Rory MacLean meets Henner Kuckuck
Sculptor-cum-furniture maker Kuckuck was born in Berlin in 1940. His family were bombed out of their home and the city and moved to West Germany. His father was a Bundesbahn engineer, his mother a woman with strong artistic sensibilities, who exposed him in his formative years to the avant-garde world of modern art. At the age of 16 he travelled to Paris and – at a single exhibition – discovered the works of both the French figurative sculptor Aristide Maillol and Russian constructivist sculptor Antoine Pevsner.
'In that moment at that one museum I decided to become a sculptor myself,' he told me when we met in his studio in Berlin. 'In a way my work has always explored that space between figurative and abstract.'
At home near Frankfurt, Kuckuck began to model nudes in clay and plaster.
'Of course I began with nudes; I was a young man,' he recalled with a laugh. 'But my mother wasn't so pleased because of the terrible mess.'
His father also wasn't pleased, and encouraged his son to choose a more stable career.
'My father was a gifted engineer but a practical man. He suggested that I train to be an architect. I agreed and began to study at Braunschweig's Technical University.'
But after two years Kuckuck realised that architecture was not for him – not least because a tutor had looked at his less-than-precise technical drawings and distinctive, all-but-indecipherable handwriting, and advised him, 'Straight lines are not your business. You’re an artist.'
In 1962 at the age of 22, Kuckuck then moved back to Berlin. At the Hochschule für Bildende Kunste, he plotted his individual course, which would begin with the figurative and later move to abstract, minimalism and kinetic. When he finished his studies his first big opportunity came from a meeting with the Dean of the school.
'I remember meeting the Dean, and thanking him for educating me, but politely pointing out that I needed also to make a living.'
In response the Dean invited Kuckuck to submit a design for a work of public art for the German School in Brussels. His entry won the international competition and he embarked on a dozen more large scale public space sculptures, at Berlin's Freie Universität, Bad Helmstedt’s Theatre Park and across Germany. Working mostly in metal, all the works had bold and clean, modernist lines.
'I am a material freak,' he said. 'When I change material I get new ideas. I've worked in metal, in concrete, in sandstone and wood, in plastic and – most recently – in paper and cardboard.'
One theme of his work was a paradoxical relationship with materials, where large and heavy metal objects moved with the lightest touch. In his sculptures light materials looked solid and flat materials become voluminous.
At the age of 42, Kuckuck moved to New York inspired by American sculptors and the freedom he saw in their work.
'In New York I felt so free,' he recalled. 'I didn't know a soul there yet every gallery owner was willing to look at my work. The art scene was so much more relaxed than in Germany.'
At first American enthusiasm for his art produced no commissions. For two years he worked in theatre set design in Philadelphia. Then his first New York show – put together on his bed in a tiny Manhattan apartment – attracted good reviews and an invitation to be a visiting artist at Rutgers University. This led to commissions for him to create large-scale kinetic works that moved with the wind in New York and Philadelphia. In a group show one of Kuckuck’s two-dimensional works hung between pieces by Julio González and Alberto Giacometti.
'It was a wonderful time, a wild time,' he recalled. 'But working as an artist wasn’t enough. I took to restoring old buildings and loft conversions for other artists.'
In the 1990s his then-21-year-old daughter – now the respected fashion designer Nanna Kuckuck – visited him in New York. Father and daughter collaborated to design an original handbag that was sold as a work of art in the finest stores. After her departure Kuckuck turned his hand to his other passion – furniture design. Over the next five years he produced a startling collection of bespoke winged armchairs, imaginative flat-pack seats and vinyl sofas that were both sculptural and functional. With partner and then wife Sharon Holmes, Kuckuck's remarkable creations twice won the prestigious ID Design Award as well as both the Felissimo and Seattle Design Resource prizes. He was one of the first designers to elevate recycled material in to the world of high design. In 1996 a grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation recognised his artistic achievements. His award winning Spine Chair is part of the permanent collection of the London Design Museum.
With Kuckuck’s 2001 return to Berlin the geographic circle of his life was completed. Now he embarked on a new artistic journey, which would bring his work back to its figurative foundation. Kuckuck had returned to Germany with his wife Sharon and their two younger children where his career entered a new stage. He was invited to design a spider-like tearoom for Tsinghua University Centennial Beijing. He also created sculpted wings for the Beijing Olympic Games Sculpture Park. At the same time Kuckuck continued to produce smaller pieces for private collectors.
'As I grew older I began to look at art which had never touched me before, for example medieval painting and Renaissance sculpture. I became fascinated by how those artists handled robes and the hanging folds of clothing. I was inspired by the emotion that they conveyed in the folds and sweep of material. In a way, I found myself returning to the figurative.'
In his studio – alongside photographs of a lifetime's sculptural work – stood dozens of elegant, haunting figures: headless, limbless yet seemingly ready to take flight. The forms – which like all Kuckuck's works are unnamed – are made of gathered paper or card and set with lime.
'When I start to work on a piece, I never know what will emerge. I go with the flow, follow my instincts. Give me four pieces of wood and I'll make you a sculpture! To paraphrase Picasso, in my work I don't look for something; I find it.'
Henner Kuckuck smiled and cast his eyes over the photographs, collages and sculptures. 'Every artist wants recognition for their life’s work,' he said. 'But more important – much more important – is to follow one's individual artistic evolution. In my life I have been lucky enough to be able to do that, and to come full circle.'