Untitled forms part of Kippenberger’s most iconic series of large scale, mock-heroic self-portraits painted in the summer of 1988, while he and Albert Oehlen lived in a small studio in Carmona just outside Seville for several months. While utterly distinct, the self-portraits painted in Southern Spain, which are today commonly referred to as the “Picasso paintings” or the “underwear paintings,” are nevertheless united by a distinct iconography, showing the artist wearing nothing but underwear, frequently standing beside one of his acclaimed Peter sculptures whilst holding on to the string of a balloon. They further share Kippenberger’s innate effort to overthrow the outdated idea of the artist genius, proudly portraying himself in the tradition of Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt or Edward Munch. In Untitled, the then-35-year-old artist presented himself not as the confident, powerful master artist despite his recent inclusion on the list of invitees to the 1988 Documenta, which had finally elevated him to his long desired international recognition. Instead, Kippenberger consciously opted for another type of portrayal, which was deeply engrained in his practice: the artist as the imposing anti-hero, exposing human and artistic imperfection as well as a real fear of failure.
The self-portrait series was based on a photo calendar, which Kippenberger had produced earlier in the year during a visit to Vienna, where he had checked into a rundown hotel, Pension Elite. While staying here, he took a series of photographs of himself pottering around the hotel room in his underpants and had these images made into a luxuriously produced pin-up calendar, which he called “Elite 88.” Each photograph shows Kippenberger posing alone in the shabby room of the hotel, dressed only in a bright new pair of large white underpants pulled up high over his distended belly. Sadness and banality radiate from these pictures as the artist appears to have experienced an intriguing mixture of both pride and embarrassment in his physical condition, a paradoxical sense of both shame and accomplishment at his self-image and the manner in which he had chosen to live and work. Undeniably evident from his physique, the exuberance of his life has begun to take its toll, but rather than hide it, Kippenberger openly reveals his physical decline and turns it into a work of art. As his sister recalls, “In his worst periods he looked like a shabby artist: unwashed, drunk, fat. So he pulled his underpants up over his belly like Picasso, stuck out his paunch, had a photo taken, and turned it into an exhibition poster, or a painting, or a calendar. Every weakness became a strength when transformed into art, even if the pain remained” (Susanne Kippenberger, Kippenberger. The Artist and his Families, Berlin, 2007 p. 12).
Untitled of 1988 is one of the finest of this now-famous series of self-portrait paintings drawing on this ignominious moment of self-reflection in a Vienna hotel room. It presents Kippenberger’s figure in profile, imposingly dominating the lower-right foreground of the canvas. The skin of his distorted and disproportionate limbs is tainted in hues of blue and grey, wearing nothing but large pink-tainted underpants. The meticulous, almost exaggerated attention to detail with which he painted his face makes it an immediate focal point of the work. Deep shadows around the eyes, nose and mouth held in hues of dark blue and touches of purple all serve to emphasize the artist’s complex facial expression: whilst deep lines between the arrogantly raised eyebrows indicate a critical frown, the creases around his eye as well as the slightly upward curled corner of his lips could be the very beginning of a complacent smile; his head tilted slightly downwards, he is looking out calmly and expectantly to a distant point beyond the edge of the canvas.
Harshly opposed to the carefully worked face, the rest of his body is less refined in terms of painterly detail: the humpy neck, large torso and legs, which are visible only to the upper thigh, are disproportionately large in relation to the head and painted in an indistinct and careless style. The artist’s arms are shortened and the hands painted in an unfinished manner, only sketchily suggesting the fingers. Making use of a complex combination of painterly styles ranging from his characteristically feigned dilettantism, or what has been described as “bad” painting, paired with deliberately slap-dash abstraction juxtaposed by a meticulously detailed figuration, Untitled mocked the artist’s supposed heroic self-image by depicting him as equally triumphant and trifling. The concept of the mock-heroic is central to Untitled, as rather than defying the notion of self-portraiture as an insight into the artist’s self, Kippenberger embraces it, publicly displaying his most private emotions while portraying himself as the fallen hero. Kippenberger satirizes an unheroic subject—himself. As Jutta Koether remarked about this ambiguity in his self-portraits, “It wasn’t a Jekyll and Hyde situation, there was no either–or, no hiding, but always everything together” (J. Koether in J. von Perfall, (ed.), Kippenberger & Friends, Berlin 2013, p. 82).
Presenting himself in nothing but underwear, however, not only served as a way to embarrassingly reveal his exuberant lifestyle and reveal human imperfection. It was a lampooning reference to Picasso, particularly David Douglas Duncan’s photographs of the latter outside his Villa, La Californie, in 1957, showing the artist in white underwear with a bathrobe hanging over his arm while standing next to his Afghan hound. Despite the informal attire, Picasso’s aura is one of authority, posture and grace. Kippenberger had already used this exact image for an exhibition invitation in Tenerife in 1985 and also (mis-) used the name for his publishing house founded in the late 70s, called Pikassos Erben—Pikasso’s Heirs, playfully exchanging the ‘c’ with his own surname’s initial, ‘k.’ The recurrent quotation of Picasso in his oeuvre served as a tool for Kippenberger to suggest himself as the latter’s artistic successor. Indeed the series of self-portraits created in 1988 corresponds to his newfound success. That the artist resembles the famous pictures taken by David Douglas Duncan of Pablo Picasso in his white bathrobe posing with his greyhound is not coincidental. Yet while Picasso portrays an image of strength and confidence, Kippenberger’s awkward self-depiction evokes a sensation of Fremdscham, but also compassion, within the viewer. Presenting himself in such an inelegant manner was very unlike Kippenberger, the man who was known for his impeccable attire, dressed in suit and tie in public: “Kippenberger appeared in public in tailored suits, which elegantly concealed what these pictures revealed with a touching lack of vanity and shame: long arms, the folds and bulges on his broad chest, a thick neck, a large head, a dejected posture and all in all, little masculinity” (D. Baumann, “The way you wear your hat” in exh. cat., Kunsthalle Basel, Martin Kippenberger, 1998, Basel, p. 67). Nevertheless, Kippenberger’s gaze is not that of a beaten man. It is strong, determined and focused. Untitled thereby masterfully bridges the gap between the grubby room of the Pension Elite and the Olympian heights of Picasso’s art-stardom on the Cote d’Azur and is, like Kippenberger himself was, an extraordinary and fascinating blend of contradictions.
As such, the heaviness of the figure is in contrast to the lightness and airiness of the balloon, whose string he holds onto with the left hand. As in several of the 1988 self-portraits, the appearance of the balloon generates a notion of lightness and elevation, which is juxtaposed by the bulky sense of weight given by the sagging figure of Kippenberger. In other paintings from the series, balloons are depicted with greater and lesser degree of clarity, obscuring the face of the artist in one, and rising behind him like wings in the other. As is the case in Untitled, Kippenberger holds on to the string of a light grey balloon, encompassing both the work and his head and arms. As Stephen Prina has explained, the balloon here serves as a metaphor for Kippenberger’s desperate attempt to be lifted and saved from his self-destructive lifestyle. It therefore conveys an ambiguous message of desperation and hopefulness, innocence and deformity, life and death. A strong sense of temporality is implied by the balloon, as its perfect outer appearance is ephemeral and in time will turn into a crumpled, hollow rubber.
While his left hand holds the balloon string, Kippenberger’s right hand is laid gently upon one of his Peter sculptures, titled Worktimer (1987) —a cart-like metal framework on wheels bearing two used leather briefcases—which was exhibited at Max Hetzler’s gallery in Cologne in the show Peter, in 1987, which marked a changing point in Kippenberger’s career as well as his first serious engagement with sculpture. While the actual sculpture is blue, Kippenerger depicted it here in shades of bright red and orange, which have seemingly transferred into his right hands and left arm, visually emphasizing the connection between master and creation. The Peter sculptures comprised of 45 tragic-comic objects reminiscent of failed furniture that the artist crammed together in a single room in the gallery, the title and display of which referred to the dense hanging in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg in Russia. The seemingly clumsy constructed and evidently hand-crafted objects were, in part, Kippenberger’s rebellious answer to the precision and exactitude of the supposedly established concepts of modern sculpture then posited by artists such as Donald Judd and more recently, Jeff Koons. The Peter sculptures, such as Worktimer, stand in harsh aesthetic contrast to Koons’s mechanically produced work with its slick and perfected surface. Kippenberger’s objects explored the exact opposite: again, imperfection and failure were at the heart of his artistic concern, as well as the ordinary, the arbitrary and the everyday. Diedrich Diederichsen spoke at length with Kippenberger’s assistant of the time, Michael Krebber, with whom Kippenberger collaborated on the production of the Peter sculptures, and has described the working method as “not thinking” about “how the parts are put together, where and why they are coated, not coated with whatever, where, why and with what sewn, nailed, burled, knobbed” (D. Diederichsen, quoted in S. Kippenberger, Kippenberger, the Artist and His Families, Berlin, 2007, p. 296). Reminiscent of a Dada-inspired approach, which was largely driven by coincident as well as a child-like, immature conduct with the object, the Peter sculptures combine a sense of deliberate failure and dilettantism inherent in Kippenberger’s work.
Painted within the upper part of Worktimer is the logo of the Lord Jim Lodge, an artists’ lodge that Kippenberger co-founded in 1985 in Graz with fellow artists Jörg Schlick, Albert Oehlen, Max Gad, Walter Grond and Wolfgang Bauer. Of all the self-portraits he painted in the summer of 1988, Untitled is the only example including the logo. Consisting of a sun, breasts and a hammer, it is held in similar shades of red and orange as if it formed part of the sculpture. Little is known about the very secretive organization, which was described by member Walter Grond: “It is the paradox of this secret around a secret, which guarantees its power to enlighten…The Lord Jim Lodge carries this paradox to an extreme by staging indiscretion itself as a secret” (W. Grond in Lord Jim Lodge, no. 2, Graz, 1987, p. 61). The name of the association was taken from Joseph Conrad’s turn-of-the-century novel, Lord Jim, in which the protagonist is a hero in an imaginary world and a failure in the real world, alluding closely to Kippenberger’s preferred way of self-representation, namely as the mock-hero, caught in spiral of extremes and contradictions.
The lodge followed the provocative motto, Keiner Hilft Keinem—None of us helps no one, which Kippenberger once said to be his law: “The principle of the Lord Jim Lodge, whose member I am, was like a law for me: none of us helps no one. Be nice to the people on the way to the top, as you will meet them again on your way down” (M. Babias in Schon bin ich im Eimer. Interview mit Martin Kippenberger in Zitty Magazine, 1991, p. 39). As Elisabeth Hirschman wrote, the combined aim of the lodge was to “change conventional Masonic lodge policies, attempt to resist preconfigured ideas and behavioral templates, draw attention to the power set-up in the art trade and politics and at the same time establish a network structure” (E. Hirschmann in “Kippenberger schliesst Graz an sein Netzwerk an” in Modell Martin Kippenberger: [Utopien Für Alle] = Model Martin Kippenberger: Utopia for Everyone, exh. cat., Cologne, 2007, p. 88). Inversely criticizing strict hierarchical structures—which rather than enriching and enabling its participating members, limit and shield them as they have to adhere to specific rules and regulations—the Lodge held up a mirror to other networks such as the art market, art institutions or governments. Yet at the same time it advertised a loose, flexible network structure, as the Lord Jim Lodge did not have an official set of rules or a manifesto that it followed apart from the requirement for each member to promote the lodge in their respective art. In Kippenberger’s individual practice, then, Untitled is an intrinsic example of his use of the logo to display his affiliation with, and promotion of, the network on the one hand, whilst at the same time, offering an intimate insight into his fear of being trapped in a no-man’s-land between life and death.
Untitled is therefore a major testament to Kippenberger’s fierce sense of self-identification as a man entirely devoted to his work and as an artist who saw himself entirely as a “living vehicle” of his art. The traditionally self-confident artist is replaced by a doubting, vulnerable figure in search of recognition and his artistic, as well as personal, identity at large. With the 1988 self-portraits, Kippenberger developed an entirely new painterly vocabulary, which Stephan Schmidt Wullfen has described as a “melancholy language, setting an international trend that will continue for a decade” (S. Schmidt-Wulffen, in J. von Perfall, (ed.), Kippenberger & Friends, Berlin, 2013). Driven by constantly challenging and reinventing himself no matter the cost, the cult of the artist was Kippenberger’s favorite theme until his premature death in 1997. As close friend Friedrich Petzel recalls about the self-portraits in this regard, “This was much more about inventing a new artist’s existence than about content—it was about the status of the artist as he kept reinventing himself” (F. Petzel in J.von Perfall, ed. Kippenberger and Friends, Berlin, 2013, p.108).
Oil on canvas
PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF BENEDIKT TASCHEN
Martin Kippenberger , 1980s, Paintings, Germany, Post War
Seville, Galería Juana de Aizpuru, Martin Kippenberger: Selbstporträt, February 1989.
Kunsthalle Basel and Deichtorhallen Hamburg, Martin Kippenberger, September 1998-April 1999, no. 26 (illustrated in color).
Madrid, Palacio de Velázquez and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Kippenberger: Pinturas, Paintings, Gemälde, October 2004-January 2005, pp. 161 and 198 (illustrated in color and on the cover).
New York, Luhring Augustine Gallery, Martin Kippenberger–Self-Portraits, March-April 2005, pp. 36-37 and 71 (illustrated in color).
Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art and New York, Museum of Modern Art, Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective, September 2008-May 2009, p. 95 (illustrated in color).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
95 1/4 x 79 1/2 in. (240 x 200 cm.)
Parkett, no. 19, Zurich and New York, 1989, p. 78 (studio view illustrated in color).
A. Taschen, ed., Kippenberger, Ten Years After, Cologne, 1991, no. 92 (illustrated in color).
Martin Kippenberger, The Happy End of Franz Kafka's 'Amerika,' exh. cat., Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, 1994, fig. 77 (studio view illustrated).
A. Taschen, ed., Kippenberger, Cologne, 2003, pp. 139 and 220, no. 92 (illustrated in color).
Taschen Collection, exh. cat., Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2004, p. 45 (illustrated).
Kippenberger Meets Picasso, exh. cat., Museo Picasso Málaga, 2011, pp. 31 and 136 (illustrated in color).
A. Lindemann, Collecting Contemporary Art, Cologne, 2013, p. 85 (illustrated in color).
A. Taschen, ed., Kippenberger, Cologne, 2014, pp. 27, 139 and 220, no. 92 (illustrated in color and on the cover).
Collection of Jeff Koons, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1993
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