Inside Friedrich Kunath’s Amazing World of Sublime Art, Classic Cars and Obscure Scents
By: Arty Nelson
Born in East Berlin but at home in East L.A., painter Friedrich Kunath makes airbrushed canvases layered with strange cartoon figures, blazing sunsets, and deep thoughts. If that sounds a bit lightweight, be careful: His work packs an emotional wallop that will knock you on your ass.
Friedrich Kunath's odyssey from East Berlin boyhood to international-art-world success could easily span several volumes. But for now, here it is in quick-cut montage, set to the rambling strains of Bob Dylan's “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: Kid grows up on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall in an ad hoc hippie-commune-type situation thanks to a rock-manager mother and a roadie stepfather. Then, in 1985, stepdad gets a job in West Berlin, enabling teenage Friedrich to vault the wall a few years before it eventually comes tumbling down. He relocates to Braunschweig, Germany, and in a single day the soundtrack of his life fast-forwards a decade and changes from early-’70s Neil Young to the likes of Joy Division and Erasure. Free at last, young Kunath promptly begins showing telltale signs of juvenile delinquency—skateboarding, boozing, spiraling grades. Following a brief mother-son bonding stint in a folkcrafty “housewives' painting class” and without her son's knowledge, Kunath's mother cobbles together a makeshift portfolio of her son's graphically chaotic abstract paintings and gets him into art school. “I was this 17-year-old kid,” Kunath says, “and everybody else was 22 or 23, all listening to Tom Waits, drinking red wine and arguing about The Threepenny Opera. I wanted zero part of any of it.”
What Kunath did find, however, was an inspiring mentor in artist Walter Dahn, a protégé of Joseph Beuys. “We connected right away. I don't really know if you can actually teach someone art, but what Dahn did was turn me on to a wide array of ideas and influences. How the music of the Wu-Tang Clan was every bit as valid as the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. How music had always been the love of my life and how somehow I could articulate that by making art as a kind of shorthand for music.”
One of Kunath's first attempts, in 1993, was to make a series of portraits inspired by Beck's hit single “Loser,” which had just taken the airways by storm. Hitting the streets with a handmade sign that said I'M A LOSER, BABY and persuading people to hold it. “I crashed golf clubs, got angry white golfers to hold the sign, went to the train station, whatever I could think of,” Kunath says. “It was about taking something that was out in the world and turning it into something totally specific to my surroundings. It was a first foray into the need to express the language of irony.”
Still partying like a Viking, Kunath next set off on a road trip across the New World with the ambitious plan to skateboard everywhere from San Francisco to Miami. Despite a strong start, Freddy's Big Adventure got derailed halfway through when he fell in love in Austin and promptly got hitched along the Rio Grande in a town called Eagle Pass. The newlyweds soon conspired to head to San Diego, where, after being shunned by the cliquish white surfer kids, Kunath spent a Breaking Bad–adjacent year hanging out with vatos until his survival instincts kicked in, sending him packing back to Berlin. Along the way, Kunath had always been making art, mostly sparse black-and-white squiggly-line drawings rife with musical references. In his own eyes, it hardly qualified as a career. Instead, back in Berlin, he and some old friends started an underground nightclub called Finks, popular with the city's burgeoning art-kid set. It was a success, but the demands of the trade were relentless, and soon Kunath went careening into the booze ward, where he was promptly informed that if he didn't put the cork in the bottle, his infected pancreas would kill him in three weeks. Says Kunath: “It was the one and only A.A. I ever needed.”
Then, at that very moment, locked in a Mexican standoff with his mortality, Kunath got a call from Jorn Botnagel of BQ Gallery, then based in Cologne, who told the artist that he'd landed a spot in the coveted “Statements” section of 2003's Art Basel fair. “I definitely had the sense of it being now or never,” Kunath says. “Like, shit, man, I gotta embrace my fate, invite my symptoms and make them into something. I was living in a tiny apartment above a honey factory at the time. I'll never forget the smell. I made this painting of a door that said IF YOU LEAVE ME—CAN I COME TOO? It was like I painted a way to get out of my situation and get on with life.”
For “Statements,” Kunath intended to make a grand one. Working feverishly, he filled the entire booth with work, including a seven-minute film titled Going to Quauhnahuac. The film—a two-hander, with Kunath sharing lead duties with an albino gorilla—feels equal parts Jackass outtake and “lonely floating bag video” from American Beauty. It caught the eye of the gallerist Jeff Poe, of L.A.'s Blum & Poe—now a global player with satellites in N.Y.C. and Tokyo but at the time still more of a scrappy upstart. “Back then, the art world was a smaller place and ‘Statements’ was massively important,” Poe says. “Absolutely where you'd go to get the ‘finds’ being shown by respected galleries from all over the world. The doors didn't open to the public until 11 A.M., so I'd sneak up at nine, when I wouldn't have to talk to anybody. Luckily, BQ had left Freddy's video running all night. I watched the video. Then I watched it again. Maybe five times in a row total. There were paintings and drawings, and they all had the same strange emotion as the film. Melancholic, sad, and funny. This music flowed out from all the work, creating a sense of homesickness—that deep ache that just wells up and emanates from your chest. Immediately, I knew I had to do a show with this guy.”
“Basically, this is how it works,” Kunath says. “I put the Tennis Channel on mute, turn on some music, and I head over here.” He motions to several tables piled with images clipped from a slew of sources that have been informing the mix of big paintings, installations, and objects that will, in just a couple of days, make up Frutti di Mare, a new solo show at Blum & Poe Los Angeles. “Once an image is used, it becomes an ‘actor’ in my imaginary cast. After two or three paintings, they get their own folder. I sort of try them out in things. It can be a very long process of projecting and taking away. Often it's very nonsensical—you don't want it to make too much sense too early.”
Lounging in his East L.A. studio in a paint-spattered white oxford shirt and pair of khakis, the artist looks like one of Owen Wilson's binge buddies in The Royal Tenenbaums. The studio sits along a corridor in El Sereno, a kind of gasoline alley that in recent years has become home to more than a few artists' studios. Kunath's spot comprises a cluster of spaces within a single box. Half of it looks how you'd expect: a high-ceilinged central work area, a small kitchenette, a “spray” room for airbrush work, and a “white cube” where art can be installed to beta-test how it holds up in a more formal, presentational setting. The austerity of this side of the studio is only slightly betrayed by a pristine vintage British-racing-green bubble-top Jaguar parked in the middle of it.
Here's just a fraction of what's at play in the work that's in process on these walls: searing sunsets mutated from bad gas-station postcards into MoMA- and Tate-caliber goodies; cartoon misanthropes wandering pop-totem-littered landscapes; tie-dyed socks stacked like soft Carl Andre blocks; a baby-grand piano with its legs sawed off mounted on the wall, looking ready to face off against one of Richard Prince's car-hood sculptures. When one moves through the work, one's senses vacillate from the comic to the bittersweet to the absurd—with measured forays into the deeper waters of the air-conditioned anxiety dream that constitutes much of contemporary American life.
You'd be hard-pressed to find an artist working today with a more varied visual arsenal. A big part of this, Kunath claims, is that the origins of his now big-time artistic practice evolved because he can't draw for shit. “At art school, there were clearly others who had more ‘art talent,’ ” Kunath says. “Looking back, I feel bad for those people. Everyone was telling them they were geniuses because they had these amazing hands and could really draw anything perfectly. I never drew growing up, so for me it became about identifying this deep, weird appreciation for music, this consoling quality, and figuring out some way to convert that into a visual language. Meanwhile, all the ‘geniuses’ had already dropped out after three weeks because they were like, what's the point?”
Continuing through Studio Kunath, we slip through a narrow door behind the kitchen area, entering the more mysterious yin to the primary region's workspace yang. What we find is the jet-set shag pad of any young man's dreams, exquisitely adorned with midcentury accents. A living room with one of those sectional couches that resemble a chunk from a crossword puzzle. Another hangout room, a bedroom for midday naps and the occasional late night, then an office anchored by a vast desk. “This is really where most of my actual ‘work’ gets done,” Kunath says with a grin. Across from the desk is a high set of stuffed shelves. The bottom tier is reserved for an impressive phalanx of cologne and perfume bottles.
Kunath's life feeds into and even, at times, blurs with his work. Always present is a slight tension between the work's lovelorn emotional content and the artist's dead-eye take on the good life in the West: classic cars, vintage watches, clubby sports like tennis. Kunath's doppelgänger protagonists never ultimately seem satisfied by the dreams promised by these contemporary talismans of winning. Maybe it goes back to gallerist Jeff Poe's notion of the artist's peculiar ailment: the homesickness. That despite having successfully ollied over the Berlin Wall—and nattily dressed as he is—Kunath remains forever a lost and lonesome traveler in search of a home that literally no longer exists on the map.
When asked about his taste for certain luxury items, many of which pop up time and time again in his work, the artist gently dismisses their magical properties or deeper significance. “When I could finally buy a watch,” Kunath says, sporting a sexy early-'70s Rolex Root Beer GMT-Master, “what was I going to do, get a Seiko?” After one of his first shows, Kunath took $3,000 and bought himself a Jaguar XJ40. His gallerist at BQ wasn't impressed. “Jorn wouldn't speak to me for a week,” Kunath says. “I mean, a Prius would've cost nearly ten times as much, but the point was that I wasn't behaving the way an artist in Europe was supposed to behave. Which probably speaks quite a lot to why I live here now. In L.A., nobody really cares. All those old rules go out the window.”
The most intriguing of Kunath's cultivated obsessions is his love of scents, which he regards as “invisible sculptures,” the passion dating from the artist's childhood, when he'd dose his pillow with perfume to liven up his universe. A few years back, Kunath began working with a Swiss perfumer, Yann Vasnier of Givaudan, to develop his own juice, which he intended to name Distance, though now he's also debating Fuck it, I Love You as well as I Don't Worry Anymore. So far, and despite a growing shelf of samples, a final product has yet to emerge, though the artist remains steadfast. For Frutti di Mare, his fall show at Blum & Poe's L.A. venue, Kunath sprinkled the rooms with Montale Eau de Parfum from Paris, a surly and slightly tart concoction boasting strains of patchouli, resin, frankincense, and labdanum. “The last thing I do with every show is walk through and decide the appropriate scent,” Kunath says. “It's the finishing touch.” Given that smell is the undisputed heavyweight champ of the senses, it's hard to overstate how powerfully the aroma of the gallery impacts the experience of the show—the effect that a great score has on a film is a decent analogy.
Kunath had his debut solo exhibition with Blum & Poe in the spring of 2004, while living in Cologne. “From that first show, it was very clear that literally, figuratively, psychologically, and emotionally, Friedrich had one foot in each culture and continent,” says Tim Blum, the other half of Blum & Poe's founding duo. “One room had these dark, gothic, almost hermetically sealed concept works. The other had a massive explosion of color.”
Four solo shows and 13 years later, the connection between Kunath and the gallery is stronger than ever. Kunath seems born for Blum & Poe's roster, which is inclined toward smart, elegant art, ballasted by certain DIY textures, forged by practitioners raised on a steady diet of Black Flag and the early novels of Bret Easton Ellis. “L.A. was almost like a prophecy for Freddy,” says Jeff Poe. “His mind-set is sunny, as opposed to a lot of German art from the '70s and '80s, which was very weighed down by the history. And doubting. Freddy's part of a newer breed who've shed a lot of that fraught lineage.”
It was in 2007 that Kunath's L.A. prophecy finally became reality. The artist and his second wife, Maggie, packed their bags and made the move from Germany. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, the pair hopped in a car, cranked the tunes, and went in search of Carole King's mythical house in Laurel Canyon.
On another cannonball run through pre-hipster Highland Park, the Kunaths came upon a dilapidated house. Hopping the fence to further inspect, they quickly called dibs on the crumbling den. “We tracked down the landlord and he was like, ‘Huh?’"
Still settling in and suffering from the upheaval, Kunath found it impossible to make art. He now says his first attempts were akin to painting with a brush in the wrong hand. So instead he and Maggie began combing the city's endless thrift stores, amassing a vast array of tchotchkes and Americana. It was in those dusty aisles of abandoned dreams that Kunath's conversion took place. “I was just sort of waiting,” he says. “Being clueless sometimes helps. You can't penetrate the work with all your wanting and desperation. And what I soon discovered was that I'd left all my backpacks of burdens back in Germany. In L.A., there was no art history, only tar pits and Disney and maybe some Ed Ruscha. I could just breathe and figure it out.” Though the artist's assessment of L.A.'s cultural history might be just a wee bit of an over-simplification, his point stands: L.A. is exactly what he needed to liberate himself from the weighty art-historical burden his European roots carried.
One key element that the city added to Kunath's art-making was the opportunity to collaborate with L.A. printmaker and silk-screener Richard Duardo. Up till then, Kunath's paintings consisted mostly of line drawings over “marinated” canvases, soaked in color. After he enlisted Duardo, the artist's practice opened up. “What better way to deal with a city than by working with people of that city?” Kunath says. “And projecting images onto canvas felt ever truer to a city whose identity is so much derived from the projected image.” Kunath began printing and tracing images onto his work, often repeating elements like loafers and tennis rackets across different paintings. Suddenly, his repertoire of visual iconography was expanding.
In recent years, Kunath has garnered much acclaim for his sunset paintings: slick airbrushed canvases sometimes hosting a splash of text or maybe featuring a bored shipwrecked-looking guy with his head in his hands. “Sunsets are a such problematic image, which is part of what drew me to them,” Kunath says. “They're so empty. Sunsets and rainbows. They're the saxophone solos of art. It allows me the opportunity to make them full again. To find a way past the irony and have them become a sincere statement.”
The title of the catalog for Kunath's 2013 Modern Art Oxford show in England was In My Room—a reference to the lonesome Beach Boys song of the same name (There's a world where I can go and tell my secrets to, in my room)—and there's a distinct “dude looking back” quality to some of his work. Which poses a challenge: How do you mine the past without getting mired in sentimentality or nostalgia? “The melancholy Freddy infuses the work with imbues it with a sense of maturity,” says Jeff Poe. “When you're young and totally messed up, that distance doesn't exist. You're just tortured, and that's it.” Without a doubt, Kunath's power to digest and process the twists and turns of his very unusual life brings a different flavor to the somewhat threadbare “Go west, young man” trope. When Kunath glances over his shoulder, the life he sees is one that Jack Kerouac or Brian Wilson could hardly have fathomed.
Reflecting on his process, Kunath grins, thinking back to a time in 2005 when he was awarded a prestigious artist-in-residence grant at the Palazzo Barbarigo della Terrazza in Venice, Italy. “I got there and, literally after three hours, had to leave,” Kunath says. “It all felt so cliché. The whole city stank of art history and death. What could I possibly do that hadn't already been done a thousand times? In that regard, Los Angeles has been the complete opposite for me.” Though easy to dismiss as the words of a brazen young iconoclast—and maybe they are that, too—the truth is, Kunath abandoned every traditional path to art-world success he ever stumbled upon, instead taking out the proverbial machete and hacking his own way.
“The thing about me is that every piece of art I make comes from something other than me—an image, a toy, a song,” Kunath says. “I never make art entirely from within myself. I look for outside things that are a kind of projection of me, or that convey an emotion that I connect with. Then I alter-slash-interpret them and release them back out into the world for people to engage with. To make a painting just out of my own personal headspace is uninteresting. I think that's part of what's always connected me so much to music—the way a song can participate in so many people's lives and cultures. In that way, I'm screwed. I always need the others.”