The following article is from our June 2006 issue.

A Disturbing Force in Art. Düsseldorf exhibits the lifework of Martin Kippenberger. By Stefan Lüddemann

"Generous and indiscrete, depraved and loyal," was the way fellow artist Werner Büttner described the man who wished he could be part of the "good mood world," but who instead plunged the world of art into creative chaos - and not just that world. The Düsseldorf Art Collection of North Rhine-Westphalia, "K21," now presents the great work of Martin Kippenberger.

Martin Kippenberger has always been as provocative as possible. In 1983, while the Cold War still raged, he painted the "Sympathische Kommunistin" ("Likeable Communist"), depicting a friendly girl wearing a hat bearing a red Soviet star. He carefully juxtaposed rectangular bars in the German federal colors of black, red and gold and called it "Ich kann beim besten Willen kein Hakenkreuz entdecken" ("No matter how hard I try, I can't find a swastika"). It was a piercing allusion to the difficult relationship Germans have with their National Socialist past.

Nor did the mythology of certain artists stop him. His sculptures entitled "Familie Hunger" ("Hunger Family") sport holes for stomachs - a crass social criticism and a practical mockery of the sculptor Henry Moore, who used hollowed spaces in his objects.

As for Kippenberger himself, in 1988 he presented a sarcastic dual self-portrait - half of which is a photographic representation of his visage, the other half a skeleton. It could hardly have been more brutal.

It borders on exaggeration to describe Kippenberger, who died from alcoholism in 1997 at age 44, as an "enfant terrible." Kippenberger was much more than that. He was a painter and installation artist, a punk musician and self-promoter, but above all a bitter commentator on the art world and an amiable architect of the latest artistic approaches.

His life's work is impossible to categorize into clearly distinct styles and phases, but rather confuses and fascinates as an excessive offer of projects and products that has always impressed the museum crowd. Immediately before his death in March 1997, the 10th Documenta in Kassel and the Venice Biennale both dedicated spectacular shows to Kippenberger. In 2003, the Karlsruhe Center for Art and Media exhibited an overview of his work. Now the Düsseldorf art collection in North Rhine-Westphalia, "K21," is showing the most extensive collection to date. The show recently completed its initial run at London's Tate Modern gallery.

"Kippenberger assumes a prominent position in contemporary art," says Doris Krystof, curator for the Düsseldorf museum. She also handled the exhibition in London. An art historian, she takes Kippenberger to be especially current because he radically broke with the mythos of the avant-garde. "He ceased hunting for the ultimate truth and instead turned everything he did directly into art," she said. Between punk and postmodernism, the artist created "a jungle of signs" as a reaction to an increasingly complex media landscape.

But who was this man, who Krystof describes as "wild and completely untamed?" Kippenberger's life story generally begins in a very typical way. In 1953, he was born the son of a mine operator and a dermatologist in Dortmund. This was followed by school, dancing lessons and his first attempts at art. But Kippenberger soon broke out. He quit school in 1968. His attempt to become a decorator was cut short as a consequence of his drug consumption. He did, however, manage to study at the University for Fine Arts in Hamburg. In 1976, he conducted his first experiments on himself in Florence, Italy: Kippenberger decided to become an actor.

In subsequent years, he changed more than just artistic styles and places of residence like the proverbial changing of a shirt. His curriculum vitae became a litany of one-upsmanship against himself. In Berlin, he founded "Kippenberg's Büro" ("Kippenberg's Office"). He attempted to become a writer in Paris in 1980, then moved to the Black Forest. He traveled to Siena, suddenly reappeared in Cologne, moved to Spain, and then at the end of the eighties he moved to Los Angeles. On the American West Coast, he painted his "Latex Pictures."

The U.S., however, did not make the artist happy. In the 1990s, Kippenberger remained himself - explosively creative, albeit erratic. He is a disturbing force in contemporary art.

In the exhibition, Krystof attempts to take a body of work that is difficult to get a good overview of, which consistently surprises the observer with its new approaches and processes, and to make it more accessible from within the context of a larger project. For just this purpose, the curator selected "The Happy End of Kafka's 'Amerika.'" The huge 66 by 36 foot installation created in 1994 is comprised of 50 chairs and tables, which are set on a green playing field as if to serve as interviewing stations. In this way, Kippenberger visually pursues a fragment of Kafka's novel, which ends with the vision of a mass interviewing process.

The artist uses the installation to bring together what otherwise would lead to a separated existence: sculptural forms and lively communication, references to literature and human questions of the future, such as those pertaining to work and universal income security.

The curator has grouped about 200 works and groups of works around this installation; Kippenberger never considered any of his artistic solutions to be wholly valid. "He was not to be corrupted, and always presented a very meticulous stance," said Krystof about the artist who managed to bring some of the tragedy of contemporary existence to the forefront - the compulsion toward increasingly rapid innovation, constant self-discovery as a means to confront inner emptiness, and the inability to stay centered and really find oneself.

Kippenberger's works are no easy fare for the observer, but they always assure new discoveries. The approach has managed to consistently keep Kippenberger's art in tune with contemporary developments.

- Stefan Lüddemann heads the culture section of the daily newspaper Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung.