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February 09, 2006

We should all get to know Martin Kippenberger, says Lilian Pizzichini - Martin Kippenberger at Tate Modern

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Martin Kippenberger
Tate Modern, London
8th February - 14th May 2006
Sunday - Thursday 10am - 6pm (last admission 5.15pm)
Friday & Saturday 10am - 10pm (last admission 9.15pm)

Martin Kippenberger, one of the most influential artists of the last 30 years, and relatively unknown outside his native Germany, died in 1997, aged 44. He was a versatile artist, who worked as a gallery owner, event promoter and manager of a punk club in Berlin. He left behind a delightfully sprawling body of work that is being featured in his first UK retrospective at Tate Modern.

I remember attending the press launch for the new Tate Modern and Tate Britain galleries at which the momentous decision was announced that the definite article in front of Tate had been dropped. The press officer stated:

We will no longer be referred to as "The Tate".
Tate's unironic engagement with self-referentiality has not abated since. So it is refreshing to see Tate Modern celebrate someone as profoundly engaged with real life as Kippenberger.

From the mid-1970s onwards he was producing paintings, sculptures, installations, books and postcards that were driven by ideas found in literature and objects found in skips. Kippenberger had a keen socio-political eye. He was around when the GDR was a political system anti-capitalists loved to envy. But he was not so wide-eyed as to take any social system at face value. And this interest in politics and history makes him rare among contemporary artists in that his art references life and the world we live in, rather than itself.

As a result, his prodigious wit does not leave us musing abstractedly as we would after seeing, say, Damien Hirst's sharks or spot paintings. Neither does his awareness of himself as a flawed and flamboyant personality draw us into a terminal, Emin-esque psychodrama. We can be ardent admirers of both these clever artists, and contemplate their output till Hirst's cows come home, but there is something in Kippenberger that immediately touches on the artist's and the viewer's humanity. Rather than the dash of a Damien or the tears of Tracey, there is sweat in Kippenberger's art.

Moreover, his wit is not the end product of his art, as it is with the conceptualists, but it is worked seamlessly into his art. Sympathische Kommunistin (Likeable Communist Woman) is painted in garish broad strokes and presents a smiling cliché of a plebeian female face. His borrowing from Socialist art is mischievous, provocative and designed to infuriate petit-bourgeois complacency, while sending up the artform he is reproducing. He takes no prisoners, but asks us to join him laughing - at himself, at our own expectations.

As with any contemporary artist making a living in a hysterically over-active art market, he is concerned with the means of production. Lieber Maler, male Mir (Dear painter, paint for me) is a series of paintings by a sign painter whom Kippenberger hired to make paintings designed by himself. This is where art as commodity makes its presence felt, and again there is a hint of the artist laughing. The walls of Room 1 swarm with paintings, largely abstract, very colourful, theatrical, anxious, and ephemeral. It's as though Kippenberger is observing the spectacle of art-lovers racing round exhibitions. His paintings move the eye on, his prolificity makes us keep pace with him.

His use of language is gloriously witty. In a series of paintings that share the same dimensions (180cm x 150cm) and point up again the relentlessness of consumer culture, there are mottos painted against images that bear no relations to the words imprinted on them. The words "Jeans against Fashism" in J.A.F. (1985) are a glorious pastiche of Katharine Hamnett-style political sloganeering. (This was the 1980s, remember.) Another - "political corect bistro + pub" in Untitled (Political Corect 3) (1994) - highlights his subversive use of the English language and his sympathetic awareness of our cultural concerns.

Getting the words wrong makes us look at the concepts behind them anew. Just as I long to call Tate Modern, the Modern Tate, Kippenberger, on a level infinitely more profound, cuts to the chase of absurdity. But with sympathy. He has, after all, laboured over these works. He has put his heart and soul in them.

What is most impressive about Kippenberger is that he didn't think, unlike Emin, that life is art. Neither did he think, unlike Hirst, that everything he produced was good. He worked hard on his art but he worked so much that it appears as though everything was his art. He gets away with it because it is what he was doing all day long, every day of his life, as was his father before him, and as were all his friends. Biography is important here, but only because his art demands closer inspection into the wherewithal of its production. He was collecting images, objects and ideas all the time, and travelled widely. Through the art on show here one builds up to the concept of a man's life and vision being indivisible. It is an astonishingly intimate exhibition.

In a series of self-portraits from 1988, he pictures himself with a total lack of vanity. He is prematurely aged with an exaggerated beer belly, folds of fat, a thick neck, and a dejected posture. He depicts himself against abstract sculptures - a melancholic, awkward figure, intimidated by the architectural forms he's up against. There are three near-identical sculpted self-portraits standing in corners around the gallery. They are called Martin, ab in die Ecke und schäm Dich (Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself, 1989), and were produced as a response to a review of his work in a German art magazine. The reviewer accused him of being an artist of no great substance, a drunkard with questionable politics. There is nothing else to say, really: Kippenberger's response was so physically eloquent and so skilfully wrapped in the style of his art. His wit, his self-awareness, his love of art and his talent are manifestly prodigious. In his painted self-portraits, he wears immense white underpants pulled up high on his hips - rather as Picasso does in a well-known photograph. It is tempting to read this as a self-deprecating reference to his own aspirations. More importantly, though, the works are moving meditations on his own mortality, and subtle with it.

Kippenberger was an artist of substance. Tate Modern gives us his masterpiece, and one of the greatest installations I've ever seen, The Happy End of Franz Kafka's 'Amerika'. He takes his inspiration, as his title would suggest, from Kafka's 1927 novel, Amerika. He never read it himself, he explained, but a friend did and told him about it. What he learned was that in the novel's concluding chapter, Kafka's hero attends a recruitment centre of gigantic proportions in Oklahoma. After a long struggle with absurd bureaucratic structures, he finally lands a job.

The installation consists of around 40 desks and twice as many chairs arranged on a floor painted green like a playing field with white lines. It's a nightmare scenario depicting variations on the psychologically loaded interview situation, the competition inherent in the job market, and the opportunities therein for rejection. There are spectators' stands on either side so that we can sit and watch the circus. The sheer volume of tables and chairs overwhelms the viewer with the vastness and absurdity of their physical presence.

The actual elements of the piece are beautifully individuated: classics of 20th-century design, such as chairs by Arne Jacobsen and Charles Eames, or worn-out tables from flea markets. One of the tables is a reproduction of the desk at which Robert Musil wrote The Man Without Qualities. There is a table made by Kippenberger from boards from a platform that the Pope blessed on a visit to Cologne. The local council said anyone could have them, so he pitched up with a truck and took them away. There is a group of Eames chairs from an Air France lounge that he managed to spirit away. He was always on the look-out for good ideas, and always put objects to the service of his vision.

One gets the feeling of texture, history and the sheer sweat of physical effort with all Kippenberger's work. Kafka's bureaucratic machine takes on humour and pathos in Kippenberger's hands. Each piece of cast-off furniture arranged for a dialogue between two human beings tells its story. Significantly, he places observation towers among the chairs and tables: two look-out towers, an umpire's chair and a lifeguard's perch - this is the artist's perspective. Like Kafka before him, Kippenberger was both satirist and allegorist of human truths: the power of the social order to negate human will and the power of the artist's vision to overcome.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

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