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Martin Kippenberger, ‘Untitled’ (from the series Lieber Maler, Male Mir/’Dear Painter, Paint for Me’), 1981

Tate Modern presents Martin Kippenberger as ‘nomad’, ‘prodigious wit’ and ‘flamboyant performer’. This retrospective, curated by Jessica Morgan and Doris Krystof, pulls together a prolific body of work, produced between the mid-1970s and Kippenberger’s death, aged 44, in 1997. Morgan and Krystof play down the alcoholism that no doubt hastened the artist’s untimely demise and embrace Kippenberger as an idiosyncratic traveller and black-humoured jokesmith. His signal poster works hang together on the café wall outside the gallery, many of them featuring the leering, brilliantly inane artist himself.

Another image of the artist dominates the first room of the exhibition: depicted as a tourist, louche in a smart suit on an abandoned sofa at a New York City street corner. This image, like others in the room, has been painted according to the artist’s instructions by a sign painter, ‘Mr Werner’, under the 1981 series heading Lieber Maler, Male Mir (‘Dear Painter, Paint for Me’). Mr Werner appears again in the next room, depicted this time as a line of Styrofoam in a small painting entitled ‘Werner, ein Stolzer Wurm’ (‘Werner, a Proud Worm’).

The show takes its lead from many exhibitions presented during Kippenberger’s lifetime. In the exhibition guide we see an installation view of ‘Candidature à une Retrospective’ Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1993) where the artist displayed a glass vitrine of printed matter that formed an integral part of his art practice. The contents of a similar vitrine at Tate Modern focus mainly on Kippenberger’s publications, offering glimpses of many covers and occasional interior spreads.

There is also one laminated press clipping taken from the Daily Mirror in 1992, announcing his first solo exhibition in the UK and questioning the value of his work. Included in the mocking commentary is a description of a framed piece of plasterboard accompanied, the journalist exclaims, by ‘a tape recording of people making pigeon noises: “Coo!”’ This artist/tourist theme is picked up throughout the exhibition, for instance in drawings on hotel notepaper. ‘Do it yourself’ is inscribed across a portrait, perhaps a self-portrait, of a man with a refined expression on his face, hammering away at two nails, one into each of his nostrils.

His commentary on his own country is more quietly indicated from his nod towards the ‘Sympathische Kommunistin’ (‘Likeable Communist Woman’), 1983 to sculptures from the series Martin, into the Corner, You Should be Ashamed of Yourself 1989, apparently a response to an attack by the German critic Wolfgang Max Faust on Kippenberger’s drunken, misogynistic ways and an accusation of dubious politics. It was probably instigated by Kippenberger’s painting (designed to query his nation’s then reluctance to examine its own history), ‘With the Best Will in the World I Can’t See a Swastika’ 1984.

For his phenomenal installation, ‘The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s Amerika ’, Kippenberger conjures a scene for Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika . Before Kafka abandoned the book (published posthumously in 1927) its protagonist Karl Rossman had travelled across America and applied for a job at the ‘biggest theatre in the world’, ‘Whoever wants to become an artist should sign up.’

Kippenberger’s installation presents a vast, circus-like arena of interview tables, adorned and inhabited in oddly touching and bizarre ways. A giant table in the shape of a fried egg dominates one area, two chairs on a merry-go-round-style belt encircle it, umpire seats oversee the room, two African figures face each other across a stack of chipboard, two child seats sit either side of a cabinet with a large drum installed on the top.

Leaving Kippenberger’s ‘masterwork’ behind, one passes through the final room ‘Heavy Burshi’ (‘Heavy Guy’) 1991, where more paintings fill the walls, leaning up in places. It gives the impression of a room that’s half exhibition, half storage room. On closer examination these are photographs of paintings (the originals painted by Kippenberger’s assistant were discarded). Thus the artist’s comment on the abandoned project is continued, incidentally ramming home the fact that this is a glimpse of a career that was surely only, forming questions in the mind of what direction Kippenberger’s observations might have taken in the future, on his country, his peers, his creativity and his ageing self.

Caroline Woodley is a writer and publisher living in London