The Triumph of Painting



Alison M. Gingeras

Avant-Garde Sign Value in Contemporary Painting

‘Kippenberger polluted the idea of the grand gesture; his production revealed a motivation designed to extinguish reverence rather than compound it. He took responsibility for the contexutalization and dissemination of his ideas and did not wait for the museums to catch up. Kippenberger was political, but that was not his central thesis; it was just another set of rules to exploit.’ (1)

Lucy McKenzie on Martin Kippenberger

The Museum has finally caught up with Martin Kippenberger. So have scores of younger artists. Eight years after his (premature) death, his legacy has finally begun to infiltrate a ‘mainstream’ narrative of art history. The recent, widespread acknowledgement of Kippenberger’s significance is not all that surprising given that many artists are often celebrated posthumously. Lack of recognition can be attributed to numerous factors – in some cases the meaning of an artist’s work would be out of sync with the social or political climate of their lifetime. Sometimes an artist’s practice is too underground, radical or “advanced” for its time. None of these more conventional scenarios adequately explains the late recognition of Martin Kippenberger’s significance.

Kippenberger was never really an obscure artist. Since his first exhibitions in Germany in the early 1980s, Kippenberger always managed to elicit highly charged reactions from his audiences and peers. Some would say he deliberately courted controversy. In spite of the numerous harsh critical reviews or frequent dismissals from curators during his lifetime, Kippenberger was never visibly discouraged. He persisted as a truly hyperactive artist. Kippenberger single-handedly generated a maelstrom of creative activities – as a painter, sculptor, architect, writer, poet, underground club manager, actor, musician, promoter, curator and director of his own museum (MOMAS, the Museum of Modern Art Syros). During his forty-three year lifespan, he had numerous exhibitions every year all around Europe and America. Even if he was considered a highly unorthodox artist, Kippenberger was still invited during his lifetime to show in some of the most prestigious exhibitions and museums such as Documenta and the Munster Skulptur Projekte as well as the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. Even if he began to be considered as a cult figure at the end of his life, Kippenberger was never universally regarded as important. He was never a ‘consensual’ artist.

Despite his extensive exhibition history and legendary productivity, Kippenberger’s aesthetic achievements were regarded with suspicion during his lifetime. Anecdotes about his countless misdeeds earned him the title of enfant terrible, while overshadowing the physical ‘substance’ of his art. His life-long campaign to shroud his formal and conceptual practice in an aura of rebellious behavior was highly successful. Not unlike certain Young British Artists of the early 1990s, bad boy behavior and public drunkenness often eclipsed the actual aesthetic merit of his work. Yet in Kippenberger’s case, his persona was not a marketing strategy, nor did it provide a means to cross over into mainstream consciousness. Instead Kippenberger’s every ‘non-art’ gesture, just like every body of work, was intended to break with consensus. Aesthetically speaking, he systematically implemented a campaign of eclecticism and stylistic irregularity.

Specifically addressing his painting practice, Kippenberger quoted, mocked or utilized almost every conceptual strategy or formal style of the post-war period. He even invented a few. His first mature cycle of paintings from 1981 – Lieber Maler, male mir (‘Dear Painter, paint me’ or ‘Dear Painter, paint for me’) – were completely executed in a Warholian vein. Instead of painting these photorealist canvases himself, Kippenberger delegated his work by hiring a professional advertising company who specialized in painting cinema posters to execute from sources of his choice. The twelve canvases in this series are split between a number of self portraits (a lifelong theme in his work) and completely cliché images culled from existing sources (including a hardcore pornographic picture of a couple mutually masturbating).

After this short flirtation with photorealism, Kippenberger then ran through a range of stylistic languages – from impasto-laden figuration to quirky, architecturally inspired abstraction (Design for the Improvement of Backstroke in Rio I & II); from Euro-Pop (Capri by Night) to faux naïve, ‘bad’ painting (Einsam?). Kippenberger also conducted experiments with unconventional media, incorporating found, sculptural elements into paintings (e.g. the inclusion of light fixtures in Kellner Des…) as well as making ‘paintings’ using sculptural methods (such as in the casting of the heavily sexual innuendo-ed latex and rubber paintings of 1990-1, Tiefes Kehlchen). His choice of subject matter was equally promiscuous. While he returned to self-portraiture throughout his life – beginning with the Lieber Maler pictures, through the 1988 mid-life crisis portraits with balloon motifs to his last body of work before his untimely death, the 1996 Raft of the Medusa cycle – he also drew from a well of recurrent, highly varied subjects. While initially Kippenberger’s work was lumped together with his German peers of the Neue Wilden/Neo-Expressionist movement (Baselitz, Immendorff, Kiefer et al), Kippenberger’s twist and turns of form and content made him not only difficult to classify into a conventional art historical category, but impossible to copy.

Nevertheless, numerous young artists attempt to emulate Kippenberger’s iconoclastic attitude today. So-called ‘bad painting’ is flooding contemporary art galleries across Europe and America. Stylistic heterogeneous-ness for its own sake seems to be a regular feature of much of the “new painting” that has captured the attention of curators, critics and collectors alike. These recent phenomena might be grouped together under the heading of Kippenbergiana – a playful, yet slightly dismissive term for younger artists who attempt to ‘cover’ Kippenberger, but only succeed in imitating his a-stylistic posturing. (2) Beyond recognizing this trend, the enormous impact of Kippenberger’s output signals a major shift in the mainstream reception of his work.

To a certain extent it would seem that Kippenberger’s oeuvre has finally been recognized for its formal merits. His refusal to make his work conform to a signature ‘look’ was previously understood as mirroring his non-conformist persona. Yet it is a bit too reductive to chalk up his stylistic inconsistency as an extension of his capricious character. Instead, his experimentation with materials and style might be better understood as part of an on-going dialogue with his avant-garde predecessors. Judging from his frequent references to the protagonists of European Modernism like Picasso, Giacometti, and Wols, Kippenberger understood well that stylistic inconsistency has historically been associated with artistic courage and virtuosity. Even if his own formal zigzags were often made in a spirit of irony and irreverence, his experimentation was firmly rooted in the same calculated, conceptually sophisticated program as the rest of his practice.

"The recent emergence of Kippenbergiana in the work of many younger artists would suggest that his formal legacy has recently been codified into some sort of avant-garde sign value – where the look of awkwardness, unfinished-finish, and stylistic irregularity are understood as markers of an antagonistic position and of politico-aesthetic gravitas. Like Warhol, Kippenberger somewhat paradoxically represents both a ‘model’ and a singular, unrepeatable position. Understanding the conceptual intentions behind this iconoclasm helps to distinguish the Kippenbergiana from those artists whose practices are truly consensus breaking and antagonistic – without necessarily looking messy, arbitrary or eclectic. (3)"

Understanding the danger of a reductive understanding or stylistic imitation, numerous younger artists seem to continue Kippenberger’s legacy without falling into the obvious traps. As painter Lucy McKenzie has summarized in her thoughtful essay on the legacy of Kippenberger:

‘For me, Kippenberger illustrates an example of letting work tell you what it’s about rather than the other way around, while at the same time being fully committed to everything you release. He showed me that redundancy can be an image, or an object, or an ideology’s most useful quality (…) he showed that being socially committed does not necessarily mean that you have to feel smug or like a ‘good guy’. He shows that letting dissidence have dissonance is as powerful as anything overtly political’.

Transforming McKenzie’s analysis into a loose set of criteria, it would seem a handful of artists have succeeded in carving out innovative approaches to their painting practices that is faithful to Kippenberger’s legacy without slipping into literal imitation. (4) Even if it might be premature to judge the extent of Kippenberger’s influence on each of these oeuvres, Franz Ackermann, Kai Althoff, Enrico David, John Kørner, Jonathan Messe, Albert Oehlen, Daniel Richter, Tal R and Sophie Von Hellermann all attempt to stake a certain ‘position’ with their work – each using very different conceptual and formal strategies. Still, Kippenberger is not an easy act to follow and few artists have better understood the difference between being ‘like Kippenberger’ and simply being themselves.

Beyond this Kippenbergian legacy, there are several other ‘family trees’ that can be sketched out in order to comprehend the extremely heterogeneous field of contemporary painting. In many ways the three-part, intergenerational curatorial structure of The Triumph of Painting suggests a few alternative yet parallel veins that seem to have a significant impact on younger artists. The choice to open this exhibition with five other key senior artists – Peter Doig, Marlene Dumas, Jorg Immendorff, Luc Tuymans and Hermann Nitsch – provides a genealogical pedigree for the artists that make up the other ‘chapters’ of the exhibition.(5) While this selection is far from reflecting conventional art-historical taste, it betrays a style of thinking that is much closer to the manner in which artists themselves create intuitive webs of artistic references without regard to chronological order, consensual hierarchies of artistic greatness or respect for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ taste.

  1. Lucy McKenzie, ‘Now That This Has Been Done It Will Never Have To Be Done Again.’ Nach Kippenberger (Vienna: Schlebrugge Editor, 2003) pp. 191-5

  2. I would like to credit my colleague and friend David Rimanelli for coining this term ‘Kippenbergiana’ in a recent conversation about the enormous impact of Kippenberger on a recent generation of artists in New York.

  3. This list should not be limited only to painters as there are several contemporary artists working in various different media who extend Kippenberger’s legacy without literally using him as a model.

  4. Ibid McKenzie, pp. 195-7.

  5. One such ‘family tree’ has recently been mapped out by Jordan Kantor in the pages of Artforum (November 2004, pp. 164 - 171). His essay entitled ‘The Tuymans Effect’ traces the impact of the Belgian painter’s work on Wilhelm Sasnal, Eberhard Havekost and Magnus von Plessen. He describes the Tuymans Effect as ‘the profound, if sometimes ineffable way in which the look, subjects and even fundamental painterly approach of Tuymans’ look has saturated a large and increasingly significant territory [of contemporary painting].’

    More Infromation about Martin Kippenberger


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