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."
BIOGRAPHIES WRITTEN by spouses, siblings or children of the subject can draw on intimate knowledge to which an outsider might not have access. This, ideally, enables them to convey an authentic sense of who the person was—the otherwise elusive self that no accumulation of facts and sensitive interpretation can ever quite capture. The downside is the risk that the author may suppress unflattering or otherwise difficult incidents. You might think that a biography by a sibling who, by her own admission, adored her
big brother would airbrush out embarrassing incidents. Happily, this isn't the case with Susanne Kippenberger's book. Although she is a fierce defender of his achievement—she repeatedly castigates German museum officials for largely ignoring Kippenberger's work during his lifetime—she is unstinting in
chronicling his faults, from boorish behavior toward women (in public and private), to selfish manipulation of compliant friends and associates, to a knack for humiliating people.
I can testify personally to the latter. The only time I encountered Kippenberger was at a small restaurant
dinner following the opening of his 1990 show at Studio Marconi in Milan. After the meal he rose and launched into one of his famous improvised monologues. It was a hilarious performance, done in the artist's German-inflected English. I remember him engaging in a wacky, up-close dialogue with a wall lamp and thanking (or
maybe criticizing) the Italians present for an unbalanced cultural exchange: "We sent you Hitler, and you gave us tiramisu!"; He had everyone laughing uproariously, but then suddenly he turned his attention to one of the
guests, an Italian art critic who had come with her boyfriend, a distinguished-looking man some 20 years her senior. Kippenberger began berating her for being with someone so much older, demanding to know why she
had made this choice. If the beginning of his performance was riotously funny, this part felt excruciatingly uncomfortable, not only because he was humiliating someone we knew but also because he was saying something that most of us had probably thought to ourselves.
Susanne Kippenberger recounts many such incidents, admitting that "Martin always discovered people's weak spots and went right for them." German artist Tobias Rehberger, who studied under Kippenberger at the
Städelschule in Frankfurt, observes that "this had pedagogical value, to some extent, since your weak
points were, after all, your weak points, things you should part with. But of course people's weak points are
often precisely the things they can do anything about." If someone became visibly embarrassed by his comments, Kippenberger gave it to them even worse. "You were not allowed to have any shame," Rehberger recalls. Kippenberger's sister believes that
"Martin saw it as his highest duty to say out loud what everyone was thinking. He never said anything behind a fat woman's back about her weight, like so many other people do; instead, when he left a disco with her, he would ask, 'Should we walk down the hill or just roll?' (This actually happened; the woman in question cried about it for a whole day.) He said everything to everyone's face, whoever or whatever they were. Even someone who found Martin extremely unpleasant and felt attacked by him, the Cologne artist Andreas Schulze, admitted that 'He was never fake. He didn't lie.' Martin hated the hypocrisy and pretended innocence of the art world, where enemies acted like friends and gave each other little kisses on the cheek."
The most valuable aspect of this book is how its wealth of facts and anecdotes provides a deeper context for
understanding Kippenberger's work. Take, for instance, the artist's eating habits, which receive frequent attention from the author. Pasta, it turns out, was his favorite dish, the simpler the better; he had no patience
for hip cuisine. During a sojourn in Los Angeles, Kippenberger famously became part owner of an Italian restaurant so he could be assured of eating decent spaghetti Bolognese whenever he wanted. Susanne Kippenberger suggests that what her brother "found especially gripping about pasta . . . was the insignificance of the material. In his view, to make something out of nothing was always the highest form of art, in cooking no less than in painting."
Reading this, I finally understood not only the prevalence of noodle imagery and references in Kippenberger's work but also their deeper symbolism. Such effective linkage of anecdote and interpretation is not something that all artist biographies achieve: in Patricia Albers's recent biography of Joan Mitchell (another great, sharp-tongued, alcoholic painter), the relentless chronicle of affairs and escapades fails, despite some unconvincing attempts at psychoanalysis, to offer new ways to think about Mitchell's art. By contrast, Susanne Kippenberger's narrative of her brother's life, which she modestly describes as "a portrait, not a biography," constantly enriches our sense of his work, whether through learning about personal details such as his dyslexia and teenage struggles with drugs, or realizing how bound up Kippenberger's art was with his no-shame-allowed ethic and his inability to tolerate solitude (the one artistic skill he seems to have lacked).
Near the end of the book, the author laments Kippenberger's "posthumous canonization" as a favorite of wealthy collectors and major museums: "What remains is a domesticated Kippenberger—Kippenberger without the embarrassment. But without embarrassment there's no Kippenberger left." Not the least of her achievements is to make us a bit less comfortable around these celebrated paintings and sculptures, to restore something of the aggression and pathos that accompanied their making, and to document
exactly how much they originally cost in all-too-human terms.
RAPHAEL RUBINSTEIN is a New York-based art critic and poet who teaches critical studies at the University of Houston.