An Essay on Martin Kippenberger by his sister,
Vom Einfachsten nach Hause.
'Every artist is a human being.'
He was still a child when he got a house of his own, a wooden hut, hidden away in our garden and named after him: Martinsklause. His very first house. It was to be his only house.
Why he got it? Perhaps, because he was special. The only boy in amongst four girls, squeezed in between the 'big ones' and the 'little ones'. Sometimes he was put in with one lot, sometimes with the others, but didn't really belong anywhere. A boy, who wasn't a proper boy, a clown, who often wept and who preferred painting to playing with cars. 'Martin unser Künstler' [Martin our Artist] was written in big letters on the kitchen wall.
He rarely made use of Martinsklause. What could he do with a lonely hut in a wood? He never was a hermit. He longed to be with people.
The house in Essen that we grew up in was always full of people – and full of art. He was still a child the first time he left it. Sickly, not good at school, a difficult child (today's teachers would have called him hyperactive), so my parents sent him away. First to a family friend, a women who illustrated picture books and lived in the Bavarian Forest, when he was just nine. After that, to boarding school, first in the Black Forest, then in Altenkirchen. That was how his life's odyssey began. As a teenager he came back to Essen. Later he went to Otterndorf, Hamburg, Berlin, Florence Stuttgart, St. Georgen, Cologne, Paris, Los Angeles, Madrid, Tokyo, Frankfurt, Vienna, Seville, Burgenland (Austria), Greece, Cologne again . . . St. Georgen. . . Burgenland. And every time with the intention to settle in that place. 'I never managed it, but the will is still there, as it ever was', as he remarked in an interview in 1993.
And then – he arrived. In 1996 he married the photographer Elfie Semotan, with whom he also worked. She was older than him and the mother to two sons. He felt at home with her in her house in Burgenland; for him it was a place where he could be at peace, where he could work and even be alone.
At that time, he did have a house after all – a house devoted to art. The museum on Syros, of which he was the self-styled Director, is of course an absurd skeleton of a house, a concrete ruin, with no walls, no windows, no doors. He had wanted to build a tower here, near his friends Michel and Catherina Würthle, a tower for painting in and for sleeping. Now that he was with Elfie the tower was to become a proper house. The architect's plans were drawn up, but there was no time left for the construction work. A year after the wedding he was dead.
Heimweh Highway 90: That's what he called one of his catalogues, with a cover picture showing himself, as a boy, crushed into a photo booth with our father. This Heimweh – homesickness – with Martin went hand in hand with its opposite, Fernweh; longing for a home yet at the same time running away from the very idea in order to be free of all obligations, duties and constraints; a desire to find a resting place that was at odds with the uninhibited curiosity with which he threw himself at anything new; torn between having to be alone, in order to paint, and not being able to be alone; the dilemma of being recognised for what he had done yet not wanting to become public property. This was the ground bass of his life and his art, a lifelong struggle: Vom Einfachsten nach Hause was the subtitle of the catalogue Kippenberger! Abschied vom Jugendbonus! which he gave himself for thirtieth birthday.
Bitte nicht nach Hause schicken (translation missing) is the title of one of his most penetrating self-portraits. It shows him with the gaze of a refugee child that has lost its home and is begging to be taken in, a child that can never go back. Another painting, where he is seen from behind, in his underpants, going somewhere or other, bears the words 'Nicht zu Hause schlafen müssen' [Not to have to sleep at home].
'It was a form of escape', says Wiltrud Roser, the picture-book illustrator to whom he had been sent as a nine-year-old – and whom he couldn't wait to go and see. Now, this minute, or not at all. A few weeks later he returned home with the same impatient relish. Perhaps his whole life was a form of escape, but not from problems, if anything from stasis and boredom – it was always an escape to, never from. Being sent home would mean going backwards. But he wanted to make progress, to achieve something.
'To understand Kippenberger, you have to understand him as an artist who always chooses off-kilter, strange perspectives', writes Jutta Koether in her foreword to Heimweh Highway 90; 'an artist who stays in one place, lives out his vision of that place, for a limited time, before he's off again'. Only rarely, unwillingly and in some embarrassment did he ever return to a place once he had left it behind him, to Cologne, for instance, or St. Georgen. Input-Output was his own title for a series in which he drew, on hotel invoices, all the ground plans of all the homes he had lived in, going right back to his childhood. 'Son, all you do is move from one place to the next!' our mother wrote to him when he was studying art in Hamburg in the mid-1970s and kept moving from one shared flat to the next. 'If a person is to find their own field', he wrote back, 'they have to collect all sorts of life experiences. Every flat – every person that I've shared with – is a stage on that journey. If you can see that there is no room for manoeuvre, that there is no longer any chance of developing further, you just have to move out. A change is a new beginning, every time.' And, as he assured her, ultimately he did want to develop: 'It's not just a financial investment.' No input, no output.
'Happily married, two children': in the interview with Jutta Koether this is his horrifying vision of cosy domesticity, the end to one's existence as a creative artist. He was the kind who was forever exceeding limits: the limits of embarrassment and good taste, the limits normally associated with particular media and styles. And he was duly punished for that, even calling a series of sculptures Martin, into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself. But a fixed abode would have been a prison to him.
There are no simple equations to apply to Martin Kippenberger, not even in terms of his biography: life=art. People can understand his art without knowing him or his life, and it's important to avoid simplistically assuming that his art is a reflection of his life. The idea that the biographical stations of his life can be reconstructed from his drawings, for instance, is sadly misguided: Martin never slept in all the hotels whose writing paper he used for drawing on.
The connection between his life and work is more complex than that – and interesting for that very reason. Art was not a reflection of his life – it was his life. 'Wer sich dem Abgrund stellt, muss sich nicht wundern, wenn er fliegen kann' [People who face the abyss shouldn't be surprised if they can fly]
is written on one of his paintings; it shows a house on wheels, a rubbish bin as someone's home. That's how he worked, and how he lived – always on the move, always skirting along the edge of the abyss, in a mobile home, of sorts. As artists go, he was a travelling salesman, he once said. A travelling salesman is constantly travelling around, knocking on strange doors, asking to be let in; someone in the business of persuasion, selling his wares – or not – and moving on again. An exhausting life, a lonely trade – a 'one man business', as he himself once described art. As an artist he was a solo entertainer, a rep and a dep, suffering in the name of art for others, like Fred the Frog whom he nailed to the cross. And he was also Spiderman, spinning his ubiquitous webs and forming families. Long before he got to know Kafka's Amerika and the Theatre of Oklahoma he had his own travelling circus – a more or less steady circle of friends who travelled around the world with him, going to exhibition openings, spending days and nights with him in bars. People, not places, were his home.
Exciting – that's how his life of artistic excess looked from a distance to his fans. He himself found it 'desperately tiring' . . . 'a life constantly on the move, with no private life whatsoever'. And as he once said, he couldn't be cutting an ear off every day. But there were a lot of days when he did just that, leading a wild life, racing along at top speed – and always looking out for places to have a break by the wayside. Staying for a few days or weeks with friends and acquaintances, where he felt accepted and taken care of. Where he didn't have to keep up some act, where he could afford to let weaknesses show, and could hold his peace. 'Happily married, two children': when he needed to refuel he was only too glad to stay with people in steady relationships, a family, a home, never mind if it was all a bit petit-bourgeois.
Evan as a student in Hamburg he used to go once a week to see his friends Ina Barfuß and Thomas Wachweger – a long-standing couple – for a meal of cabbage roulades. He liked it when people cooked for him, because he liked being mothered. Best of all he liked children's food, simple things, like black pudding – comfort food that reminded him of his own childhood home: pasta bake and spaghetti bolognaise, the only things our mother did well, were the mainstays of his diet, reliable constants in a restless existence. And food for art. As it says on a screen print of a sieve: 'Nicht wegwerfen, kann man noch für Nudelauflauf verwenden' [Don't throw it away, it'll do for pasta bake].
Often, instead of looking for an apartment of his own, Martin would move in with other people, into a readymade nest, where he could lay his eggs undisturbed, but which he could leave again whenever he liked. 'Housemate', as he described himself on a poster – or 'squatter', as the Grässlin's granddaughter once complained. For he would make every house his own, hanging pictures up, taking others down, always wanting to take charge, giving his occupation as 'Boss' on another poster. And it was just the same with towns and cities, leaving his mark on the places he went to, taking possession of them, shaping them, influencing them – 'the Kippenbergerisation of the world' as it was known. Every relocation was also a test: How much could a place take? Could he weave a web of connections there, could he find people who wanted the same things as him – 'something better'? How much could he take himself? Art was supposed to hurt. Life hurt, too.
So he was always on the move (although he never did have a driving license), but never went on holiday. 'Martin was always on duty', says Gisela Capitain. Wahrheit ist Arbeit – Truth is Work – another of his catalogues. When he went to Brazil, he didn't lie around on the beach, he later turned everything into art that he had seen there, that he had experienced and photographed. And again he exceeded the usual limits, breaking through the pain barrier. 'I can always tell, now we're getting to the stupid minutes, now the fun will stop. You have to get through that too. That's when you have to have spent three months in Brazil!' he tells Jutta Koether in an interview. 'Not just tick off two weeks and then say afterwards, I'd had the girl from Ipanema and her sister, too, and then it all became a bit too much of an effort, so I left again and . . . talk about "poor people" – "I've seen poor people!" That's all? That can't be all! You have to have real staying power! To experience the way that the greatest of pleasure and delights can flip into the opposite, and then to stay there!!'
He often lived in hotels for days, weeks, months on end, sometimes paying for his accommodation with pieces of art, as he did at the Chelsea in Cologne, as he often exchanged art for food and drink. 'Kippi can't even butter a piece of bread', Rudolf Augstein was once heard to say. But that was only half the truth. It was also easier to have someone else butter your bread, make your bed, clean the bath; then all you had to worry about was women and art. And it's nice when someone else butters your bread and puts a piece of sausage on it: that feeling of being looked after.
Große Wohnung, nie Zuhause is the telling title of one of the pictures that makes up the trilogy Berlin bei Nacht: not at home in the living room – out in the streets life is in full swing. And even when he did for once have a large apartment of his own, as he did in Cologne, at Friesenplatz, or in Frankfurt-Sachsenhausen, most of the time he was out and about. Bars, cafés, restaurants – even a bookshop – these were his living room, his office, his studio, his museum, his dining room, his salon. He didn't want to be at home on his own; bars provided him with a stage where he could make an appearance, and he could always be certain of meeting friends there. There was no distinction between his public and his private life, between life and art. 'I very clearly just sort of generally exist as a living vehicle.' And his art always involved contact with other people. The periods spent with his friend and fellow-artist Albert Oehlen, in Spain, in Austria, were amongst the happiest and most productive days of his life.
And he had a talent for being-at-home-anywhere. He would arrive somewhere – and he'd be fully there, instantly and as though it were the most natural thing in the world. He could work anywhere and in strange places he was never a stranger for long; he would already have identified his local and pub landlords and their families would take him in like a lost son. And he turned what he saw and experienced in bars into art. His home port was the Paris Bar in Berlin, owned by his friend Michel Würthle; a home, where his word mattered and which he had designed himself. On two separate occasions, a long time apart, he hung the pictures in the Paris Bar. A home for art: as was also Kippenberger's Büro, located on one floor of a factory in Berlin, where he lived in the late 1970s with Gisela Capitain and organised exhibitions and concerts. He put on his first Happening in the garden of our childhood, with live music and 150 guests.
Any form of routine was abhorrent to him; every exhibition project involved trying out something new. But he needed rituals, like drunkards need lamp posts – to hold on to. At twelve noon, 'on the absolute dot', the midday meal had to be on Mother Grässlin's table. In the afternoon he would have his nap, that was sacrosanct. At Christmas time he celebrated Christmas, with members of his own family or with elective relatives like the Grässlins in the Black Forest. And he would insist on the traditions we had known as children: turkey on Christmas Eve, a big fir tree, presents. . . He would even go to church. In fact he never left the Church. If there really was a Heaven, he wanted to get there, too. Not find himself standing outside a locked door when it came to it.
It wasn't the strange and unfamiliar, it was being alone that he was afraid of. He just couldn't stand it, someone always had to keep him company. And having a family meant you weren't alone. 'One Family – One Line' was his chosen inscription for our father's headstone, which he designed together with Hubert Kiecol. A few months after our father's death, in 1989, Martin's daughter was born, whom he named after our mother: Augusta Eleonore Helena. 'I wanted life to go on.' He had what he had been longing for, a family of his own. But he couldn't live the family life. So he moved on again.
He was an addict. Addicted to drugs and alcohol, to love, cigarettes and recognition. And the German süchtig (addicted) could hardly be closer to sehnsüchtig (filled with longing). He was both. And both come from suchen, 'to search', as he himself pointed out in his interview with Jutta Koether. 'Sucht', he declared, 'simply means searching'. Seek and ye shall find. 'I'm rejecting everything and searching for something decent.'
'Dieser Mann sucht eine Frau' [This man is looking for a wife] was the legend on a visiting-card-sized sticker with a photograph of Kippenberger and his address, which he put about all over Berlin in the 1970s. It was more than just a good joke. Many people underestimated this, didn't realize that there was always something deeply serious behind the irony. He was looking for a wife and a home, and in the end he found them. Perhaps he sensed that he was running out of time for looking. That now was the time for finding. For arriving. During the last year of his life, he was working on his last major piece, the Medusa series. Elfie photographed him in the poses that any victim of a shipwreck would adopt. He then painted himself in these attitudes. Poses between life and death, between despair and the hope of rescue. Of reaching dry land.
It wasn't enough for him to just live with Elfie, he wanted to marry her, he had to marry her, straight away. He was a romantic, a film-goer, a big fan of Hollywood. He wanted a Happy End.
The Happy End of Kafka's Amerika was his own chosen name for his masterpiece. He never actually finished the novel, he was too impatient for reading; he got someone else to tell him the story. He must have felt an affinity with Kafka's Karl: a boy whose parents sent him away from home, all alone to a strange place. A child of 16 who got the maid-servant pregnant and who never finished school. A humorous, optimistic boy, who believed in people, in their good side, and who – in the very first paragraph – discovers freedom, in the shape of the Statue of Liberty. And who soon realises how exhausting freedom is. Kafka's novel is also about going away, moving around, starting out anew tine after time – and ultimately it's also about arriving. About being allowed in. 'Everyone is welcome!' is the cry at the Theatre of Oklahoma, 'If you want to be an artist, join our company!' Again and again Karl reads this sentence: Everyone is welcome. So, he's welcome, too. Even if he is a little disappointed that he doesn't get the position he wants – he continually reminds himself that 'it was not so much a matter of the kind of work as of establishing oneself permanently somewhere'. And considering all those who had come to this theatre, Karl is all the more moved by 'how well they had been received and cared for'.
In his foreword to the book, Gespräche mit Martin Kippenberger, which accompanied the Kafka installation and with which he proposed to apply for a post interviewing job-applicants, he notes that in this work by Franz Kafka there is a prospect of a happy end. And at some point in his own book, he turns to Jutta Koether with the words, 'So let's get down to higher things now. Higher things will be very crucial. What we understand by love and affection and security. Is the collective term warmth?'