Martin Kippenberger

at Nolan/Eckman


Opening on the heels of Martin Kippenberger’s death in March 1997 at the age of 43, this show, which had been planned for some time, became an inadvertent memorial exhibition. The range of works on view (there were paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, collages, and multiples) was representative of Kippenberger’s anything-goes oeuvre, as was the blend of apparent off-handedness, gleeful, effrontery and calculated vulgarity that pervaded the exhibition. The title of the show “3 X 3,” referred not only to the fact that every series or type of work was represented in triplicate, but also to the fact that Kippenberger had invited two other artists, Michael Wurthle and Elfie Semotan, to participate. Wurthle, who is also a well-known Berlin restaurateur, contributed caricaturesque drawings and lithographs. Semotan, a photographer, offered a trio of portraits of Kippenberger. She also shot the image for three posters showing the haggard-looking artist, flanked by barren trees and bathed in winter light, standing outside the shuttered German pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The scene is dated 1996, a Biennale off-year, and Kippenberger seems to be protesting, or at least noting, the fact that he was never selected to represent his country at the prestigious exhibition. 

Kippenberger appears to target Germany’s military past in three cast-concrete sculptures, each of which includes a cannon, some cannon balls and a garden gnome. Other works in the show, including some irreverent drawings on hotel stationery, allude to Kippenberger’s restless life. An untitled 1997 work consists of 13-inch-high egg-shaped transparent resin sculptures. Embedded in one is an assortment of hotel toiletries, another holds miniature liquor bottles and a third displays hotel door tags and, in a hollowed-out core, a half dozen ping-pong balls kept in motion by an electric motor. Bone shapes extruding from each egg bring to mind the crossed-bone danger symbol or the Jolly Roger flag of pirate lore. Souvenirs of the artist’s travels in Japan figure in three 1997 collages titled Viewer’s Love. In two of the works, Kippenberger juxtaposed a candid photograph of teenage Japanese girls in swimsuits or gym uniforms, a pencil drawing inspired by the photograph, and a pair of panties of the type a young girl might wear. A third work presents a photo and drawing, sans panties. Each piece is elegantly matted and framed and protected by glass. Heightening the work’s outrageous fetishism, the mats are cut to perfectly match the contours of the flattened panties.

A trio of sculptures in which dangling, tube-riddled heads appear to lampoon the work of Bruce Nauman remind us that Kippenberger excelled at, and built much of his career on, in-joke high jinks. But a very different note was struck by the series of lithographs titled “The Raft of the Medusa’ (1996-97). It’s impossible to look at these lithographs, which were among Kippenberger’s last works, and not feel that the artist making them was acutely aware of his own mortality. In poses inspired by Gericault’s eponymous painting, Kippenberger depicted himself with a contorted, and seemingly ravaged body. For those familiar with his oeuvre, the pathos of the images is heightened by their brilliant draftsmanship. Here, Kippenberger seems to have left his saddened fans with one last joke: the artist who created so many awkwardly drawn figures and willfully clumsy paintings apparently possessed a talent for figure drawing comparable to such 20th-century masters as Egon Schiele and Alfred Kubin. Alas, we will never know what more Kippenberger might have accomplished with a talent he suppressed until it was almost too late.