KIPPENBERGER / OEHLEN FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION
By 1992, Kippenberger had reached artistic maturity. He was the subject of major exhibitions in prestigious museums, had experienced serious commercial success, and had participated in the Venice Biennale. However, the ribald nature of his dissident practice continued. Thus, although he took a teaching job at the Comprehensive University in Kassel, he refused to assume the role of Professor of Fine Arts and instead adopted the title of Professor of the Happy Kippenberger Class. His students were educated in his mischievous ways and joined his all-encompassing work as proto-collaborators and informal assistants. They hatched a dastardly plot to storm the Fredricanium, home of the quinquennial art festival documenta, accost its chief curator, Jan Hoet, and spring a ‘surprise interview’ upon him for their artistic journal, demanding to know why Kippenberger had not been invited to participate. Everything went to plan and they delighted at forcing the prestigious curator to join in their game. However, in revenge, Hoet went ahead and included Kippenberger on the official list of participants: “I was on the invitation card, in the catalogue, everywhere. So I made the poster and the postcard with the lamp” (Martin Kippenberger cited in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern, Martin Kippenberger, 2006, p. 62). The poster was Kippenberger’s tongue-in-cheek apology letter. It shows his immediately identifiable street lamp warped and replanted so that it is bowing in front of the museum with a single tear hanging from its lowered head. It is a personified pose of comedic contrition – the lamp is sad to be locked out of the museum on its own and sorry for its creator’s misdeeds. This sense is exacerbated when we notice that Kippenberger doctored the photograph so that the inscription on the entablature of the venerable art institution reads MELANCHOLIE rather than FREDRICANIUM. Copies of this exhibition poster, prominently featuring the present work, are held in the permanent collection at MoMA and Tate.
The street lamp in the present work is quite different to any Kippenberger had made up to that point. In form it seems to directly confront three of the most significant artists that were to be included in documenta IX: James Lee Byars, Alberto Giacometti, and Joseph Beuys. James Lee Byars was a conceptual artist famous for creating pedestals and pillars, often incorporating an extensive use of gold. One of his most famous works was The Golden Tower, first conceived in 1976, which consisted of a single round and perfectly gold column, executed in massive scale. By contrast, the present work was the first Golden lamp that Kippenberger had created, and seems to riff off Byars’ masterwork, bastardising its form, shrinking it down to human scale, and repurposing it to evoke such mundane ends as a street lamp. Alberto Giacometti was still viewed as a magical shaman of the Parisian art world some twenty years after his death. He had lived in squalor and created works that were marvelled at because of the atmosphere of existential awe that they engendered. Kippenberger couldn’t resist making fun of him: “Whenever I see good-looking artists, I feel drawn to them because I have the feeling the head perfectly matches the work… Giacometti was very good looking, his sculptures were very good looking, but I still feel there’s something missing” (Ibid., p. 64). The street lamps had always existed on one level as formal ripostes to Giacometti’s emaciated figures – he even made one that appeared to walk forward in the same wide stride as the famous Homme Qui Marche – and the presence of a lamp outside the Fredricanium whilst Giacometti’s work was exhibited inside was wholly intentional. Meanwhile, Joseph Beuys was an artist who Kippenberger had undermined, teased, and provoked since the beginning of his career. He made paintings of the elder artist’s mother, and came up with a witty riposte to the elevatory maxim at the heart of Beuys’ artistic concept. Where Beuys had famously said that “every human being is an artist”, Kippenberger took every opportunity to remind his audience that “every artist is a human being”. That Beuys was exhibited in documenta IX would have added huge fuel to Kippenberger’s derisory fire, and encouraged his act of conceptual dissidence further.
This sculpture is also linked to the legacy of the minimalist and conceptualist Walter de Maria, whose celebrated Vertical Earth Kilometer had been installed in the Friedrichplatz park since documenta VI in 1977. The work consisted of a one-kilometer-long brass rod, 5 cm in diameter, which had been drilled into the ground so that its top was exactly flush with the earth. For the photograph he took for the exhibition poster, Kippenberger installed his sardonic street lamp directly on top of the Earth Kilometer, so that it appears to the viewer in the know as if the brass rod has been yanked up out of the earth, and bent to the younger artist’s will. We don’t know whether Kippenberger is asserting his own place in an artistic tradition, physically continuing where de Maria left off and insisting that he belongs to the same prestigious lineage, or adopting de Maria’s voice and warping it into exaggerated tristesse, admonishing Jan Hoet and his academic cronies for failing to include him. Kippenberger not only aped the form of de Maria’s masterwork, but also purloined its conceptual trick. By publishing the poster long after he removed the work from this spot, Kippenberger ensured that nobody would see it by the time they got to documenta – even if they had been expecting it. In just the same way, when people had come to see de Maria’s work in 1977, all that was on show was a 5cm ring of brass in the soil of a park. With de Maria, they wondered: if they couldn’t really see it, was it really there. With Kippenberger, they couldn’t see any of it, and wondered if it was ever supposed to have been there.
This work is more than the glowing ember of a single artistic joke. First exhibited for real in a 1992 Max Hetzler group show that also included Jeff Koons's celebrated Bear and Policeman, it is best viewed as the apex of the lamp motif within Kippenberger’s career. The street lamp was central to Kippenberger’s practice. It had first appeared as early 1980, when he photographed himself arm in arm with a lantern looking out over the Tunisian sea. Already the lantern seemed personified – a character with whom Kippenberger could interact. In 1988, Kippenberger took a fateful trip to Spain with Albert Oehlen. It was the moment that Oehlen discovered abstraction, it was the moment that Kippenberger produced his celebrated underpants paintings, and it was also the moment upon which Kippenberger created his Street Lamp for Drunks – a normal lamp post which took a curvilinear aquiline form, at once a readymade lamppost for the viewer so drunk that they see everything askew and askance, and a visual parody of the aesthetic theory of the line of beauty. He made street lamps his trademark image, and made them in his own image: tall, slightly absurd, and perennially capable of the ‘lightbulb moment’. The present work is the triumphant pinnacle of Kippenberger’s engagement with the motif. The street lamp was this artist’s proxy and his muse; a quotidian object of abject mundanity that, in this work, was finally elevated and immortalised in the realms of high art.
In keeping with the very best of Kippenberger’s practice, this work is preclusive, engaging, and deeply layered in meaning. It remains hard to know whether Kippenberger had any desire to be truly accepted by the art world elite, or whether he was happy with his dissident role on the periphery. What is clear is that his ability to make works of engaging aesthetic and concept was unparalleled. Kippenberger was exhibited at documenta in the end but, like Giacometti, only posthumously, in 1997, in the same year as his untimely death from liver cancer at the age of 43. As he prophetically said: “In any case, people look at art with hindsight, and always from the outside, hardly ever in the moment it first appears. I’d say usually about twenty years afterward. People come along later and can say what the work and the artist were really all about. What people will say about me then, or maybe not say, will be the only thing that finally counts. Whether or not I contributed to spreading a good mood. What I’m working on is for people to be able to say that Kippenberger had this really good mood” (Martin Kippenberger in conversation with Jutta Koether in: Flash Art, April 2006, no. 247, online).
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale