Martin Kippenberger - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 7, 2024 | Phillips

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  • “The artist’s cross – that is to say, the cross the artist has to bear – is not meant in a blasphemous sense, let alone as a sacrificial image. On the contrary, the artist’s cross is the challenging dialectic of give and take, bearable only with irony,”
    —Manfred Hermes

    An infamous and irreverent provocateur, throughout his career Martin Kippenberger earned himself a reputation alongside friend and frequent collaborator Albert Oehlen for their iconoclastic and incendiary approach to art and artmaking. Created towards the end of the artist’s short life, Zuerst die Füße (Feet First) belongs to one of the artist’s most controversial bodies of work and has continued to be the subject of emotionally charged debate long after his premature death in 1997. Drawing immediate and shocking parallels to images of Christ on the cross in both thematic and material terms, the work features a traditionally carved wooden frog, dressed in lederhosen and complete with bulging belly and comically rolling eyes and tongue. In place of more traditional symbols of the Passion of Christ, Kippenberger creates his own iconography, the frog shown here with a stein of beer in one hand and a fried egg in the other, two further eggs hanging wittily from his pelvis. 


    Deeply controversial, even in the years following Kippenberger’s death the work has retained the capacity to shock. When one example was exhibited at the Museion in Bolzano in 2008, the president of the predominantly Catholic region was so horrified that he embarked on a hunger strike and demanded its removal, catching the attention of Pope Benedict XVI who released a statement of support condemning the work which so ‘wounds the religious sentiments of so many people who see in the cross the symbol of God’s love.’i And yet, in its pathos and conceptual underpinnings, the work offers a much more complex meditation on Kippenberger’s own sense of his identity as an artist,  Zuerst die Füße (Feet First) and the broader Fred the Frog series to which it belongs exemplifying the intersections of art and life that best define his expansive practice. 



    Martin Kippenberger, 1991. Image: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

     Fred the Frog 


    Over the course of his career and across a staggering range of disciplines, Kippenberger developed a mode of self-portraiture which utilised ‘displacement and impersonation’, deploying a ‘colossally self-conscious projection of alternately ecstatic or abject types that [the artist] mimes rather than fully embodies.’ii Instead of offering up some hidden truth or authentic version of the self, Kippenberger playfully critiques the very notion that such a self exists, undercutting both the genre’s long history, and the intellectual weight and seriousness that had dominated the work of so many German artists working in the immediate wake of the Second World War. Coming of age in the 1970s, as punk was blurring the lines between art, music, and life with its raw and confrontational energy, Kippenberger quickly emerged as a fixture of this underground scene, a mercurial actor, artist, and musician who made his medium himself.    


    Following a series of paintings in which the artist appears in his underwear, adopting the persona of modernist master Pablo Picasso as recorded in a series of photographs by David Douglas Duncan, Kippenberger first embarked on his Fred the Frog series in 1989 during a period spent in Los Angeles. In what would prove to be his most important and controversial body of work the artist adopts the persona of the frog, often depicted in a state of crucifixion and brandishing an egg and beer stein. Like the frog itself, the egg proved to be an enigmatic and potent symbol for Kippenberger; traditionally embodying ideas about rebirth, fertility, and closely associated with the resurrection of Christ, under Kippenberger’s treatment it becomes a parodic and absurdist statement of the reproductive and creative energies of the heroic artist figure.     


    [Left] Martin Kippenberger, Untitled from the series Fred the frog, 1988, Galeria Juana de Aizpuru, Madrid. Image: 
    Album/Scala, Florence, Artwork: © Estate of Martin Kippenberger, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne
    [Right] Martin Kippenberger, Ohne Titel, 1990, presented concurrently in Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale


    The earliest of these works - and the only one not made in the United States – makes these connections explicit, Kippenberger’s own name emblazoned across the upper section of the composition behind the crucified figure and egg motifs repeated in Zuerst die Füße (Feet First). An even earlier photograph of the artist draped across a wooden easel further compounds the self-representational aspects of the present work, the easel batons echoed in the cruciform elements here. Featured in Kippenberger’s artist’s book Fred the frog rings the bell once a penny two a penny hot cross buns where reproductions of his paintings were interspersed with nursery rhymes, these earlier projects anticipate the juxtaposition of the fanciful with the macabre at play in Zuerst die Füße (Feet First)


    For the protean and shape-shifting artist, the frog must have presented Kippenberger with an irresistibly comic alter-ego. In its distinct life cycle the frog moves through several states of metamorphosis from frog spawn, tadpole, to frog, while their fairy-tale personas allow for the even more radical transformation of abject amphibian to Prince Charming. Aligning the frog with the martyrdom of Christ, Kippenberger evokes the myth of the suffering, misunderstood artist, only to deflate its more earnest evocations. 


    In its punk spirit and deeper contemplation of themes related to life, death, Christian iconography, and the artist-as-infant terrible, Kippenberger’s Zuerst die Füße (Feet First) and the broader Fred the Frog series to which it belongs stand as important antecedents of the rowdy antics of a new generation of artists just coming into their stride in the early 1990s, notably the so-called ‘Young British Artists’ such as Chirs Ofili, Tracey Emin, and Damien Hirst. For Hirst especially, the appropriation of religious iconography has proven to be an important touchstone across his practice, allowing him to explore central themes of faith, mortality, the relationship between art and science, and the role of the artist in society. Brutally visceral and deeply shocking, as Hirst developed his formaldehyde sculptures, he began to incorporate more overt references to religious themes, culminating in a group of works that adopt the imagery of the Passion of Christ through the presentation of flayed and crucified sheep and calf carcasses.  


    Damien Hirst, God Knows Why, 2005. Image/Artwork:  © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd


    Carved in the Austrian Tyrol by traditional ‘Herrgott carvers’ that Kippenberger was first introduced to by the Innsbruck collector and businessman Jordan Widauer, Zuerst die Füße (Feet First) is a unique work from this important series, combining cultural symbols and personal iconography to powerful effect. In both the figure of the frog and the objects that Kippenberger has awarded him with here Zuerst die Füße (Feet First) elevates transformation and metamorphosis as the defining attributes of the artist who is, as Kippenberger often reminded us, only human. The present work has been included in several notable exhibitions, including a 2005 presentation of his self-portraits at Luhring Augustine in New York, and the major touring retrospective Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective, organised by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and The Museum of Modern Art in New York. 


    Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective, The Museum of Modern Art, 2009, featuring the present work. 


    Collector’s Digest 


    • Among artists like Georg Herold and Albert Oehlen who emerged from German art schools in the wake of the Tendenzwende, or change of socio-political tendency in the 1970s, Martin Kippenberger’s work is characterised by a rebellious punk spirit and conceptual wit. Over his brief yet prodigious career, Kippenberger repeatedly challenged the status-quo through installations, sculpture, painting, and performance.

    • Since his untimely death at the age of 44, Martin Kippenberger has been celebrated through significant solo exhibitions internationally including his major retrospective at the Tate Modern, London in 2006. More recently, in honour of what would have been the artist’s 70th birthday on the 25 February, Skarstedt staged an exhibition in New York of Kippenberger’s paintings from 9 March to 6 May 2023. 

    • The present work belongs to Kippenberger’s significant Fred the Frog series, in which the artist adopts the beer-drinking frog as an alter-ego to explore ideas related to the identity of the artist and his role in society. 


    Pope Benedict XVI, quoted in Haroon Siddique, ‘Pope labels crucified frog sculpture blasphemous’, The Guardian, 28 August 2008, online

    ii  Robert Storr, ‘He Who Gets Slapped’, in Martin Kippenberger: Self-Portraits, (exh. cat.), Luhring Augustine, New York, 220, p.15.

    • Provenance

      Galerie Johann Widauer, Innsbruck
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Vienna, Jänner Galerie, Hotel Hotel zum Letzten, November-December 1990 (other examples exhibited)
      Ystad, Konstmuseum, Martin Kippenberger in Tirol, Sammlung Widauer, 16 September-12 November 2000, pp. 79, 99, 117 (installation view illustrated, pp. 79, 117; illustrated, pp. 99)
      New York, Luhring Augustine, Martin Kippenberger–Self-Portraits, 5 March-30 April 2005, pp. 50-51, 71 (illustrated, p. 51)
      Bolzano, Museion Museum für zeitgenössische Kunst, Peripherer Blick und kollektiver Körper, 24 May-21 September 2008, p. 200 (another example exhibited and illustrated)
      Geneva, BFAS Blondeau Fine Art Services, Political Corect, 18 September-25 October 2008 (another example exhibited)
      Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art; New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective, 21 September 2008-11 May 2009, pp. 345, 350 (illustrated, p. 350)
      Berlin, Museum für Gegenwart; Hamburger Bahnhof, Die Kunst ist super, 5 September 2009-14 February 2010 (another example exhibited)
      Berlin, Museum für Gegenwart; Hamburger Bahnhof, Martin Kippenberger: sehr gut | very good, 23 February-18 August 2013 (another example exhibited)
      Paris, Cahiers d’Art, Martin Kippenberger, 3 March-6 June 2015 (another example exhibited)
      Vienna, Bank Austria Kunstforum Wien, Martin Kippenberger: XYZ, 8 September-27 November 2016, no. 39, pp. 183, 306 (another example exhibited and illustrated, p. 183; installation view illustrated, p. 306)

    • Literature

      Karola Grässlin, ed., Catalogue Raisonné: Kippenberger Multiples, exh cat., Kunstverein Braunschweig; Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen, 2003, no. 37, pp. 74-75 (other examples illustrated)
      Manfred Hermes, Martin Kippenberger, Cologne, 2005, pp. 110-111, 159 (another example illustrated)
      Peter Popham, ‘The frog stays, whatever Pope thinks’, The New Zealand Herald, 29 August 2008 (another example illustrated, online)
      Julie Bloom, ‘Crucified-Frog Sculpture Troubles the Pope’, The New York Times, 28 August 2008 (online)
      Tim Ackermann, ‘Frosch sei Dank: Kunst kann doch noch provozieren’, Welt am Sonntag, 31 August 2008, online
      Martin Kippenberger Eggman II, exh. cat., Skarstedt Gallery, New York, 2011, fig. 2, p. 3 (another example illustrated)


Zuerst die Füße (Feet First)

indistinctly signed and dated ‘Kippenberger 91’ upper centre
wood, automobile lacquer and steel nails
130 x 100 x 22 cm (51 1/8 x 39 3/8 x 8 5/8 in.)
Executed in 1991, this work is from a series of 5 unique variants plus 2 artist’s proofs.

Full Cataloguing

£500,000 - 700,000 ‡♠

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099


20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 7 March 2024