Issue #133  8/29/2007
Kicken 30th Anniversary Catalog Is An Assemblage of 140 Images and Extraordinary Commentary

By Matt Damsker



Edited by Annette and Rudolf Kicken, and Simone Forster. Essays by Janos Frecot, Richard Pare and Wilfried Wirgand. 2007, Steidl, 326 pages and approximately 140 plates. ISBN No. 3-86521-214-X; ISBN-13 No. 978-3-86521-214-6. Steidl Publishers, Dustere Strasse 4, D-37073, Gottingen, Germany; email: mail@steidl.de ; websites: http://www.steidl.de or http://www.steidlville.com .

This excellent volume celebrates the 30th anniversary of Berlin's Kicken Gallery, which has played a major role in brokering fine-art photography for collectors and museums worldwide. Happily, the book is much more than a vanity project, as Annette and Rudolf Kicken have not only assembled some 140 of the medium's most important works of the modern and post-modern era (along with a few pre-modern treasures) but have also paired them with commentary and annotation from the extended family of photographers, curators, collectors, other gallery owners, dealers and writers who have a strong connection with and feeling for these photographs.

The result is informative and wonderfully eclectic in charting the course of photography's emergence as a full-fledged and provocative art form. Janos Frecot's illuminating essay on post-World war II German photography, for example, points out how Germany's best artists were driven from the country by Nazism. It took the return of such figures as Heinz Hajek-Halke to revive the photographic arts after the war, while the biannual photo trade fairs of the 1950s, overseen by L. Fritz Gruber, began to link Germany's illustrious photographic past with a new international scene, reestablishing the reputations of August Sander and Erich Salomon, among others. It was in this context of discovery and rediscovery that the Kicken Gallery began to flourish, and by the 1970s, when photography began to enjoy the broad embrace of museums and collectors, Kicken was at the center of things.

Not surprisingly, then, there are powerful images paired with first-rate insights on virtually every page of this rich tome. Walter Keller, the influential Zurich-based founder of the Scalo Verlag art publishing house, addresses the ambiguity of Wolf Strache's macabre 1943 image of a figure in a gas mask pushing a baby carriage along a bombed-out Berlin street. A few pages later, we move back in time to 1865, with a charming portrait of a child by Julia Margaret Cameron, from a private German collection, while on the next page a masterful Harry Callahan image from 1953 depicts "Eleanor and Barbara," mother and daughter, as small figures in a large, cold Chicago space. Chicago gallery owner Stephen Daiter explains why he views this image as "a photographic masterwork that deserves recognition alongside other great mid-century American artworks like Edward Hopper's 'Night Hawks'…"

Indeed, to reference the book's title, these "Points of View" are hardly limited to the photographers on display; they extend importantly to the global experts and collectors who so passionately advocate for these individual photos. Leading Munich-based curator Klaus-Jurgen Sembach, for one, was among the first to purchase the work of American photographers Stephen Shore and William Eggleston in the 1970s, and here he presents three towering Egglestons--of a man on a motel bed that rivals anything by Hopper; of a green tile bathroom that evokes some odd church alcove; and of a red ceiling strung with wire and a naked light bulb. Sembach helps us see how Eggleston's color-saturated dye transfers brought a new, anti-romantic realism and deadpan irony to photography that felt completely American and was especially eye-opening to European aesthetes.

Similarly, Peter MacGill, president of New York's Pace/MacGill Gallery, and Wilhelm Schurmann, photographer, professor and leading collector based in Herzogenrath, Germany, deconstruct Robert Frank's great 1948 photo of a New York street in which four-fifths of the image is devoted to the asphalt of empty road surface, with a white painted lane marker leading our eye through the center of the picture, and its radical, receding perspective, to a white sky. MacGill points out how the white line on a black field foreshadows the gestures of Abstract Expressionist painting, while Schurmann notes how "the lane marker--unexposed material--connects with the paper-white sky between the buildings to become a flower, a tulip balancing on its stem."

Such startling artistry and unexpected connections abound in this book, none more startling than "Haverstraw, New York," Lee Friedlander's 1966 self-portrait behind the wheel of a truck, his camera perched obviously on the hood (we see its shadow at the bottom of the frame). As Jeffrey Fraenkel, of San Francisco's Fraenkel Gallery, points out, this anomalous Friedlander represents "a curious sub-strain in his work… Friedlander as a performer." It doesn't take much to see how this strange self-dramatization presages Cindy Sherman's untitled movie stills of nearly two decades later, and one is grateful to Fraenkel for lifting the curtain on a brilliant curiosity.

Of course, one can quibble at the sprawling, seemingly random arrangement of the material in this book--it would make sense to move more chronologically from earlier to later periods--but at the end of the day the constant juxtapositions work their magic, taking us back and forth along the continuum of photography's most inspired moments, reminding us that art exists in and out of time. This book is a superb anniversary present from Kicken Gallery to the world.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

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