Swizzle Shtick

By Jones, Ronald | Artforum International, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Swizzle Shtick


Jones, Ronald, Artforum International


Martin Kippenberger's magic always cast a powerful spell over his audience, sometimes literally putting them under the influence. Not so long ago I invited him to visit the Yale School of Art, and with extravagant melodrama he struggled through the early-morning commute to New Haven. Immediately on arrival he scuttled his scheduled lecture by ambushing the students with a cheering invitation to head straight for Yale's favorite bar. At the Anchor, they ate from the breakfast menu and got all liquored up. He held forth, judging the quick and the dead in the art world; opinions were refueled with every round of margaritas. Huddled in the Anchor's cramped booths the students must have been positively charmed, or at least entertained; they stayed on past noon, cutting classes to drink lunch with Martin. It was after two when the entire staggering herd returned to the sculpture department, and with a considerable cache of beer in tow. The Visiting Artist would not be making his round of afternoon studio visits this day.

Listing only slightly, but in full possession of his intoxicating splendor, he eased himself into an old avocado and orange recliner and proceeded to hold court before all those he had singlehandedly converted to boozing at breakfast. There was a lull in the boisterous conversation as fresh beers were cracked before snaking their way, hand to hand, through the room. In advance of everyone taking their first swig Martin's eyes danced with inspiration: he would sponsor a drawing contest! Standing to announce the tournament his marvelous imagination and tweaked sense of humor flared: The artist who could make the most convincing drawing of Frank Sinatra would win a portrait of themselves drawn by none other than Martin himself. Among his audience were those who were still young enough to have difficulty conjuring the crooner's precise features. Gripped pencils, tongues stuck straight out the side of mouths - the competition to render Old Blue Eyes was underway. It was a furious contest - that is, as fierce as this gaggle of drunks could manage.

In the end, of course, Martin couldn't decide on the quality of any single drawing above the others. "You are all just too talented," he declared. And then he showed his hand, insisting that he was now obliged to make individual portraits of every student. No dissent was brooked. As he began to draw, intimate conversations would grow up around the artist and his subject. During these ad hoc studio visits Martin summoned a steady level of affection, aspiration, and spirit the alcohol had not touched. His teaching style, unfolding on his own terms, was uncanny and quite literally sobering. The late day passed easily into early evening as Martin finished the last portrait. On the train back to New York, there would be no stormy, drunken snoring. 'Martin slept like a big baby, a gentle smile graced his face. It had been a perfect day.

Last February, Martin reached me in New York; he was by then seriously iii with cancer and wished to hear from me. He had taken up residence in a Viennese hospital. Faxes would be. best. I wrote out the bear joke that had been his favorite, the pig joke that came in second, and recalled those lovable Sinatra drawings and that warm drunken New Haven afternoon, his appearance with a surprise guest, Werner Heisenberg's granddaughter, at a dinner party I once gave in his honor, and other late evenings that always gave way to early mornings from Los Angeles to Berlin. In complete denial I told him to get well, and then assured him how frightfully boring New York had become. He never responded to my hospital faxes, and because Martin always responded, I knew that the illness was carrying him toward the end. A few days later, on March 8, I arrived in Europe, unaware that he had died while I slept on a plane crossing the Atlantic. At breakfast in my hotel, glancing through the Herald Tribune, I learned that there would be no more perfect days. …

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