Prepare for the chaos

    Not while he was alive, at least. Now that he’s dead, of course, the rules of appreciation have changed. The market has sniffed him out, and a thunderous Kippenberger bandwagon is indeed careering through the middle of the art world. All sorts of unlikely defenders have jumped onto it to announce that he was the best German thing since pumpernickel squares, or even Joseph Beuys. You can’t open an art mag without encountering a Kippenberger review.

    The damn guy is everywhere. And for what I believe is the first time ever, the Tate finds itself in complete accord on a subject with the maverick art speculator Charles Saatchi, who has been frantically buying up Kippenbergers as if they were postage stamps at Christmas. Saatchi and the Tate are invariably on opposite sides in matters of taste, but in the case of Kippenberger, they are bidding as one. Now that is interesting.

    The Tate show is a sort of retrospective that follows a rough chronology. It has to be rough, because Kippenberger didn’t really do progress in the traditional sense. Strictly speaking, his career began in the late 1970s and ended 20 years later, when the liver cancer got him. But from the first moments of this display to the last, it’s clear that he was neither tortoise nor hare, but rather a jumping jack that went sideways and backwards in preference to forwards.

    The opening room has paintings in it, but soon we get sculptures, books, installations, projections, posters, drawings and, eventually, the kitchen sink itself: a full-size indoor football pitch, crowded onto which are 40 types of table and 80 sorts of chair. The Tate, naturally, tries to correct the chaotic first impression made by all this stuff by appending a mountain of explanatory bumf to it, filled with complex attempts to claim a true sense of purpose for Kippenberger. But the evidence before your eyes reveals a career worked out by a pinball machine.

    Thus, the paintings in the opening room are of Kippenberger — they show him staggering through the streets of Düsseldorf on a pub crawl with a drinking buddy, or slumped in a discarded settee on a squalid New York street corner — but they are not by Kippenberger. In 1981, he hired a German sign painter called Werner to work up these pictures from a set of photos he supplied. It’s a typical Kippenberger gesture, a wilful prankster’s act that, it says here, was intent on puncturing the aura of false sanctity that had grown up around fashionable German painting at the time: this was the era of Kiefer, Baselitz, Immendorf et al. So we know immediately what Kippenberger was against: he was against everyone else. A harder task is to discern what he was for.

    The Tate plays down his alcoholism and seeks, rather ludicrously, to understand his chaotic progress without considering his drinking. Lots of good artists have been drunks — Soutine, Frans Hals, Pollock, Guston, Toulouse-Lautrec — and they share a set of characteristics with Kippenberger. All of them painted quickly and furiously, because that’s how drunks paint. None of them thought conventionally, or behaved conventionally, because booze gives you the strength to be different. It also isolates you and leaves you prone to bouts of painful introspection on the morning after: see the pictures here of a porky Kippenberger in baggy white underpants, staring forlornly at himself. Above all, booze steals your patience and replaces it with instant bouts of confidence. Which is why this show skips madly from style to style, idea to idea, material to material.

    Only one legible trajectory is discernible: the descent into pessimism that must inevitably accompany a life like this. The final room contains another set of paintings that weren’t painted by Kippenberger, only this time they are not even actual paintings he didn’t do, but photographs of them. The paintings themselves have been trashed and thrown into a skip in the middle of the gallery. So, what began as a witty conceptual poke at the pretensions of the fashionable German painters of the time has ended up as a dark and destructive act of nihilism directed at painting itself.

    The other shaping characteristic that holds the chaos together is Kippenberger’s aggressive Germanness. A Polish eyewitness who pops up in the Tate magazine with the observation that every work of Kippenberger’s seems to shout “F*** off, I’m German!” is surely spot-on. This whole event has an air of Teutonic abrasiveness to it, and feels as if it has it in for American aesthetics in general and Jeff Koons in particular: for the slick, the soft, the poppy.

    The aforementioned kitchen-sink piece with all the tables and chairs in it is actually called The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s Amerika, and I read here that this football-pitch-sized whopper is “considered to be Kippenberger’s masterwork”. It was inspired by a second-hand account of Kafka’s last, unfinished novel that Kippenberger heard from a friend: how typical of him not to bother reading Amerika himself. Kafka’s strange book tells the story of a 16-year-old boy, Karl Rossman, who is sent to America by his parents after a servant girl seduces him, and who spends the entire novel careering about the American experience in what we might call a chaotic, Kippenberger-ish fashion.

    Amerika culminates in an episode in which Rossman applies for a job at “the biggest theatre in the world”, which, I seem to recall, was set in Oklahoma. So, all those tables and chairs that Kippenberger shows us — big, small, metal, wooden, old, new — are attempting to evoke the atmosphere of a mass job interview: American employment in the style of the Nuremberg rallies.

    I’ve seen photographs of the Kafka piece installed dramatically in museum spaces around the world, but at the Tate it occupies its characterless white room somewhat inertly. Bits of it are horribly fascinating: see the mad merry-go-round in which two electric chairs whirl around a giant fried egg. But the good parts don’t add up to a mighty sum, and as a whole the piece rambles disappointingly. The Tate’s attempt to turn Kippenberger into a modern art giant is thus lumbered with a knockout ending that doesn’t achieve a knockout.

    What the show does prove, however, is that Charles Saatchi is more right about Kippenberger than the Tate is. Saatchi has concentrated his collecting energy on Kippenberger’s paintings, and it is as a painter that Kippenberger achieves most here. The startling images of the middle-aged artist in his baggy white underpants have tons of that fiercely poignant squalor to them that you get with Philip Guston. They’re rakingly honest. The best room in the show contains an extraordinary range of paintings from all points of Kippenberger’s career. Each picture is entirely different from the one before. There are self-portraits, bits of social satire, burps of surrealism. But all are painted on the same size of canvas, and this simple controlling mechanism gives them just enough sense of coherence for all the mad inventiveness, the creative shooting hither and thither that is the Kippenberger method, to result in something superb.

    What a sweet irony it is that a process that begins with Kippenberger taking a pop at others leads eventually to him finding himself.