 1971. Shortly after his homecoming, Kippenberger held his first exhibition (with two friends, Birgit and Willi) at the Podium, Essen's local jazz bar. The exhibition received a positive review in the local paper and for Helena, his mother (and by now divorced from Gerd), this could be the point at which her beloved son might have finally "pulled himself together." In spite of his modest success, however, Helena was still so worried about her son's drug problems that she arranged for him to attend a drugs rehabilitation clinic in Hamburg. On being discharged, Kippenberger moved between living communes where he made the acquaintance of fellow artists Ina Barfuss, Joachim Kruger and Thomas Wachweger.
Early Training and Work
In 1972, Kippenberger secured a place at the Hamburg Art Academy. He studied under multi-media artist Sigmar Polke who had encouraged his students to turn their lives into art by "throwing one's physical, bodily existence onto the scales" even if it that came "at the price of destroying ourselves." Kippenberger's life had started to turn around - he began to build an impressive portfolio (including a photographic series of "drunk people" and finely detailed drawn portraits of friends and family) and he was enjoying his first serious relationship with girlfriend, Inka Hocke - when, in 1976, his mother was killed in a freak car accident. Helena's death was a devastating shock for the artist who, also having received a substantial inheritance, embarked on a journey of personal re-evaluation. Disenchanted with his art education, Kippenberger left the Hamburg Academy, and travelled to Florence with the goal of becoming an actor. When this plan failed to come to fruition, he turned once more to art, commencing work on his first major series of paintings, Uno Di Voi, un Tedesco in Firenze (One of You, a German in Florence), a somewhat sardonic examination of his experiences of Florence as a tourist. The collection of 'postcard' images, which recalled the serial style of Kippenberger's compatriot, Gerhard Richter, were included in Kippenberger's first solo exhibition in Germany in 1977.
By 1978 Kippenberger had relocated to Berlin, where he bought a share in the S.O.36 hall, a renowned Dada-esque/punk performance and film venue. Performers at S.O.36 included David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Grugas, a punk band of which Kippenberger was a band member (with Christine Hahn and Eric Mitchell). In the same year he founded Buro Kippenberger with his friend and 'business director' (and later his agent and dealer) Gisela Capitain. Buro Kippenberger was an arts workshop conceived of in the mould of Andy Warhol's factory and it was here that he staged the group exhibition Misery. The exhibition featuring work by Buttner, Achim Duchow, Walter Dahn and George Herold and attracted the interest of the gallerist Max Hetler who became Kipppenberger's patron.
In 1980, having been being badly beaten by a gang outside S.O.36, he moved to Paris where he tried his hand as a writer. Kippenberger managed to publish the basis for his catalogue Through Puberty to Success (in 1981) but he did not stay in Paris for long, preferring to settle this time in Cologne. It was a fruitful period for Kippenberger and he worked on a number of collaborative sculptures, including Capri by Night, Orgone Box by Night and Fiaker Race, with Oehlen. The heavy-drinking Kippenberger (or "Kippi", as his friends knew him) had gained a reputation as the enfant terrible of German art and his confrontational and uncompromising personality would often cause offence. In 1986, for instance, Kippenberger, riding high the success of his first large scale museum exhibition, Rent Electricity Gas, at the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, bought a gas station in Brazil and named it the Martin Bormann Gas Station after the notorious Nazi official who had allegedly escaped to South America. The stunt backfired, however, leaving the artist facing accusations of being a Nazi sympathiser. Meanwhile, Kippenberger's friendship with Oehlen continued to thrive into the late 1980s, with the two spending time together in Seville and Madrid. Oehlen began to explore abstraction in his paintings while Kippenberger worked on his well-known cycle of self-portraits wearing just his underwear with reference to the famous semi-nude photographs of an ageing Picasso.
1989 marked a significant turning point in Kippenberger's life. His partner Gabi Hirsch gave birth to their daughter Helena (named after his mother) and his father passed: "Just as she was born, he died. I saw him lying in bed like a baby. The rhythm [of life], it makes you think" he said later. Kippenberger was a doting parent, but after two years of fatherhood, he found the day-to-day structures of family life stifling and duly sought a means of escape. Additionally, the start of the Nineties was witness to a number of published articles criticizing Kippenberger for his scabrous lifestyle. By the end of 1991, and worn down by the public criticism, Kippenberger and his family moved to Los Angeles. However, and despite admiration and endorsements from many artists (including Mike Kelly, John Caldwell and Cady Noland), Kippenberger struggled to find success with commercial galleries in America and after only a year he had returned to Germany.
He moved to Frankfurt (via Cologne) where he worked as a guest professor at the Stadelschule. Teaching work would sustain him into the early 1990s, working at the Comprehensive University of Kassel (where he taught the so-called Happy Kippenberger class) and as a guest lecturer at Yale University. Between 1993-1995 he established the Kippenberger Art Society in Kassel where he was able to pursue his interest in curatorship. Meanwhile, Kippenberger had garnered positive notices following exhibitions at the Pompidou Center in Paris in 1993 and the Boymans-van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam in 1994. Soon thereafter he founded the experimental and irreverent anti-monument project, the Museum of Modern Art Syros (MOMAS), in an abandoned relic on the Greek island (Syros). Kippenberger married the Austrian photographer Elfie Semotan in 1996. That year also saw the release of a compilation of his music projects, Greatest Hits: 17 Years of Martin Kippenberger's Music. In what was to be the last year of his life, Kippenberger also received the Käthe Kollwitz Prize from the Academy of Arts, Berlin and he was the subject of two major exhibitions: Respektive 1997-1976, at the Musee d'art modern et contemporain (MAMCO) in Geneva, and The Eggman and his Outriggers at the Stadtisches Museum Abteiberg, Monchengladbach. Kippenberger died of liver cancer on the 7th March 1997 at the University of Vienna Hospital aged just 43, and just weeks before he was to feature in the Documenta X exhibition in Kassel, Germany.
The Legacy of Martin Kippenberger
Kippenberger helped usher in the new age of German art - a kind of post-Post-Expressionism - by advocating an art that was more autobiographical than political. The so-called 'bad-boy' of German art gained notoriety for provoking and offending the tastes of the incumbent art establishment, though his defiant personality earned him respect amongst his peers (an "artist's artist" in the words of his sister, Susanne). Kippenberger regularly made headlines for his debauched lifestyle though, like many of those who followed, he rather turned his public image to his advantage. His sometimes blatant shock tactics were to influence the young British artist (YBA) generation (most of whom were born in the mid-1960s). Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Gavin Turk have all acknowledged Kippenberger's influence, not least, in the way they publicized elements of their own practice through their celebrity. He is admired in America too where his followers include Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel, Stephen Prina, John Baldessari, Mike Kelley and Christopher Wool. His acceptance of flawed, or "Bad", art, and with that his interest in repetition and kitsch, was a source of especial fascination for the Neo-Pop artist Koons. In 1989 the pair worked together in fact on front and back covers of the contemporary arts magazine, Parkett. The American, who later purchased one of Kippenberger's paintings for his private collection, stated that "Some people have a lot of anxiety, and that anxiety confines them. Martin didn't have this anxiety. When I think of Martin's art, I think about life." No doubt Kippenberger would have revelled in the kind words of one of his most esteemed peers.