“Think today, done tomorrow”
Martin Kippenberger’s extravagant life
Welcome to the 99th issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Last time, I wrote that I was planning something special for this 100th issue . . . but it turns out I miscounted, lol. So here’s a normal issue on the German conceptual artist Martin Kippenberger.
In the next issue—the actual 100th!—I’m launching a special three-part series on creative blocks that I’m calling #blocktober. If you, like me, seem to be chronically blocked in your creative life—or, even better, if you’ve solved a longstanding block—please tell me about it over email or in the comments section below; your experiences will help inform my #blocktober dispatches.
Martin Kippenberger (1953–1997)
The motivating question behind my next book is pretty simple. Becoming a serious writer or artist or musician and paying the bills while doing it is hard—sometimes it seems impossible. How did anyone do it? I mean, really how did they do it?
One answer I keep running across: They did it by being a scoundrel! Martin Kippenberger is an excellent example: The late German artist alternately charmed and wore out everyone he met with his energy, his demands, his debts, his drinking, and his constant improvisatory assault on the project of being an artist. Ultimately, he wore himself out, too, dying of alcohol-related liver disease at 44. In that short time he was astonishingly prolific. His motto was “Think today, done tomorrow”—as soon as he had an idea for a new project, he executed it as fast as possible, often the very next day.
Another of Kippenberger’s favorite sayings was “Nicht sparen—Taxi fahren,” or: “Don’t save money—take a taxi.” This is according to the artist’s youngest sister, Susanne Kippenberger, who, after his death, wrote a fascinating biography, Kippenberger: The Artist and His Families, published in English in 2011. The artist’s relationship to money is a constant theme. According to Susanne,
Warnings were always turning up: from the tax office, from the printer’s. Money was always tight; his bank account was constantly overdrawn. He looked for jobs and had a special talent for “finding jobs where he didn’t have to work himself to death,” as [the artist] Jochen Krüger recalls. He painted three hundred windows for a health insurance company, licked envelopes, set up chairs, and signed up when the labor office needed “2 Men, strong” to load trucks for seven marks an hour. . . . Sometimes he said yes to two jobs at the same time, so he could call in sick to one and make twice as much money.
When Kippenberger’s mother died, in 1976, the artist was poised to receive an inheritance of “several hundred thousand marks.” Knowing his profligate ways, Kippenberger’s uncle was determined that he should receive the inheritance in installments rather than as a lump sum, but, Susanne writes, “in the end Martin got it all at once, and spent it all at once too.”
How did he get by after that? He did sell artwork but often didn’t make enough even to recoup the cost of making it. (Now his work sells at auction for eight figures.) He filled the gaps by borrowing money from friends and colleagues (and not repaying it), by bartering—according to Susanne, he once traded a series of paintings “for lifetime free food and drink for himself and a guest at the Paris Bar in Berlin”—and, when he was really in trouble, by gambling. His specialty was mau-mau, a card game similar to Uno. Susanne writes,
He played mau-mau to excess, with anyone and everyone, sometimes for days and nights on end. In Tokyo he taught a distinguished Japanese lady how to play; on an airplane flight to San Francisco he passed the time playing mau-mau with the artist Rosemarie Trockel and won seventeen drawings from her. Martin always wanted to win and usually did (and if he didn’t, look out: you had to keep playing with him until he came out ahead, no matter how long it took). No one was ever as much in practice as Martin, and no one cheated as much as he did, either.
Susanne adds that Kippenberger never had a credit card and “always paid from a thick wad of cash he had in his jacket pocket.” (When someone asked him why, he replied: “I’m on the run.”) As much as the lack of money caused problems—chiefly, by hampering his ability to fund new work—Kippenberger thought that having money was even worse for an artist. “It’s a kind of engine, this never having enough,” he said. “It’s probably from nature somewhere, and we have to work to live, you know? And when you suddenly do have money . . . me, I’d get lazy, and when I’m lazy, and don’t work, right away I get drunk.” Another of his favorite sayings was “Envy and greed, that’s what I need.”
I PROMISE YOUR MONEY WON’T MAKE ME LAZY
Readers! Though there are currently 184 of you supporting this newsletter with paid subscriptions—or 1.7% of the total readership—I’ve been thinking about it and, after careful deliberation, I’ve decided that if a few more of you decided to upgrade to paid, it would not make me lazy but would, instead, make me work even harder and feel incredibly grateful for your support!
NO SUCH THING AS NOT WORKING
According to his sister, Kippenberger worked pretty much all the time, though work for him meant not only painting, drawing, and planning exhibitions but also flirting, scheming, schmoozing, and boozing. “There was no such thing as not working, for Martin,” the curator Peter Pakesch said. Susanne Kippenberger relates the following anecdote:
One time, when the American artist Stephen Prina had spent the night at the Hotel Chelsea in Cologne and saw Martin coming down to breakfast the next morning, his only thought was, “Oh no! Here comes work!”
Kippenberger did have one restorative habit: He always took an afternoon nap. And he took annual vacations of a sort. According to Susanne, “Every year he went to a spa for several weeks, where he ate only dry bread and drank only fruit juice and water. Afterward he could plunge back into his excessive life.”
MAKING ART AND MAKING A LIVING
More tales from the archive:
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