The famous German adventure and travel writer Karl May once described the palm tree as a necessity. A necessity because of its characteristic nature, a stable symbol of the exotic and far away, but also a paradox because, as May states in his poem Die Palmen (The Palms, 1898), ‘everybody in Saxony knows that no tree could ever blossom in the desert.’
Not dissimilarly, Friedrich Kuhn also adopted the palm tree into his repertoire, repeating it over and again as a representation of the exotic, but much more than that: as his trademark, his signature – a logo relieved from the burden of authenticity. Both May and Kuhn shared a fascination with distant lands, despite not having travelled much themselves. Kuhn’s work, although well known in Zurich and Bern, has not had much reach beyond. His eccentric existence until his death in 1972 was that of a local curiosity. He satisfied the cliché of the capricious artist sustained and nourished by the gossip and anecdotes of the local community. Accompanied by an entourage of curious figures, such as a devoted butler and chauffeur, he lived a life that actively built up and propelled a complex and self-fabricated personal mythology. He chose an existence distant from the international art scene and trends and developments found their way to his work only slowly and diffusely, filtered by rumours and hearsay.
At Herald St, curators Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen from Studiolo in Zurich presented an eclectic assortment of Kuhn’s production, spanning his early abstract paintings to the later Pop influenced collages and composite sculptures. The early paintings from the 1950s and early 1960s reveal a continuous engagement with the idea of growth and metamorphosis. Unconcerned with stylistic coherence they display subjects in flux between the solid and the organic, sprout‑ing furniture with arabesque ornaments, harshly contoured by strokes that tell of Kuhn’s origins in woodcutting. For example Orientalische Nacht (Oriental Night, 1959) shows an ornamentation machine: an apparatus that seizes reality, devours it and leaves behind an abstracted and ornamented version. These paintings manifest progression, capturing always only one state in a series of perpetually evolving silhouettes and shapes.
The mid- to late 1960s mark a change in Kuhn’s work as he began working with clippings and cut outs from magazines and advertisements. These works rely heavily on the palm tree motif – palm merchandising, you might call it. Whether as printed wallpaper, stencilled on a nylon stocking, or as a wooden cut out, it is not the realistic tree that is of interest here, but the iconic shape and its ability to function as a symbol, a prop and a backdrop all at once. Kuhn reappropriates the commercial emblem that signals sunshine and far flung places, and begins to use it for his own brand of works. A series of large untitled screen prints from 1968/9 features rows of stencilled palm groves in a kaleidoscopic pattern and Warholian colour palette. Another screen print, from 1970, entitled Antigrippine collapses Egypt with Antarctica: a penguin floating on an iceberg carrying an anti-flu remedy in front of a backdrop of palm trees and pyramids. Reminiscent of the early Pop art of Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi, Kuhn’s collages retain a strong painterly quality. His strategy of mixing clippings with painting and woodcutting techniques and including them in an illusionary space also borrows from Surrealist collage and relates to the densily encrusted works of artists such as Paul Thek.
Parallels to other artists’ works are undeniable, and yet it remains unclear which aspects of his oeuvre evolved independently, and which were inspired by trends that trickled their way down to Zurich. In the time of burgeoning mass tourism and strong international creative exchanges of the mid- to late ’60s, Kuhn’s decision to not engage is telling. It speaks of an artist in internal exile who prefers an unapologetic regionalism over commodified and packaged travel expe‑riences, someone who harbours the creative potential of speculation and who opts for half-knowledge, guesswork, and the occasional literary inspired fata morgana.