Nontoxic Printmaking, Safe Painting & Printed Art

Art from the Basement     (draft)

An artist's perspective on printed art


'Pillar Wrap', public sculpture in downtown Chicago, vinyl prints on concrete, 2008

by Friedhard Kiekeben, 

with contributions by Charles Esche,

Johannes Koegler, Sabina Ott, and Ania Sremski


In the mid 1980s I studied art with the ambition of becoming a painter. Experimentation with a variety of painting media and styles led to some interesting results, but soon I would achieve greater conceptual and expressive clarity in printmaking rather than painting. My initiation into the reproductive arts was in etching, a medium that seemed - at first - traditional, small scale, and with its emphasis on the limited edition also semi-commercial, prompting some of the art school professors to refer to the medium as ‘art from the basement’. But I had the very good fortune of having an enlightened printmaking teacher, Peter Baum, who in his teaching conveyed a strong sense of the re-emerging relevance of printmaking as a unique artistic medium. Despite the historical baggage,

a centuries old and cumbersome methodology, studios filled with heavy equipment (never mind the tar fumes), and the additional stigma of being a craft.




'In Volo', black and white paintings, acrylic on canvas, first shown at Gallery Giani, Frankfurt, in 2011


The etching process allowed for images to emerge by a process of reduction rather than addition, and all of the marks applied to the metal matrix caused peculiar transformations during the reproduction. I was intrigued, and art utilizing printing, multiplicity and reproduction became a lifelong preoccupation, conceptually and technically. More than two decades later, I now also spend long hours in the studio painting, yet even my paintings are 'prints', or artworks with a kind of reproductive bias. Soon I expanded small-scale work in etching beyond the more conventional format, and my series of large-scale plate/print installations culminated in the piece 'David' shown in Frankfurt in the autumn of 1988.

Seven life-size back and white intaglio prints stand tall and are mounted in sequence on the gallery wall. The dramatic assemblage of seven images invites both figurative connotations - relating directly to the viewer in a direct and physical way - as well as an illusionistic, spatial, and ethereal quality. This effect is heightened by the presence of the seven polished steel matrices that produced each print presented on the floor, right in front of the print installation. The writer Charles Esche wrote about 'David': "Allegorically, the work speaks of survival and resurrection, while sculpturally, it invades the space around it, creating a sense of physical depth both though the wall and the floor. Viewers are left in no doubt where the print originated, but the 'original' is at their feet, and apparent reversal of the usual artistic hierarchy. " (1)


Many of my recent paintings suggest dynamic and vertigo-inducing spaces, yet these are derived from reproductive matrices created or transformed in morphing and warping software which are then transferred to canvas using digital projection. picture: 'In Volo 1', 2011


In order to produce, image, and etch the seven six foot steel plates required for the project I travelled to a printmaking facility equipped for large-scale work and worked feverishly over several months until all plates and prints were made. The show in Frankfurt turned out to be a success but soon after the exhibition opened I developed some very worrying health issues; asthma attacks, immune deficiency, and a serious eye infection that affected both eyes. I was a mess and went to see a doctor thinking some medicines could quickly get me back on my feet and back into the studio.


The doctor put me on a course of strong antibiotics and quizzed me on my working practices and materials. I duly provided a list of all the solvents, acids, metals, and dusts I regularly encountered, (and had used with recommended precautions such as fume extraction and pro-grade respirators). The verdict was not encouraging: I was advised firstly, that I had to stop practicing printmaking and metal sculpture immediately to safeguard my health, and secondly that there was a strong chance that I would suffer permanent eye damage and possibly other long term health effects caused by my profession.

Several weeks later luckily the conjunctivitis had cleared up and my eyesight remained unimpeded. But my carefree relationship with the art of printmaking had changed forever. I vowed to myself to seek out improved protective measures or alternative processes wherever possible, and the incident put me on the path that would lead to my involvement in 'nontoxic' printmaking from 1994 onwards.



Installation of 26 etched, folded and rusted steel plates
and 26 etchings printed from these, RCA, London, 
2.0m x 4.3m, 1993



‘Transit’, like Friction, is homage to the work of Donald Judd. 26 steel plates bear traces of an etched base module, half geometric and half random. This duality of ordered versus random underlies not only the fabric of ‘Transit’ but is also reflected in the overall macro structure of this stark red and black, wall mounted frieze. 26 deeply etched intaglio prints - these are imprints taken from the plates - are mounted in two rows below the matrices that were used in their production, and inviting a dialogue between image, sculpture, and matrix. The base layer of marks were digitally made and mechanically transferred; yet the other half of the pictorial information was personal repetitive mark making and intervention by the artist.

The actual plates no longer invite future replication or further addition and have been transformed into bright red, rust - colored and oxidized wall-mounted metal boxes. A strong acid solution was used to create the desired effect over the course of two weeks. Strange as it seems in an essentially minimalist piece, the thinking of William Blake inspired me in the making of Transit, as much as Donald Judd’s preoccupation with art stripped bare of unnecessary clutter. Quote:

"If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.

For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern...

this I shall do by printing, in the infernal method" (William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)


'Two in Three I'
object made from etched,
folded and rusted steel plates

and etchings, 50cm x 90cm
1993 | click to view the pattern


Two in Three

‘Inset Two in Three’ is half metal construction, half printed object. Its surface is woven from a peculiar undulating repeat pattern that I accidentally created as the result of a computer crash during my early engagement with digital art making in 1992. Rather than faithfully computing and rendering a geometric image I had been working on the digital equipment faltered with memory overload, and proceeded to output a jagged repeat pattern that instantly caught my attention. The image resulting from the operation looked more like a Pollock than say a Mondrian; random, non-linear, yet somehow controlled and full of potential for further exploration. The incident gave me the same sense of profound unease and exhilaration that I experienced as a first year art student when I discovered Pollock’s paintings that were woven from all-over drip marks, rather than traditional composing and illusionistic effort.

Charles Esche is a curator and writer. Since 2004, he has been Director of the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands. In the following he shares his observations on the installation pieces 'David' and 'Transit', the last two pieces I would produce with tar and solvent based printmaking mehods (1):

The transcendence of reality and illusion as opposite poles of the artist's practice has become one of the crucial intentions of Kiekeben's work since 'Project David'. His discovery at the Royal College of the various possibilities of computer generated images has led to more recent work which begins with 'Transit', his final piece made in London and shown in the RCA galleries in 1993.


Like 'Project David', this work invaded the space beyond the wall and extended the print into a three dimensional object. The plates were folded so that they stood proud from the wall and two lines of thirteen plates were fused with the 26 etchings to produce a single cohesive work. In 'Transit', however, the image on the plate was not drawn by hand but produced using a computer graphics program. In doing so, the issue of the original and its copy is immediately complicated by the presence of a pre-existing model in the form of binary code in the computer. The plate is no longer the 'natural' repository of the artist's uniqueness but is merely a link in a chain of aesthetic production from program to plate to print. One can even imagine the process going full circle with the print being scanned and returned to the computer.

As a viewer, what am I to make of this skillful denial of the source and its replacement by what Kiekeben refers to as the 'matrix'? On a philosophical level, the writings of Baudrillard on the disappearance of the distinction between the real and imaginary through the simulacra can be recognized and discussed.

On an aesthetic level, I have to acknowledge that the great pleasure I derive from these objects is not based on a single human intervention so much as a process of establishing parameters and letting chance (chaos) take its effect. This is true both of the computer program itself and the process involved in transferring the image from code to plate to print. I therefore find myself in the position of imposing my own order on the images rather than simply accepting what I am given - a task which is both exhilarating and troubling because it can reveal something of my own psychological preferences."


Crystal Blue
Wall Installation, screen prints and acrylic wash,
inflatable mattress, printed column, 
Gallery Daeppen, Basel, 1998

Many of my works, whether they are prints, digital images, sculptures, installations, or paintings reflect on a complex and elusive notion of 'matrix' (for want of a better word). Since the Hollywood production 'The Matrix' was released in 1999 the term has acquired a coded and sinister connotation, yet the original meaning was meant to be more nurturing than that, as can be seen in the definition:


n. pl. ma·tri·ces or ma·trix·es

1. A situation or surrounding substance within which something else originates, develops, or is contained | 2. The womb. | [Middle English matrice, from Latin...mater: mother]

The art historian Johannes Koegler added his own insights on 'matrix' in the essay he wrote for the catalogue 'Crystal' (Kunstverein Friedberg, 1997):

"The basis and source of all of Friedhard Kiekeben's works is a 'matrix', developed by the artist by using digital graphics software on a computer (the term 'matrix' in all its complexity of meaning is of special importance in Kiekeben's work).

Such a matrix usually consists of a specific composition or pattern of black and white planes, thus creating a distinct information unit. The very nature of this matrix is more akin to an idea or a code and it is manifest virtually, quite independent of any specific medium that could make it manifest in concrete form. The matrix is reproducible in any number of ways, for instance as a digital print, and a basic module can be indefinitely multiplied and added to. Such repeat patterns of one or a number of matrices are used by Friedhard Kiekeben as formal compositional elements, which he transfers into printmaking, or uses for expansive wall installations... In recent works, made from 2006 onwards, the artist transforms such repetitive fields of pattern through further digital transformation into highly dynamic, tumbling spatial arrangements."



'Friction', etched aluminum, one of nine plates, appr. 35cm x 80cm, collection German Telekom, click for installation view


‘Friction’ is a sequential series of works that extend media boundaries and the need for a fixed physical location: in essence Friction is as much an idea (…a matrix?) as it is any particular artifact or project. Various iterations of this extensive investigation of modular art were shown in Switzerland, Germany, the UK, and in the States over a period of nearly a decade, in the form of large scale print installations, as Donald Judd inspired sculptural work (see ‘Friction - aluminum’), and as more intimate series of etched or photo-polymer intaglio prints.

Formed from nine basic modules, ‘Friction’ creates optical fissures and vibrations through the sequential addition as a field of repeat patterns.


Shatter-Ice, etched and painted aluminum frieze, appr. 5m x 1.7m | click for detail view

IMAGE:  Quantum Ice?


A Matter of Perspective

(Dizzy. I’m so dizzy my head is spinning, like a whirlpool it never ends...) 1


"The art of the Renaissance was based on and delighted in the use of perspective—a device that created the illusion of depth through setting the eye solidly into one point of view. This mono –vision dictated the position of the viewer and limited their movement – if they wanted to see the right and true picture they must stay in the proper viewing position. The meta-narrative of this is frighteningly clear and was reflective of the political, theological, philosophical and social orthodoxy of Europe at that time...

With modernity came the embrace of multiplicity, engendering the search for new forms to express simultaneous points of view, and, perhaps most importantly, to allow for movement. (...) Pollock’s paintings denied a fixed point of view almost completely, creating an immersion into a net of events and interactions. To break from perspective is to subvert the fixed and isolated nature of representation achieved by peeping through a window. By shifting attention to perspectival manipulations and the problematic nature of referentiality, by moving from a window to a mirrors view, we are positioned to experience our subjectivity in all of its multi- faceted forms.

Friedhard Kiekeben’s prints, installations and sculptures (or simulations of prints, installations and sculptures) create a matrix for such an experience- offering us the sensation of oscillations and vibrations as we are surrounded by his undulating images. When I look at his artworks I feel dizzy- virtual and real space collide, the ground drops away and they, in the words of Maurice Merleau –Ponty, “make a hole in the plenum of the world. Like mountains or the forests, they become the place where spirits appear. They are no longer there except as the minimum of matter that is needed for meaning to manifest itself.” 2


Loop (flamingo), Hyde Park Arts Center, 2010
digital print installation, inkjet on vinyl, appr. 62 feet wide, click for detail view



Loop orange caption: The 'Intaglio Type' process pioneered by Keith Howard borrows methodology from the circuit board industry and allows for the seamless integration of digitally made artwork into printmaking. Despite its high-tech materials and origins the method conveys the depth and language of erosion, and the sculptural, relief-like quality known in traditional etching.

Ania Sremski wrote:

"Friedhard Kiekeben’s Loop is a visual tour-de-force that encapsulates the artist’s interest in disrupting space, creating dizzying optical effects, and risking formal and technical innovation."

This 68-foot long wall installation was meant to play with our perception of space and scale through the repetition of abstract patterns and the use of bold, vibrant colors; 'Loop Flamingo'. A related series of smaller prints made by using innovative etching techniques hangs opposite the vinyl piece, continuing these formal explorations on a smaller scale.

Although Sol LeWitt and Minimalist artists from the 60s are an important major source of inspiration, in works like Loop, the rectilinear minimalist grid is exploded by digitally warping and twisting images to form a panoramic, flowing pattern. In the end, the effect is very anti-minimalist...or so it seems.


'Quantum Ice', Vinyl Print Installation, Gallery Giani, 2011


For Loop, images were digitally manipulated, printed on ten individual segments of vinyl and then assembled on the wall like wallpaper. Although my imagery is created in the virtual realm, the physicality of these prints is paramount. The work is like a negotiation between post modern interests in ‘simulation, hybridization, code and information’ and ‘a growing desire to reconnect with things that are more physical, messy, and 'real.’ Often printed or etched surfaces serve to emphasize the materiality of the works.

Any art practice that uses projection, printing, multiplicity and reproduction necessarily questions the traditional notions of authenticity and creative ownership, and any print in whatever form is an 'always ready' (Richard S. Field) - a self-existing entity rather than a created one. This is the main reason why I decided in the early 90s to largely forego concrete subject matter and personal mark-making in favor of (highly edited) digital artwork and serial repeat images.

"Kiekeben’s use of both traditional printmaking techniques and the computer (that ultimate tool of reproduction) thus underscores a host of complex issues relating to the definition (and perceived value) of originality; the authenticity of the mechanically reproduced artwork; and the role of the artist’s hand in creation.

If an artwork is infinitely reproducible, how does that affect its value? If the artist’s hand never actually touched the surface of the image does that impact our appreciation of the work? Though these questions are not new, Kiekeben’s work engages them in innovative and intriguing ways." (Ania Sremski).


Loop (orange)set of 6 unique photo-polymer intaglio prints, 2009


The art historian Richard S Field took inspiration from SolLeWitt in his the 'Sentences on Printed Art', published in the 1970s.

Three of these are particularly relevant in the context of this essay: (Sentences No 1, 9, and 25):


Prints are metonymous statements about the

pervasiveness of binary thought, opposites, reversals, and mirrors. |


The print implies a chain of prototypes, something that always precedes;

the print is an “always already.” |


Prints are unique works of art,

expressing the intentions of the artist.