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He was just a very fast brooder…

Bärbel Grässlin on the Kippenberger Phenomenon


Martin Kippenberger and Bärbel Grässlin
in front of "Familie Hunger", 1985

This year stands entirely under the sign of Martin Kippenberger. In celebration of his fiftieth birthday, Karlsruhe is honoring the artist with a comprehensive retrospective, while his multiples can be seen in the Kunstverein Braunschweig and his drawings in Tübingen. Both your gallery and the collection of the Grässlin family are present in all three exhibitions in the form of significant loans. To what extent were you and your family involved in the conception and preparation of these exhibitions?

Bärbel Grässlin: The idea to show Kippenberger came from Professor Dr. Götz Adriani, who runs both the Kunsthalle in Tübingen and the Museum für Neue Kunst in Karlsruhe. The museum's collection is founded on the collections of Froehlich, Rentschler, Wieshaupt, and Grässlin. The exhibition concept entails developing presentations out of these collections. Adriani approached Kippenberger's estate to organize an exhibition in celebration of his fiftieth birthday. My sister, Karola Grässlin, already had the idea a long time ago to show all of Kippenberger's multiples in the Kunstverein in Braunschweig. Because it's very intimate and consists mainly of smaller cabinet rooms, the building is ideal for presenting the multiples. The catalogue was intended as a comprehensive oeuvre index of all of Kippenberger's multiples.

Karola conceived the presentation together with the artist Michael Krebber. Michael Krebber is himself a painter and was a close friend of Martin Kippenberger's and for a time his assistant, as well. For this reason, he's very familiar with the work and knows how Kippenberger would have dealt with things. I think he was the right partner for this project.

It was also Adriani's idea to show the drawings in Tübingen. Kippenberger would certainly have been very proud to exhibit in the Kunsthalle Tübingen, because the inclusion of his drawings within the "classical" program would have amused him to no end.


Martin Kippenberger
no title, 1991
Collection Deutsche Bank
Martin Kippenberger
no title, 1991
Collection Deutsche Bank

Götz Adriani and the curator Ralph Melcher laid down the Karlsruhe show's focus on painting from the very beginning. After that, we considered together how the museum's courtyard could be integrated into this context. The connection to our collection was very important to Mr. Adriani, because many of our works are exhibited in Karlsruhe. For Das 2. Sein, he selected groups of works: self-portraits and architectural images into which we were able to integrate further exponents from our collection. Structuring the courtyard with sculptures came about because we have some of Kippenberger's large sculptures in our collection, including parts of the exhibition Tiefes Kehlchen , which were already shown during the Viennese Festwochen.

Kippenberger is considered to be the "father" of the next generation of young figurative painters. In his work, he criticized a concept of art that distinguished between various disciplines. He didn't feel particularly obliged to any one art form. Why is his work meeting with such an enormous positive reaction in the context of the debates on the "new realism" in painting? Among the installation artists, no one spontaneously comes to mind whom the press had recently regarded as being a descendant of Kippenberger.

Apart from the painters, of course, there are also artists like Cosima von Bonin. Her work evinces strong ties to Kippenberger's work. This whole debate on painting is just another one of these stupid waves staged by the art market. People are acting as though painting had disappeared. I've been doing gallery work for the past twenty years, and anyone who's been following my program knows that I've been predominantly showing painting. Painting has never been dead – people only claimed that it was, but all these artists just kept on painting and survived – like Günther Förg and Albert Oehlen, to name but a few.

Because every art discipline is respected these days, regardless of whether it's painting, photography, installation, sculpture, etc., Kippenberger was able to play and command all these instruments, and that's the exciting thing about him and his work. Even his invitation cards, posters, and catalogues became art. The publications and posters had the same value as his paintings and sculptures.

Kippenberger is the genius par excellence… and he can't be pinned down to painting. In his large installation The End of Franz Kafka's America, he proved, almost as an afterthought, that he can perform in sculpture just as well as in painting. He was just a very fast brooder (laughs), a rapid transformer of zeitgeist tendencies. He always took a good look at things and appropriated everything incredibly quickly, from advertising to the art world – and made it his own. Basically, that's incredible. For a long time, the big criticism of Kippenberger's work was connected to the question of whether his works weren't too closely connected to the time, or whether his art went beyond the joke of the day. This also played a role for many museum directors, who for a long time didn't really take Kippenberger seriously: "He's only copying. He just transforms things quickly…" In this respect, there is a certain proximity to Gerhard Richter.

But certainly Richter is the artistic painter in person?

Of course, it's not the same. His work is completely different. In spite of this, however, a comparable sensitivity regarding current tendencies can be perceived. Richter always reacted very quickly to the shifts in the zeitgeist. When everybody was painting abstractly, Richter added another helping on top. He always reacted strategically to current tendencies. Hence, the two artists can be compared in terms of strategy. In any case, in the Karlsruhe exhibition, it's easy to see that Kippenberger's work goes well beyond a daily political commentary. And his themes are indeed much more basic than his critics initially supposed.


Martin Kippenberger, no title, 1988, private collection
Courtesy BFAS Blondeau Fine Art Services

In contrast to the nineties, provocation and political "incorrectness" today form an integral part of the entertainment and mass culture. In the exhibition deutschemalereizweitausenddrei, artists such as Stefan Melzl and Carsten Fock ironically treated Kippenberger's quips and attitudes, which in turn have themselves become "classics." Thus, in an allusion to Kippenberger's merciless self-portrait in underwear, Melzl's work shows an athletic teenager wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt and with a balloon tied to his genitals. In Fock's work, a scratchy drawing in felt-tip pen shows the slogan "Lieber Ostmaler, male mir einen Türke" (Dear East [German] painter, paint me a Turk). Has Kippenberger's work become easier to deal with? How should gestures like these be evaluated?

This of course gives rise to the question as to what would happen if Kippenberger were still alive. His work would have continued to develop, and so we have to ask ourselves how he would have "wormed his way through" (laughs).


Stephan Melzl, Kopf
2001, Courtesy Thomas Rehbein Galerie, Köln
Foto: Axel Schneider

That's the problem, of course, for many artists who become "classics." They reach a point where they can no longer progress beyond themselves, and subsequent generations pin them down to this.

That is a very sad reality indeed. But I'm sure that Kippenberger would have been able to transport his art into the present time and to continue surprising us today, too.


Martin Kippenberger, Keiner hilft keinem, 1988
Sammlung Grässlin, St. Georgen

Do you regard it as a success when artists pick up on his gestures today?

People only quote things that possess a certain importance. Artists don't appropriate anything that has no value for them. In this respect, it pays a tribute to Kippenberger. It's the normal course things take. This was always the case in art history. If I'm honest, this is also one of my biggest problems in my gallery work. In the meantime, I know that I have a few artists of a really "high caliber" in my gallery program. Maybe I was more lucky than anything else (laughs). Why should anyone sing their own praises? It's hard for me to detect high-quality works when I walk through a painting exhibition such as the one in Frankfurt's Kunstverein – for the simple reason that Kippenberger set standards, and Albert Oehlen as well, his name should also be mentioned in this context.

Albert Oehlen's work is currently experiencing a Renaissance…

If I've said before that Kippenberger would have managed to transport his work into the present time, then Albert Oehlen succeeds magnificently. He remains true to his strategy. For this reason, it's also difficult for me to "look ahead" in terms of painting. That's why I'm more interested in artists such as Tobias Rehberger, whose work has always resided in the intersection between design, architecture, and art.

Together with Candida Höfer, Martin Kippenberger will be representing German art in the German pavilion in Venice. The mixture of these two very different artists proved controversial in the press. What is your personal opinion on this decision?

I honestly have to say that the curator of the German contribution to the Venice Biennale, Mr. Heynen, hasn't told me what he's planning to show of Kippenberger's. Of course, I thought about that, how they were going to fit together, but I have trust in Mr. Heynen. And so I can only speculate. But I can certainly imagine what he might show. In Candida Höfer's work, there are groups of photographs in which she addresses certain ways of dealing with art. In one specific work, Kippenberger also picks up on this theme. That's already one possible bridge between the two artists.

The White Paintings your gallery recently showed pick up on the long tradition of white surfaces and white paintings from the historical avant-garde to today. The work seems to ask the viewer what's more ridiculous: a bad joke or the pathos of an absolute art grown harmless.

What can be seen in these paintings is not a joke. In 1991, when Kippenberger made these paintings, he showed his catalogues to a nine year-old boy and told him: "Write down what you see here. Invent new titles for the pictures you see here." The child basically describes in simple words what he sees. In the process, sentences arose such as "The child is looking forward to his birthday in his mother's belly," or "Many walking rug stands." The idea behind this is, of course, is that the White Paintings are relating something about painting. It's about the story of painting, and it's the story of a nine year-old child… in addition, of course, it's a little stab in the back of art criticism.

At the same time, though, it has a powerfully poetic aspect…

Exactly! A child approaches what he sees without any pretension. These are really wonderful, poetic texts that spring out of an innocent child's fantasy. And then Kippenberger painted the child's comments in acrylic onto the gessoed canvases.

The paintings vary in size – his standard formats – and are hung equidistant to one another. In the process, the idea is not to merely hang them on the wall, but to fit them into the wall, plaster them flush with the surface and basically make them disappear. In this exhibition, Kippenberger addresses both the presentation of paintings, the description of and discussion concerning paintings, art criticism and his own work. And naturally he is not least referring to the tradition of white on white painting. In addition, the plastering alludes to the "disappearance" of art. This exhibition lives more or less in tandem with the times of day. When the light enters the gallery from the side and shines across the gallery walls, then the writing can be seen really well, and when it's a grey, dark day, then you almost can't see anything at all. Indirectly, this changes the work. This was certainly the most conceptual work that Kippenberger made.

Martin Kippenberger
no title
The William Holden Company, 1996
©Barbara Weiss Gallery, Berlin
Collection Deutsche Bank
Martin Kippenberger
no title
The William Holden Company, 1996
©Barbara Weiss Gallery, Berlin
Collection Deutsche Bank

Along with the show of rarely seen works and multiples, Kippenberger's drawing work can be seen starting on April 16 in the Kunsthalle Tübingen. Here, the collection of the Deutsche Bank is represented as well, loaning drawings such as those from the series The William Holden Company. What special role do the drawings play in Kippenberger's overall work?

Drawing is the direct path from the thought onto paper. I never used to see it this way, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that drawing always has this very immediate quality. They're often spontaneous sketches of ideas for works.


Martin Kippenberger, no title, 1992
©Giesela Capitain, Cologne

Collection Deutsche Bank

The hotel drawings were something Kippenberger made with manic energy. He couldn't help himself. He didn't know what it meant to "take time off," he was always on site, as it were. The Hotel-Hotel paper works arose everywhere, wherever he happened to be. He always carried his pencils around with him, and sheets of paper were lying out in every hotel room. Kippenberger traveled around the world a great deal, and that was a medium that was available at all times, in contrast to the canvas and the palette that were connected to the studio far away. Actually,he made drawings throughout his entire life. In this case, the mass really makes the difference. This is how the manic thing really comes across. They already contain everything that can be found later in the sculptures and paintings.

For Kippenberger, being an artist was always connected with working on his own myth. A part of this was provocation. He was repeatedly accused of being a cynic. You were closely connected to the artist both through your family collection and as a gallery dealer. How does Kippenberger's self-staging as an artist compare with your own personal impression of Kippenberger as a person?

Well, for me he was never a cynic. In my eyes, he was absolutely a friend of humanity. Kippenberger was a ruthless observer. He never let up, never shied away from pointing his friends' faults out to them and poking around in open wounds. That was sometimes very cruel, but it carried me further personally. Friendships that are merely based on "fishing for compliments" and niceties never brought me very much. To be honest, I miss that today. Kippenberger often showed me where my boundaries were, even when it was very hard, and he helped me see myself a little more clearly, that's for sure. But I never found this to be cynical. It was often a struggle with him, a real fight, a fight to the death. But I love this more than the harmless type. It's an important part of it, nothing else is really true friendship, in my opinion. I miss him. There aren't many people of this type.

The interview was conducted by Oliver Koerner von Gustorf

Translation: Andrea Scrima