View of “Friedrich Kuhn,” 2013. From left: Untitled, 1969; Untitled, 1969; Palm Tree, 1969.

View of “Friedrich Kuhn,” 2013. From left: Untitled, 1969; Untitled, 1969; Palm Tree, 1969.

Friedrich Kuhn

Herald St

View of “Friedrich Kuhn,” 2013. From left: Untitled, 1969; Untitled, 1969; Palm Tree, 1969.

Der Malerals Outlaw” (The Painter as Outlaw), the title of the 2008–2009 exhibition at the Kunsthaus Zürich devoted to local legend Friedrich Kuhn (1926–1972), gives a fair indication of how he is remembered in the city he called home. Like that of many a larger-thanlife bad boy who drank himself into an early grave, his mythology is a catalogue of bohemian outrages—the rows with collectors or would-be benefactors, the terrorizing of upmarket restaurants, the unruly entourage—that risks overshadowing the work itself.

Some of Kuhn’s most remarkable work, or at least that most resonant today because of its Pop-surreal sensibility, graphic punchiness, and cross-media profligacy, was produced during the last few years of his rambunctious life. These were the years foregrounded in the capsule show judiciously curated by Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen of the Zurich-based project space Studiolo. Herald St’s larger front gallery space displayed eleven works made between 1968 and 1972, most featuring the palm tree, the signature motif of Kuhn’s later work. A smaller back gallery offered historical background with five paintings from the late 1950s and early ’60s. These works reflected some of the self-taught artist’s disparate sources, which ranged from van Gogh to Ensor, as well as the more general but immediate influence of art brut.

A high point in Kuhn’s career was the 1968 show “Die Palmen des Friedrich Kuhn” (The Palm Trees of Friedrich Kuhn). While the palmtree motif had cropped up in his paintings before, it proliferated wildly that year, spreading like an exuberant cancer across a range of mediums and objects, both traditional (paintings, sculptures, prints) and not so traditional (wallpaper, stockings, pullovers—the latter courtesy of one of Kuhn’s more enthusiastic supporters, a typesetter called Ernst Gloor). Included in the show were a pair of printed tights, a painted dress from one of Kuhn’s performances, and one of a notable range of rudely constructed, freestanding wooden palm trees, roughly painted a variety of colors, both natural and unnatural. It has been pointed out before that these sculptures, of different sizes, are vaguely reminiscent of those two-dimensional wooden waiters bearing trays or ashtrays, once common in middle-class homes in Switzerland as elsewhere. While this recurring motif might be read as a symbol of exotic growth, there is also something grotesque about it; at times it even resembles a cartoonish rendition of the gesticulating hand and arm of a drowning man. The ominous tone of this seemingly fanciful association was, in fact, echoed by a screenprint from 1970, Antigrippine, also included in the show. The piece features a stoical penguin with a woolen scarf gripping an oversize box of the titular antiflu tablets under its wing and floating on a shrunken chunk of iceberg off a subtropical coastline dotted with palm trees and pyramids.

By all accounts, Kuhn’s notorious behavior did little to further his career, and no doubt partly explains why he is still underrecognized outside his homeland. Yet while his reputation remained local, he was respected by such internationally prominent Swiss peers as Meret Oppenheim, Daniel Spoerri, Dieter Roth, and Jean Tinguely, and his work was included quite early on in exhibitions by leading curators such as Franz Meyer, Harald Szeemann, and Jean-Christophe Ammann. This intriguing, if modestly scaled, exhibition was a timely reminder of a body of work that deserves to emerge from the shadow cast by the artist’s legend, and made a significant contribution toward the more widespread recognition Kuhn undoubtedly deserves.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith