What secrets about his art did Martin Kippenberger, who put the terrible in the enfant, and whom Roberta Smith dubbed “one of the most talented” of his generation, take with him to the grave? Kippenberger died prematurely of liver cancer at the young age of 44 in 1997. He was a rascal, “a clown” according to the Viennese gallerist Peter Pakesch, a king of the inside joke with a zeal for life as colorful and far-reaching as his oeuvre. His play on words in the elongated painting Upside Down And Turning Me from 1989 must be viewed, as Kippenberger would prefer, from a comedic standpoint.
Painted on a panel that looks as if it were torn off the top of a makeshift coffin, the work brings to mind the time-worn idiom, turn in one’s grave, or rolling in one’s grave. Was death on his mind after a night out of heavy drinking the way he often thought about painting’s demise and the heavy burden he felt to create something original and authentic? Was he putting his early request in to be buried face down? His use of the highly toxic lead element in its creation only furthers the death-pun hypothesis. The lead conveying life’s dead weight. Or life’s heaviness. We are left to conjecture only. But this much is certain: Kippenberger saw the writing on the wall. And it ended way too soon. — de la Haba