ALTHOUGH MARTIN Kippenberger's musical achievements were negligible—some impromptu punk club performances and a handful of recordings featuring his energetic drumming or lugubrious baritone—he organized his life and career very much along the lines of a rock star's. There was endless touring, sometimes a new show opening every day in a new city; an entourage of assistants, friends and hangers-on; outrageous behaviour in bars, restaurants and hotels; and meticulous attention to clothing and the entire apparatus of public image. Though he lasted longer than many hell-bent rockers, the artist suffered an untimely death (at the age of 44) iin 1997, when years of substance abuse caught up with him.
Apart from some occasional, and always brief, retreats to the homes of more domestically inclined friends,
Kippenberger was constantly on duty, devoting every waking minute to hard work, hard talk and hard partying. He simply couldn't conceive of how to be an artist in any way that didn't involve the continual reckless endangerment of his health and reputation, and the presence of an audience, even if only one person. Generally, Kippenberger managed to arrange things so that plenty more were around. When he began showing regularly in Cologne in the early 1980s, he bonded strongly with other young German painters of a
similarly iconoclastic bent, such as Albert and Markus Oehlen, Werner Büttner and Georg Herold, most of whom showed at the Max Hetzler Gallery. After he started exhibiting in the U.S., and became increasingly drawn to sculpture, his circle of friends grew to include Mike Kelley, Christopher Wool, Stephen Prina and others. The most constant audience was drawn from his studio assistants, among them now well-known figures such as Michael Krebber and Merlin Carpenter. If Kippenberger was generous to his
friends—incorporating them into shows he curated, collecting their work, publicly singing their praises—he was also demanding of their attention. Attila Corbaci—one of the many restaurateurs, bartenders and waiters whom Kippenberger continually befriended—recalls how after an hour in the artist's company he was in desperate need of a break: "He did everything so intensely! Like it was his last day on earth." Such fervor helps explain the immense body of work Kippenberger achieved in his 20-year career. Amid his manic social life, he produced a nonstop parade of stylistically omnivorous, historically attuned and often bitingly self-mocking paintings, drawings and sculptures that were accompanied by hundreds of brilliantly conceived artist's books, posters and multiples. One could argue that, along with his compatriots Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, he has been (during his life and posthumously) among the most influential painters of recent times.
As Susanne Kippenberger, a respected journalist at the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, details in her
thoughtful, thoroughly engaging biography of her brother, the artist was like this even as a child, throwing himself without reserve into every experience life had to offer, always at odds with authority, forever on
the move. Before launching his art career, Kippenberger made half-serious attempts to become a novelist in Paris and an actor in Florence; his stint as a nightclub proprietor in Berlin was more productive but equally
short-lived. In Susanne's view, he was prey simultaneously to wanderlust and homesickness; escaping the
restrictions of familial domesticity, while forming alternative "families" of the people he met on the road.
Kippenberger, along with his four sisters, grew up in a prosperous, art-filled home in Germany's Ruhr district (his father was the director of a mine). Although worried by his poor performance at school and his drug use, Kippenberger's parents encouraged his art-making. Their divorce when he was a teenager and his mother's death in 1976 affected him deeply. For most of his life, he entertained a constant stream of girlfriends. An attempt to settle down in a relationship in the late 1980s failed, despite the birth of his daughter Helena in 1989. Only near the end of his life did he find a measure of stability, when he married Elfie Semotan, an Austrian photographer 12 years his senior. One of the few moments in the book when Kippenberger pauses to reflect on how his life might have been different comes as he looks back on his early years in Hamburg, where he attended the Academy of Art and sought out every opportunity to hang out with Sigmar Polke, his favorite artist of the previous generation:
"Near the end of his life, some six months before he died, Martin told a friend that Hamburg in general and Polke in particular had ruined him by giving him the idea of turning his own life into art; 'throwing one's physical, bodily existence onto the scales. We had to, back then, at the price of destroying ourselves.' But by then, in 1996, Martin felt that it was too late to change course."