Executed in 1995 Untitled is utterly idiosyncratic of Martin Kippenberger’s iconic, spirited style. Composed over four connected canvases, the present work depicts a boisterous scene, which completely immerses the viewer in the background chatter of a bar with a striking self-portrait placed in the lower centre of the composition. This close-up, which is surrounded by a bustling crowd, is reminiscent of a film still and gives the painting an overwhelmingly cinematic feel. Indeed, Untitled echoes Kippenberger’s iconic Paris Bar from 1991 but innovatively inverts and plays with the subject. Compared to the empty and almost photorealist Paris Bar, in the present work, the twisted figures and vibrant colours create an unreal scene with a completely different tone and atmosphere.
In the early 1990s, Kippenberger founded an anti-museum on the Greek island of Syros: the MOMAS. This museum did not have walls, nor a collection and hardly any budget. Kippenberger wasn’t trying to cater to a large audience but rather to formulate an ironic critique of institutions, a venture that would reflect his satiric take on what constitutes a museum. He would carefully replicate all the formal tenets of an actual institution, creating invitations, posters and opening receptions to shows that did not exist. Indeed, the title of the present work refers to this transgressive moment in Kippenberger’s career when he created these fictional exhibitions until 1996.
Employing a quadripartite composition, Kippenberger uses geometric shapes in soft blue, green, orange and lilac in the background to divide each canvas into several rectangles of various shades. The picture however extends over the whole assemblage, and each figure that spans over different parts is depicted in different manners, whether through a change of colour or by drawing method. In acknowledging this divide with a shift of technique, Kippenberger shows a refined interaction between medium and representation, while serving his purpose of creating a turbulent scene. Playfully using scale and cropping, Kippenberger exaggerates the size differences between the characters. Focusing on the perceived energy of each rather than on any attempt at naturalism, as exemplified by the oversized bartender, he creates a deeply introspective narrative in contrast with the cheerful background. Beyond the mere depiction of disorder in this painting, the pictorial choices deeply relate to the artist’s struggle with alcohol and mind-altering substances, which led to his untimely death in 1997.
At the very heart of the present work is Kippenberger’s own face, portrayed with an anxious expression. The clown seated at a table at the top left quadrant could be seen as a second self-portrait within the painting given how often Kippenberger has been called a clown, especially in the nineties at the apex of his extravagance. His strong self-mocking sense of humour as well as his anti-academic attitude are embodied in a sentence covering his chin: “OK who’s the clown passing the rubber monney?” [sic]. In this work, he also pays homage to one of his most rewarding friendships and collaborations: his relationship with Albert Oehlen. A poster pinned on the wall reads ‘The Alma Band’, referring to the experimental music band that Kippenberger and Oehlen started in the 1980s. The title of the band was formed from a combination of the first two letters of each artist’s name, and played in various museums and even released two records together. This reference quietly showcases how intertwined Kippenberger’s diverse activities were. Untitled perfectly summates Kippenberger’s internal world, his struggles but also his friendships, and elegantly demonstrates his humorous take on art; an honest but intriguing self-portrait, a mirror of his singular character.
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