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“I work hard so people can say,
‘Kippenberger was a good time.’”
German artist Martin Kippenberger died on March 7, 1997, of liver cancer, six weeks after diagnosis. He was forty-four. His early death turned him into a legend as his reputation and work moved beyond the insular world of art into the realm of cult status. Some have called him “the James Dean of art,” while others more generally labeled him the enfant terrible of the German avant-garde of the ’80s.
My first introduction to Martin Kippenberger was at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in Berlin. I walked into the building’s east wing on a Saturday morning in June and found myself surrounded by a series of wooden sculptures of crucified frogs, their tongues drooping as each held tightly to a beer mug in one hand and an egg in another, lantern-topped streetlights twisted and tangled, simulating a state of drunkenness, and deprecating self-portraits of the artist with his white cotton underwear pulled up over a protruding belly that belied the charm often sought in self-portraiture. He seemed to have no fear of failure or sense of embarrassment. The whole exhibition showed a levity and playfulness that made me smile. Kippenberger seemed to be saying that art is good fun, and, by extension, that life is too.
“Childhood never really ends,” he said, and his sense of play on display at the Bahnhof Museum was infectious. The off-kilter perspectives of his work lifted my mood and made me want to know more about the man and the time and places where he created his art.
Martin Kippenberger was born in Dortmund, Germany, in 1953. He grew up in a rambling house at the end of a cul-de-sac, not far from the coal mine where his father worked as a supervisor. There was plenty of art in the home. His parents collected the work of emerging artists, mostly German Expressionists, filling their rooms with paintings. Despite the demands of work and five children, his parents found time to attend movies, theater and art exhibitions. His father and grandfather had in fact wanted to be artists, so it was a valued profession in the Kippenberger household.
Rather than playing with cars, toy guns and the usual boy stuff, Martin worked his way through the art history books that lined the shelves, tackling different styles and techniques. “Martin, Our Artist” was proudly written in big letters on the kitchen wall above the breakfast table where he carried on his self-apprenticeship. [End Page 96]
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In school Martin was good at “drawing and handicrafts” but not much else. Today he would be diagnosed as dyslexic, but then it was simply thought that he had trouble reading and writing. To communicate the thoughts of a mind that was bursting with ideas, he sketched. One of his teachers said of the artwork he was producing that it was “too mature for a small boy.” After failing to pass sixth grade for the second time, he left without graduating.
If Martin was to set out on his own to be an artist, he believed that the first step was to dress like one. Clothes were a costume, and, like an actor, an artist needed an appropriate wardrobe. Wanting to be noticed, Martin acquired Hawaiian shirts, sunglasses, polo shirts and a pipe. Later he hennaed his hair and kicked around town in orange overalls. Finally he settled on dressing like a stylish banker...