JK 3-105 copy cover

Joyful Voyeur: John Kayser’s Playfully Intimate Photography

After John Kayser’s death in 2007, stacks of home-developed black and white photographs and cheap drugstore prints surfaced among his personal effects. Kayser retained few negatives; Chase Martin, gallery manager at Christian Berst Art Brut, speculates that the artist may have deliberately destroyed some of them. It is evident that the photographs, all originals, had been intended for private consumption. Kayser’s oeuvre could easily have ended up as pornographic curios in a California garage sale. Yet it is now showing at Christian Berst, a new outpost of a Parisian art brut gallery in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in an exhibition entitled John Kayser: Direct Contact.

Christian Berst’s glass storefront is comfortably situated amidst the graffitied facades and trendy boutiques of The Bowery district. Kayser’s show is in the mezzanine—a deliberate ‘white cube’ suspended above a reception desk on the lower level. The gallery adheres to the unwritten conventions of international gallery design: the poured concrete floor and clinically bright fluorescent lighting are likely features of any contemporary art space. Kayser’s postcard-format Kodachrome prints hang in oversized frames in a row that stretches the length of three walls.

The small, bright-colored prints draw us nearer. Moving clockwise through the space, one first encounters images comprising Kayser’s central fantasy: nude women shot from the back while seated on fetish objects. This formula evokes Man Ray’s Violon d’Ingres, which shows a woman similarly seated, her back styled as the curved body of a violin. Like Man Ray, Kayser stages women’s bodies as a kind of still life. The artist has a clear fascination with touch: in multiple shots, a model sits on a plate of food. Variants include a woman’s buttocks on an open book or on homely embroidery draped over a wooden chair.

The images clearly speak to atypical sexual desires. Yet something differentiates Kayser’s work from mere smut or clichéd amateur erotica. Partly it is his vision of femininity—so close to conventional ideas of beauty, yet so idiosyncratic in its overtones of warmth, domesticity, and comfort. It is also the fact that Kayser works with an awareness of his medium. His compositions include inside jokes about the nature of representation or the entanglement of high and low genres.

John Kayser, Christian Berst Art Brut and Ampersand Gallery.

“Untitled,” Kodacolor Print, 12.7” x 8.89”, 1971. Image courtesy of Christian Berst Art Brut and Ampersand Gallery.

In one shot, a woman seated on a lampshade is set against a canvas depicting Athens’ Parthenon amid a landscape of broken columns. The lampshade frames the woman’s feet, which appear as a strangely dislocated picture within a picture. The similarity in color between bare skin and the stumps of column drums, as well as the lack of spatial depth cues, make it impossible to determine whether the feet are in the space of the photograph or the painting behind it. The animate and inanimate— art and real life— have lost their distinctions.

Kayser was sophisticated, but also possessed a sense of humor. In another photograph, a woman is perched on a pottery vase, again facing a painting. The artwork in front of her is a portrait— quite possibly a self-portrait by Kayser. The woman’s back is towards the viewer, but in a three-quarters view allowing a glimpse of her face in profile. She appears deep in thought— as an inspired, narcissistic artist captures her in front of his own image.

John Kayser

“Untitled,” Kodacolor, c. 1960-1969. Image courtesy of Christian Berst Art Brut and Ampersand Gallery.

At the same time, the vase upon which she is seated supplies the content of a crude joke. It is as if Kayser were citing Karl Kraus’ example of the urn and the chamber pot, which pits functional everyday objects against high art. In 1913, Kraus, a cultural critic in Vienna, stated that his goal was to “show that there is a difference between an urn and a chamber pot.” The existence of this contrast, he claimed, “is necessary because it guarantees the game of culture.” But here Kayser sets up his own game in which this difference is obliterated. Is the model sitting on an urn or a chamber pot? Is her gaze one of lofty contemplation about art and identity, or is it rather a display of breathlessly focused defecation? Both could be true.

John Kayser

“Untitled,” Film Still, c. 1960-1969. Image courtesy of Christian Berst Art Brut and Ampersand Gallery.

The exhibition contains yet more jokes and treasures: behind a partition wall at the far end of the space, Kayser’s 8mm films show women walking around suburban lots, stepping over a plate of food, and frolicking in nature. In one, a woman’s feet in white canvas shoes joyfully dance on a pastel portrait of Kayser’s own creation, stepping lightly and carelessly over the image until they erase its features. Real joie de vivre trumps fine art.

John Kayser

“Untitled,” Kodacolor Print, 12.7″ x 8.89″. Image courtesy of Christian Berst Art Brut and Ampersand Gallery.

On the opposite side of the partition are images featuring the artist together with his models. In one, a woman is stepping over his back: a consummation of a fantasy played out over and over again in the fetish photographs of women stepping on objects. In multiple pictures, Kayser is presumably performing cunnilingus on the women, his partners in crime in his artistic and sensual pursuits. Just once, as a young woman is sitting on the side of Kayser’s face, he gazes out into the camera. His expression is that of a man blissfully content. He appears to have found or created all that he ever desired.

We are so taken with Kayser that Martin, the manager, takes us to the gallery’s back room where boxes of additional photographs are stored. We excitedly browse through the loose prints, thrilled to recognize recurring faces and motifs. We wonder: did Kayser destroy some of those negatives because he did not want versions of pictures to one day hang on walls? The tactile experience of browsing through the boxes in the dimly lit room, the joy of finding something new, and the awareness that these are not formal works but private treasures all add to our appreciation. By comparison, the gallery’s display seems too formal and sterile.

John Kayser: Direct Contact is at Christian Berst NYC through November 29.

John Kayser

“Untitled,” Kodacolor print, 8.89″ x 12.7″. Image courtesy of Christian Berst Art Brut and Ampersand Gallery.


John Kayser

“Untitled,” Polaroid, 10.8″ x 8.57″, 1965. Image courtesy of Christian Berst Art Brut and Ampersand Gallery.


John Kayser

“Untitled,” Kodacolor print, 12.7″ x 8.89″. Image courtesy of Christian Berst Art Brut and Ampersand Gallery.

Stay up to date!

Subscribe to Brut Force's Newsletter. We will send you occasional updates as we continue to roll out articles and super awesome features!

This information will not be shared.