The extensive literature on artist's self-portraiture would indicate that the genre grants a privileged insight into an artist's genius for revealing truth: the talent for perceiving and revealing the nature of the sitter remains a mysterious and honored trope in art history, from Rembrandt to Bacon. Yet one has to always be mindful, particularly in Contemporary Art, that artists can use this assumption to present a constructed public persona rather than the intimate revelations of the soul. More often than not, the artist understands better than anyone that art does not capture reality, and as post-modernist artists grapple with the dichotomy between art and life, certainly the artifice of portraiture is not only questioned but exploited. For Martin Kippenberger, whose presence was larger than life and whose life was inextricably interconnected with his art, self-portraiture was an indispensable cornerstone of his oeuvre and he toyed with this artistic genre as no other artist before him. In typical fashion, Kippenberger held nothing sacred, including himself, so any interpretation of this indulgent trickster's work is elusive yet rewarding – a vein of modern self-presentation that borders on performance art. Kippenberger was the foremost protagonist in his paintings and he used his image deftly to confront the art world of his day as well as his role in it.
Untitled (1988) is one of the masterpieces in the canon of the artist's self-portraits. Kippenberger was an artist born to be a painter at a time of non-painting, when installation and Duchampian concepts held sway in the 1960s-1970s. Joseph Beuys was the self-appointed leader of this generation that had become the establishment by the time Kippenberger and his generation began their artistic careers. Kippenberger and fellow painters such as Albert Oehlen stood in reaction to their ``elders'' and their advocacy of painting as the noblest art was a form of patricide. Kippenberger championed an earlier era with the artist as a mythic hero and painting at the summit of culture. Picasso was the painter of the modern era who stood for all this; largesse of talent and personality, largesse of impact on his culture. It was Kippenberger's goal to do the same and his self-portraits chart his changing perception of this venture. In his first great series of self-portraiture in 1979-1981, titled Dear Painter, Paint for Me, Kippenberger's work was an exercise in displacement since he commissioned another artist to execute the twelve canvases as if to announce Robert Storr's contention that ``From the very first we are dealing with a colossally self-conscious projection of alternately ecstatic or abject types that Kippenberger mimes rather than fully embodies.'' (Exh. Cat., New York, Luhring Augustine, Martin Kippenberger: Self-Portraits, 2005, p. 15)
For the series painted in the late 1980s, in which Untitled is a key work, Kippenberger was firmly present in the role of painter, and his figure, in its high-rising white underwear, is in self-mocking contrast to his hero Picasso. The artist was now in mid-life and his failure to achieve the ``triumph'' of painting becomes his apparent subject. In 1985, Kippenberger had used the famous photograph by David Douglas Duncan of a virile Picasso in his underwear as the invitation for his exhibition at Galleria Leyendecker. In contrast to this image of Picasso as a dominant male even late in life, Kippenberger photographed himself (for use in a calendar he published in 1988) contemplating and analyzing his image in a mirror, awkwardly impersonating his hero. This image became the lifeblood of the series of late 1980s self-portraits such as the present work.
In Untitled, he does not glorify himself as the new Picasso: his beer belly acknowledges that he is not aging well and his small hands, dejected posture and sideways glance signal his recognition of failure. The contrast with the robust Picasso indicates Kippenberger's one mythic role may be that of living the hard life – the decadence and self-destruction through excess that can cut short the creative life. The balloons, which appear in many of the Self-Portraits, are a melancholic metaphor for his incapacity, both a nostalgic nod toward past revels and, as Storr notes, ``upwardly mobile testicular balloons that bear an unflattering relationship to his sinking belly and hiked up genitals''. Yet, the balloons are also interpreted as an allusion to the buoyant art market of the 1980s and, here the trickster Kippenberger reemerges as only impersonating failure in order to criticize the hubris of success. ``The Eighties, which these paintings sharply punctuate and puncture -...was largely devoted to a rematch between the followers of two distinct schools of thought. The first adhered to Duchamp ...The second camp was the latter-day converts to `The New Spirit in Painting' for whom Picasso was, in most cases, the ultimate source. ...Although Kippenberger opts to personify the degeneration of Picasso's lineage – the protean Minotaur gone to flab – he does so with inverse mastery, making the most of his studied maladroitness,... Anyone who recalls the adoring photographs of Julian Schnabel in bathing trunks painting vast canvases at the beach will immediately see the correlation between his Pablo act and Kippenberger's. Nor will they miss the difference between the Camp earnestness of the American impersonator and the pitiless satire of his blimpish German counterpart. ...Kippenberger mounts a devastating challenge to the painting revival in its own idiom ...By tacitly exaggerating his own feigned incompetence, Kippenberger accomplishes modernism's fundamental purpose by superficially anti-modernist means; he criticizes the medium from within to strengthen it in the area of its incompetence.'' (Ibid, pp. 22-23).
Oil on canvas
New York, Luhring Augustine Gallery, Return of the Hero, October - December 1994
Athens, Athens School of Fine Arts "the factory", Copenhagen, Museum of Modern Art; New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Everything That's Interesting is New, The Dakis Joannou Collection, January - April 1996, p. 146, illustrated in color (incorrectly illustrated)
Basel, Kunsthalle Basel; Hamburg, Deichtorhallen, Martin Kippenberger, September 1998 - April 1999, cat. no. 19, illustrated in color
Paris, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d'art moderne; Vienna, Kunsthalle Wien; Frankfurt, Schirn Kunsthalle, Dear Painter, paint me/Cher Peintre, peins-moi/Lieber Maler, male mir..., June 2002 - April 2003, p. 72, illustrated in color
Athens, DESTE Foundation, Monument to Now: The Dakis Joannou Collection, June - December 2004, p. 199, illustrated in color
New York, Luhring Augustine Gallery, Martin Kippenberger - Self-Portraits, March - April 2005, p. 39, illustrated in color
Athens, The DESTE Foundation Centre for Contemporary Art, Fractured Figure: Works from the Dakis Joannou Collection, September 2007 - July 2008, p. 169, illustrated in color and pp. 27 and 29, illustrated in color (installation shots)
94 1/2 x 78 3/4 in. 240 x 200 cm.
Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1994