Connecting Objects: Three Artists on the Legacy of Franz West
This Is Not a Prop at david Zwirner in New York brought together a multigenerational group of artists whose work explores the liminal space between body and object. The exhibition takes as its point of departure Franz West’s (1947–2012) furniture and Passstücke (Adaptives). Intended to be interacted with, West’s works redefine art as a social experience and ask how objects can function both as physical extensions of the body and as representations of the human experience. We asked three of the artists featured in the show—Alex Da Corte, Hannah Levy, and Oren Pinhassi—to share their thoughts on the ways in which West’s work and legacy directly engages with or diverges from conversations about art making today.
How were you first introduced to Franz West’s work?
I remember first seeing Franz West’s work when I visited Mary Heilmann’s studio in East Hampton in the early 2000s. She had several of his chairs and many chairs of her own. In my mind, there were at least thirty chairs in a very small room, all different colors and fabrics. I remember thinking it was beautifully absurd to have so many chairs in a small house and that one day I would like to have that many chairs too.
—Alex Da Corte
I think I first learned about West when a friend suggested I look at his work my sophomore year in college. I checked his Phaidon monograph out from the library and kept renewing it for the following two semesters. The first time I remember seeing his work in person was a few months later on the roof of the ICA in London. I still have a poster.
West proposed a new mode of playful interaction that took the viewer very seriously. What role does performance—as a concept and as a category of postwar art—have in your own practice?
I recall the Comic Abstraction show at MoMA and falling in love with his work. It was at this same time that I had met Oliver Herring and fell in love with his performances as well. They both had this irreverent joy and play in their work, which was both performance and painting and sculpture. I think this blurry line is what attracted me. To make a chair that is also a performance that is also a meal and poem is a beautiful endeavor. Totally free. I strive for my work to be all of those things: painting, dance, and sometimes dinner.
—Alex Da Corte
I think there is some space for performance, or interaction, in most of my sculptures. Although the viewer is generally not encouraged to touch the work, there’s an implication of interaction. There is a proposal/potential for performance that is often left unfulfilled. I’ve also made works that are meant to be worn or performed in: latex and silicone costumes that act as a kind of floppy straitjacket. There is some tension in that the performer is constricted in a certain way—their body is under a tremendous amount of weight and pressure—but the resulting gestures are comedic in how floppy bodily actions appear when magnified by these materials.
In what ways is West’s art relevant to your own?
His work is an influence on so many artists of my generation. He died while I was in school, which I think meant that a lot of us were reintroduced to his work during a time when our ideas surrounding art were really forming.
I think there’s a direct relationship between the political and social atmosphere around the world right now and the return to figuration. I believe and hope that this has to do with an attempt to think in humanist terms again. Figuration can serve as a point of entry for humans to understand and empathize with abstract or invisible forces and functions, perhaps allowing the viewer/user to also get closer to the logic of how something was produced—under what kind of economy and by the means of what type of labor.
It seems to me that West’s work was dealing with that tension of figuration and the relationship between humans and objects throughout his career and in very diverse ways. I love the use of color in his more monumental pieces. Those works are abstract in a sense, but at the same time they couldn’t possibly be any more bodily or raw. It’s amazing to be able to create work on that scale, connecting to inherently macho, brutalist or minimalist traditions, while at the same time maintaining such fragility and humanity. In my practice, I am often trying to achieve similar complexities where categories blur. This merger or blurring of borders—a fluid space where a chair is also a figure, a towel is also a snake, vegetation becomes architecture—is a political and an erotic logic, because it encourages the simultaneous existence of seemingly separate categories.
It seems crucial to me to deal with these subjects now: to refuse the submissive nature of algorithm-ruled life and the extreme abstraction of the production chains responsible for everything we consume. This numbness is emptying our ability to reimagine better ways of living and relating to each other, relating to the rawness and otherness of bodies, and to our place in a more complex network of forces connecting objects and living beings. To me, those subjects are plainly visible in West’s work, and in that sense I think they are incredibly relevant today.
Alex Da Corte’s (b. 1980) work explores the formal potential of everyday artifacts of consumer culture and questions how these commodities can possess meaning beyond their original function.
Like West’s furniture, Hannah Levy’s (b. 1991) anthropomorphic works explore the intersection of sculpture and design.
Oren Pinhassi’s (b. 1985) work imagines the erotic potential of architecture and constructed spaces.
Image: Franz West (center) and friends interacting with West's Passstücke (Adaptives), 1998 © 2018 Archiv Franz West
Franz West: Where Is My Eight
February 23–May 26, 2013
In 2013, the Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (MUMOK) in Vienna presented Franz West: Where Is My Eight? (Wo ist mein Achter?). This was the second major exhibition of the artist’s work at the museum in his native city of Vienna following Franz West: Proforma, a midcareer survey in 1996. Both exhibitions were curated by Eva Badura-Triska.
Where Is My Eight? included some 150 works based on a preliminary selection drawn up by the artist before his death in 2012. The show focused on the Kombi-Werke (Combi-Works), in which West would combine existing works to create new installations; also included were individual pieces drawn from throughout the artist’s career, for example his Passstücke (Adaptives), furniture, sculptures, videos, works on paper, and pieces created in cooperation with other artists. As Faye Hirsch wrote in an extended article for Art in America, "The playfulness and wit that characterized West’s art throughout his career were much in evidence. . . . Walking through the show, one is struck as much by the work’s connection to Brancusi and Giacometti as to the anti-art impulses of Duchamp and Fluxus."
Versions of the exhibition were subsequently presented at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt (2013) and the Hepworth Wakefield in England (2014), where West’s work was placed in dialogue with sculptures by the late Barbara Hepworth. "Playfully nestled alongside the elegant, anthropomorphic curves of Barbara Hepworth’s plaster prototypes," Louisa Elderton wrote in a review for Flash Art, "West’s Das Geraune (Murmuring) (1988) was veritably buzzing with energized textural surfaces and peep holes for the viewer’s eyes only."
The exhibition was accompanied by a publication with texts by Eva Badura-Triska, Klaus Goerner, Georg Grooelle, Peter Keicher, and Andreas Reiter-Raabe.
Franz West, To Build a House You Start with the Roof: Work, 1972–2008
March 12, 2009–June 7, 2009
Organized by The Baltimore Museum of Art, Franz West, To Build a House You Start with the Roof: Work, 1972–2008 surveyed nearly forty years of work by the artist. The exhibition showcased Franz West’s dynamic range of work, from his interactive Passstücke (Adaptives) of the 1970s to large-scale outdoor sculptures begun in the mid-1990s made from aluminum and painted in bright colors. In the catalogue accompanying the show, the curator Darsie Alexander recalls how "an exhibition [of West’s work] at David Zwirner, New York, in the mid-1990s kindled a spark that has ignited into this exhibition."
On the occasion of the exhibition, West produced a new outdoor sculpture, The Ego and the Id (2008). As Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker, "West’s recent abstract, painted-aluminum sculptures . . . may be the most energetic and affable art for public spaces since Alexander Calder. . . . A new, colossal piece, created for Baltimore, is West’s strongest yet. The Ego and the Id, in two parts, deploys twisting, soaring loops in various toothsome colors, and sprouts stools for sitting."
Major Museum Retrospective
February 20–June 2, 2019
A comprehensive retrospective of the work of Franz West, who died in 2012, traveled to Tate Modern from the Centre Georges Pompidou, where its debut presentation ran from September 12–December 10, 2018. Curated by Christine Macel, chief curator at the Pompidou, and Mark Godfrey, senior curator at Tate Modern, the exhibition spanned West’s influential career and drew on major loans from institutions including The Museum of Modern Art in New York, Museum Ludwig in Cologne, and MUMOK, Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, in the artist’s hometown of Vienna.
The works on view demonstrated the full breadth of West’s oeuvre, beginning with rarely seen drawings from the early 1970s and his first Passstücke (Adaptives)—the sculptures for which he became well known—to his papier-mâché works from the 1980s and Lemurenköpfe (Lemur Heads), made in the 1990s, as well his collages, furniture works, and collaborations with other artists. Several monumental open-air sculptures from the latter part of West’s career were on view in the Pompidou’s lobby and in front of several other museums and institutions in the Marais district during the Paris presentation of the show.
Showcasing the striking physical presence and formal qualities of his work, the retrospective also aimed to explore the philosophical dimensions of the artist’s practice and its unique social sensibility. West grew up in Vienna in the aftermath of World War II—a period he described as "a very conflicted time"—and saw avant-garde performances by the Viennese Actionists during the 1960s. The aesthetic he developed in his own work engaged high and low cultural references in equal measure and encouraged direct interaction with art as a way to explore the positioning of the body and the status of art in daily life. With works that playfully manipulate everyday materials and imagery in novel ways, he created objects and installations that redefine art as a social experience, calling attention to the way it is presented and how viewers interact with works of art and, in turn, with each other.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue edited by Godfrey and Macel, which also features recollections from David Zwirner about meeting the artist and organizing his first solo show at the gallery in 1993.
Image: Installation view, Franz West, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2018. © Philippe Migeat - Centre Pompidou