In 2011, Martin Kippenberger’s installation Wenn’s anfängt durch die Decke zu tropfen (When the ceiling begins to leak) —a work of art worth more than a million dollars—was cleaned by a very thorough Putzfrau (cleaning lady). She saw a dirty residue in a rubber basin below a wooden frame and ruthlessly set about making it sparkle. The residue was actually a patina that Kippenberger (1953-1997) had painstakingly painted to resemble evaporated rainwater.
The art world responded with horror and a little Schadenfreude, but Kippenberger himself might have roared with joy and waltzed the cleaning lady around the room. What the artist wanted, more than anything in the world, was to engage people. The very fact that the Putzfrau couldn’t resist the impulse to clean up Kippenberger’s “messy” installation testifies to the work’s success. The incident is actually a pretty apt representation of Germany’s reaction to Kippenberger’s art as a whole beginning with the desire to clean it up, and ending with wide acceptance and popularity.
A multifaceted artist who thrived on disruption, Kippenberger made a business of creating works of art from unlikely, quotidian objects. He wanted to outrage, please, anger, and move all at the same time. Although he took pleasure in—even demanded, at times oppressively—ritual and comfort, there was no such thing as “ordinary” or “quotidian” around Kippenberger. It simply wasn’t in his nature to be bored or still; even the most mundane rituals, objects, and relationships were glorified in a sort of real-time exercise of the Kantian sublime.
Kippenberger’s sister, Susanne, makes all this and more clear in her biography, Kippenberger: The Artist and His Families. Susanne, now a journalist, was the youngest of the five Kippenberger children. She painstakingly traces her older brother’s path through the German and international art worlds and shows, in exhaustive detail and as much as any sister can, the relationships, rituals, and Sturm und Drang of a man to whom moderation was by turns anathema and goal. It was also, for the most part, impossible for him either in work or in pleasure. He died from liver cancer at the age of forty-four.
Suzanne describes Martin, four years older than she, as “something of a Rumpelstiltskin. He bounced through the art world as a collector, painter, impresario, museum director, installation artist, graphic artist, dealer, photographer, braggart, teacher, and puller of strings. For him, that was the freedom of art: to constantly overstep boundaries, including the limits of good taste.” We learn that Martin was not an easy friend or family member to have—the cost was high although the rewards could be great. He demanded full engagement from family and friends and, later, also from viewers of his art, but he himself gave nothing less.
If he needed to be sweet, he was. If he needed to push, to agitate, to confront, he did. “His rituals for getting under people’s skin (the endless, pointless jokes; the swaggering, macho songs sung in groups that pointedly excluded women) were all tests,” Susanne writes. “What are people willing to put up with, and when will they start to rebel? Do they know a joke when they see one?” She also draws parallels between Martin and their parents: “All three of them,” she writes, “were drama queens.” Each was artistically inclined. Gerd was a mining engineer and artist who “could be crude as well as charming and tended to find the shortest path from one social blunder to the next. He loved provocation and making fun of people.” Susanne notes that an artist friend of Martin’s coined the term “Zwangsbeglücker,” meaning “someone who forces others to have fun”; that could apply to both father and son. Eleonore, their mother, had trained as a doctor. Her “child rearing methods were laissez-faire, although she could be strict and sometimes even a bit hysterical.” She experienced an artistic flourishing after her divorce from Gerd, and took up writing, wearing flamboyant hats, and traveling; she died in an accident when “a truck overloaded with EuroPallets took a curve too fast and lost some of its freight.”
Martin, of course, revered both parents. References to his mother’s death occur frequently in his artwork. However, after the early family history we don’t see much of the Kippenberger family. Instead, Susanne shows how, over and over again, Martin created family and community, sometimes via sheer force of will, sometimes out of deep connection. What we don’t see is how his sister moves through his life, a strange absence in an otherwise meticulously constructed biography.
From childhood on, Kippenberger had an insatiable appetite for interaction. He wrote long letters from boarding school to guilt trip his family for not paying him enough attention: “Call me please. Write me!! And send a package! If you don’t I’ll run away! But I probly will anyway,” he wrote disconsolately. When he didn’t get what he wanted, he often simply arranged things as he wanted them to be. It was during his adolescence that Kippenberger started to curate his very being, using his body as a canvas, his life as performance art. One of his friends called him a Gesamtkunstwerk (a total, multimedia work of art), saying, “He not only was loud, he looked loud too.”
We follow Kippenberger to Hamburg for rehab then art school. We move on to the Berlin of the late 1970s, where—in the shadow of the wall—he made art, installed elaborate shows, danced, made music, and generally created the scene he wanted to be a part of. He managed the punk club S.O. 36, got beat up, fell in love, and opened his own gallery called “Kippenberger’s office.” His sister writes, “It was a time of ‘genius dilettantes,’ as they were called in Berlin at the time: people who did whatever they wanted, not only what they were good at. It was the time of the Gesamtkusnstwerk.”
After Berlin, there were various other locales, but most of all there was Cologne, where he spent the longest time of anywhere in his adult life. There he helped define the decadent 1980s art scene. Having been almost completely destroyed in World War II, Cologne had had to create a new sense of identity for itself. Martin harnessed that energy. He cut a wide swath through the art world there and continued his multimedia art making and production. “In Cologne, as elsewhere, Martin did not limit himself to producing works of art; he worked on how the art was presented, the framework and the sideshows.”
One thing that becomes clear as we read this book is that it serves as Susanne Kippenberger’s chance to stand up for her elder brother. On more than one occasion she sets the record straight. Kippenberger, for instance, has sometimes been accused of being a borrower, sometimes worse. This, his sister argues, was not an apt description. Instead, she describes him by saying, “he threw everything he thought was interesting into his cooking pot, whether it came from himself or someone else, from an artist or a child. All he cared about was the quality of the idea. ‘Let it not be old, let it not be new, let it be good’ was one of his favorite slogans.”
Susanne knows that her brother was a holy terror at times, and she makes a valiant effort to catalogue his sins as well as his humanity, as we see in this exhaustive account of his life constructed through interviews, family papers, correspondence, and art monographs, among other things. She makes few excuses for Martin, but she does explain and interpret. At times, she is less able to maintain the critical distance or do the sort of broader cultural and contextual analysis that some might wish for, but it is perhaps unreasonable to expect that of her, or of any sister. For the most part, this well-wrought history captures the hedonism and richness of the artist and of German art culture, even if we must sometimes struggle with how to reconcile appreciation for Kippenberger with his sometimes terrible and often questionable behavior.
Meanwhile, Kippenberger might well still push through the world as a poltergeist. Somehow, just as I was settling in to review this book, I dropped my pencil and knocked over an almost-full wine glass, the contents of which the book promptly absorbed. The first several chapters were completely saturated, and I had to delay my review so the book could dry out. Zwangsbeglücktum, anyone? The book and I sat on the patio, compatibly. Martin could have just told me he was thirsty.