Martin Kippenberger's premature death in 1997 at the age of 43 brought to an end one of the most versatile, prolific and controversial careers of the post-war period. Kippenberger, whose output included paintings, sculptures, drawings, installations, photography, prints, and artist's books, has shown repeatedly in the United States since 1987. However, with the notable exception of his exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1991, his work has not been presented in a major American museum to date. Recently, large-scale exhibitions in Europe have started the process of historicizing Kippenberger's unruly career and life.
The exhibition at Zwirner & Wirth will attempt to bring together key works from different periods in a variety of media, and will try, on a limited scale, to give a glimpse into the rich and diverse production of the artist. The emphasis in this exhibition will be placed on paintings, sculpture and photographs while a concurrent exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery will present works on paper, including the well-known 'Hotel' drawings.
Kippenberger's career is full of contradictions. While alive he was hailed both as a genius and a charlatan, major critics and curators dismissed him as a showman without substance, while others called him the most important artist alive. These statements are reminiscent of the polemical discussions surrounding the work of Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol during their lifetimes. As in the case of Beuys and Warhol, the persona of Martin Kippenberger, his life, his conduct, were inextricably connected to his artwork during his lifetime. As time passes, the life and the art can be separated and assessed independently from one another.
In the absence of a 'trademark' style or even a 'trademark' medium, any discussion of Kippenberger's work is denied a quick summary, such as a reduction to the essential. An easy way out would be to label Kippenbergerís work as 'Post-modern' and on a first glance, Kippenberger could easily pose as a poster child for Post-modernism as he scavenges existing styles and the work of other artists while emphasizing irony and montage. However, an argument could be made that under the disguise of the post-modernist who negates all criteria, Martin Kippenberger really moved forward a modernist agenda of creating radically new works, while expanding the boundaries of the visual arts.
One of the great contradictions of Kippenberger's career is the fact that he relentlessly sought to de-mystify the role of the artist by ridiculing the high mysteries of art, yet as we are now confronted with his best work we find ourselves grappling with those very mysteries. His virtuosity as a painter and a draftsman, the audacity of his palette and brushwork underlines the very power that a painting can convey.
His approach to sculpture is equally unique. His complete freedom with materials, manipulated through his own hand or the hands of fabricators resulted in a category-defying range of sculptures and installations.
Self-portraiture was a theme that threaded its way through all media in the oeuvre of Kippenberger. By placing himself center stage, Kippenberger attempted to address the great questions of art and life and their relationship to one another through his work and his dialogue with the world around him. As artist, collector, director of his own museum, Kippenberger became a pied piper of sorts, 'the great artist' leading his flock.
In Kippenberger's quintessential self-portrait sculpture from the Peter series, Martin, go in the corner, and shame on you, 1989, the artist, unjustly punished (by the art establishment who so rigorously criticized his art practices), has been sent to the corner to reflect on his behavior. In Big Dickie in the Studio, 1990, a large-scale rubber painting, we are confronted with the artist's depiction of himself as a bandaged martyr, clad in the infamous high-waisted 'Picasso' underwear, a badge of artistic maturity as well as an image of Kippenberger's own agony and desperation as an aging man.
Untitled (Lamp), 1992, created for Documenta IX to which Kippenberger was not invited, becomes an anthropomorphic metaphor for the artist. The light post, transformed by the drunken gaze of the pedestrian, fails in its role as a stable object one would hold onto for support, to take on the broken, defeated posture of the artist himself.
In Untitled, from the Fred the Frog Series, 1990, Kippenberger represents himself, complete with a frothy beer stein, alongside his alter ego, 'Fred the Frog' who hovers next to the artist's head. A recurrent persona, 'Fred the Frog', embodies the transformative power of a fairytale, which fits in neatly with the continuous mythologizing tactics of Kippenberger.
In Put your freedom in the corner, save it for a rainy day, 1990, Kippenberger tackles a larger topic, the reunification of Germany. A large standing wooden structure, partially wall-papered with Gober's Hanging Man/Sleeping Man wallpaper, is a symbolic section of the Berlin wall, with one side remaining unfinished or under construction. The wall structure is paired with a pedestal on which sits a broken ceramic vase haphazardly glued together. Whereas the wall structure alludes to a fusion of a specifically German and American problem, the vase, whose pieces are barely staying together, signifies the imminent disintegration of the DDR.