Pictures From a Pandemic is a series presented by Anthony Haden Guest for Whitehot Magazine.
By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST, May 2020
Designs for Living
Richie Williamson and Hubert Kretschmar have both made work that belongs in the zone between fine art and commercial design, an area occupied by the likes of Milton Glaser, the late Richard Bernstein and Robert Brownjohn, aka BJ, who made the titles for such Bond movies as Goldfinger and From Russia with Love. Williamson is an artist/designer/ photographer from Midland, Texas, who has lived and worked, mostly in New York City for 50 years. He began as an airbrush artist and he was working on the sets for a Kiss tour when he was hired by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager to work for Studio 54. There he designed and painted those naughty cosmic cokers, the moon and spoon, among other set pieces for Studio.
Williamson went on to a career that included a ten year stint, spent between Paris, Milan and Florence, but he is now again fully New York-based, working for his clients on projects to be used on social media and the web. And special projects, as here his spectral flamethrower, Covidia. Material from his Studio 54 period, including photographs and video of his dance floor stage sets, including the Cobra set he made for a Grace Jones New Year’s Eve blow-out, are currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum’s Night Magic show: On view virtually right now, of course, but someday in the Great Whenever, perhaps on face to face.
Artist Hubert Kretzschmar moved from West Germany to New York in 1977, following a path that began in a childhood full of American comic books and robot toys handed down from G.I. friends of his father. Work came quickly and in 1978 Kretzschmar illustrated the cover for the Rolling Stones album, Some Girls, the first of three covers he would create for the group. A tall fellow, with the pencil-line mustache of a pre-war movie actor, Kretzschmar was also swept into clubland, both as a designer, turning out work for venues like Brian Saltern’s Underground, Arthur Weinstein’s The World, Denis Pruvot’s Save The Robots and Scott Taylor’s The Valentine Room, and as performer, appearing occasionally in the window of the club, Area.
In August, 1981, Kretzschmar attended a performance by Kraftwerk at the Ritz in the East Village. A game changer, the experience directly inspired his cover of Kraftwerk’s 1986 LP, Electric Cafe, which featured an image built around digitized versions of the heads of the doppelgänger dummies that the group would deploy onstage. As much as Godard’s Alphaville and the offshoots of Philip K. Dick, it was a prescient vision of the Singularity towards which we are heading. Kretzschmar’s account of his first meeting with Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk follows. Schneider died on April 30. It was cancer and he was 73 but death takes on an extra weight as we move through the time of Covid
As an art student at Folkwang University in Essen, the boys from Kraftwerk were on my radar. Their Kling Klang studio was in the heart of nearby Düsseldorf. At the time, I and other young artists were heavily influenced by the philosophy and teachings of Josef Beuys of the Düsseldorf Academy and the Free International University, and Kraftwerk and Beuys were very much intertwined in my world view.
When I saw Kraftwerk perform at the Ritz in New York in August 1981, it was their first live performance in five years and it was “the event of the season”. Hip insiders spilled out of limousines and slipped into the hall while throngs of people lined the block, crushing the entrance. The set onstage looked like a spaceship had landed and spilled its guts. The sound the four band members produced was something otherworldly. When they left the stage, their dummies remained and recorded music kept on playing.
After the concert, I waited for the boys to emerge from backstage. I was dressed all in black, with slicked-back hair and was approached by groupies who mistook me for a member of the band. Naturally, I took this as an opportunity to sign Florian Schneider's name on pieces of paper thrust at me. When the band finally appeared, a greeting from me in German got their attention. I confessed that I had signed autographs as Florian, which they accepted with a chuckle.
Ralf, Karl and Wolfgang took off somewhere, but Florian stayed behind. When he mentioned he was hungry, I suggested that my friend Axel Gross and I drive him to get a bite. Axel was a musician, who up to that time worked with Brian Eno and was also Eno’s part-time chauffeur. After settling into an all-night coffee shop, we asked him when the band would tour again. Florian said he didn't like being on the road, but he hoped that in the future they might all be able to stay home and perform world tours as holograms broadcast via satellite.
This was the beginning of an irreplaceable friendship that gave me a front row seat to Florian's one-of-a-kind personality.
Whenever I visited Düsseldorf, I would stay with Florian at his home outside the city. A small, wooden blockhouse in his backyard garden was my guesthouse. Florian would treat me to private tours of the legendary Kling Klang studio or show me his latest acquisition, like a giant bass horn speaker system. Sound was science and Florian had created the laboratory to cook up frequencies that would blow everything out of the water. With a never-ending curiosity, he was always researching ways to refine his craft.
He was fond of creating special surprises, be it an impromptu trip to a neighboring city in his gull-wing Mercedes replica, or unveiling his latest sound mix but he was wholly unpretentious.
I remember one remark of his when mention was made of the restaffed Kraftwerk stints at Moma in 2012 and The Tate in 2013. He said simply: I am not ready for the museum.
We are not holograms – yet – but here we are heading into the future, all of us on tour, beaming our likenesses across the globe. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest is an internationally known writer and artist.
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