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Martin Kippenberger Is Following Me

Apropos of the MoMA show on Martin Kippenberger (crazy German artist from the 1980s and '90s) and the write up by Holland Cotter in today's New York Times, indulge me in a little personal anecdote.

After college I spent a summer working as a cook's assistant in a Cologne hotel called the Chelsea. The owner, Werner Peters, was a big art collector, and every room had a signature work, many of them by his buddy Kippenberger (including a version of his famous "Communistin"). Toward the end of my stint I was chatting with Peters and he asked where I was going next. Austria, I said, to teach English in some tiny town. "Oh, I know the country pretty well," Peters said. "Which one?"

Jennersdorf, I said, about 2,000 people in the middle of nowhere. "Jennersdorf!" he said. "Martin Kippenberger is buried in Jennersdorf!" Turns out Kippenberger's wife, the photographer Elfie Semotan, grew up nearby, and Kippenberger had retreated there near the end of his bout with cancer (or cirrhosis, no one's sure), from which he died in 1997.

When I got settled in town, I went to find his grave. He was a big, expansive artist, working in all sorts of media and leading a typically too-fast-too-furious 1980s artist life. And yet the cemetery attendant had no idea where he was buried. I spent an hour looking; eventually I found it, a simple wooden cross amid acres of marble and granite. In fact, the only person in town I could find who knew him (Semotan wasn't living there at the time) was the town hotelier. Kippenberger, he said, would occasionally pay for meals at the hotel restaurant with artwork, and he had left an enormous canvas to the Hotel Raffel.

There's a coda, too. After Austria I moved to Chicago. One day I was passing the University of Chicago's Smartt Museum of Art, and I saw it was holding a Kippenberger exhibit. The guy produced so much art that a Kippenberger exhibit is actually not an uncommon event. But the subject caught my eye: During his travels he had collected and drawn on hotel stationery from around the world. An entire wall of the show was taken up by pictures drawn on Hotel Chelsea stationery--including a draft of "Communistin." 

--Clay Risen