On the gallery scene today, it seems that the conflation of art and design is a fait accompli. Artists and designers alike create objects that, though functional, are the result of, on one end of the spectrum, imagination running wild — as in the work of Chris Schanck, for one — or artistic practice distilled — as is the case with Muller Van Severen.
Franz West, the Austrian conceptual artist who made furniture a fundamental part of his practice, began creating his seminal installations of chairs and sofas in 1980. Though he could be seen as a precursor to this growing intersection of art and design, West considered his functional sculptures to be art, but with a social function: he termed them ‘adaptives for the human body at rest.’
‘The concept that functional furniture could be art was a radical gesture’, says Elena Soboleva, director of online sales at David Zwirner
A selection from this chapter of West’s oeuvre is on sale at the gallery’s online exhibition space, ‘The Viewing Room’, until 22 December. On offer is a number of the artist’s pink, red, yellow, blue, and green Künstlerstuhl and Textilstuhl chairs, as well as West’s canvas Divan, Chaise Lounge, and Trog sofa, and the Sinnlos metal coat rack, with prices ranging from $12,000 to $80,000.
As with West’s own practice, ‘the online exhibition lives in a territory of in-betweenness’, says Soboleva. ‘An online presentation felt like a natural context for this work since it breaks down the usual preconceptions of sculpture and functional objects’, she explains.
West’s furniture — and hence art — is intended for interaction. The pieces have a communicative quality, whether it’s to encourage socialising with fellow seated visitors or to nudge the audience into contemplation of certain artworks, as at West’s 1989 exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
Once seated or lying down, one becomes part of the — interventionist — artwork. ‘These chairs create situational spaces that foster intimacy and reflection’, adds Soboleva. ‘As our social interaction becomes more anonymised and fleeting, there is a counter-desire to create meaningful space for dialogue and conversation.’
How Franz West’s array of art-chairs engaged his audience, then and now
Austrian artist Franz West never cared much for works that simply hung on walls. For his Passstücke, or “Adaptives,” developed in the 1970s, he coated found objects in plaster and encouraged viewers to pick them up or put them on. What came next was equally interactive: seating.
His first chairs—made in collaboration with Mathis Esterhazy in the late 1980s—were welded together from scrap metal. At his 1989 solo show at MoMA PS1, to soften the perch and encourage conversation, West laid the seats with the day’s newspaper. At the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, he placed them in front of masterpieces, nudging visitors to consider certain works, and at the 1990 Venice Biennale they were installed waterfront.
There was one critique: They were uncomfortable. But by the 1990s West had added upholstery with foam linings. Curator Eva Badura-Triska explains, “More comfortable than their predecessors, the sofas made people feel much more at ease, permitting what West called lingering, a stance or attitude he found particularly conducive to the experiencing of certain situations.” For a later edition named Uncle, dining chairs were covered with straps of colorful industrial fabric.
“I’ve lived with basically every furniture type Franz produced—chairs, couches, divans, tables,” says art dealer David Zwirner, who represents the artist’s estate and is having an online sale of West’s furniture this month. “And I think his dining chairs are among the most comfortable that I’ve come across.” Tastemakers from AD100 talent India Mahdavi to fashion legend Diane von Furstenberg agree, gathering them round their own tables, encouraging just what West intended: lingering.
A forty-year, roughly two-hundred-piece Franz West survey, launched last fall at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and now at Tate Modern in London, brings home to viewers the extraordinary formal range of this quirky, provocative, and influential Austrian artist. Bound by no one medium, he was equally at home (or, more likely, ill at ease) with sculpture, painting, drawing, graphic work, installation, furniture design, video, and performance—or any combination thereof. West, who died in 2012 at the age of sixty-five (after many years of hard living), dropped out of school at sixteen and almost immediately entered Vienna’s growing avant-garde world. Ambition, coupled with an impulsive, anarchic streak and a don’t-give-a-damn attitude characterized his art from the beginning.
West was born in Vienna in 1947, the son of a Communist coal merchant of Serbian origin, Ferdinand Zokan, with whom he did not get along at all, and Emilie West, a cultivated, warm, artistic Jewish dentist, whom he greatly loved (and whose name he took). Those postwar years in Austria were grim, but the general air of disorder and breakdown had positive aspects. It ultimately opened things up and provided space for a radical, anti-establishment art in a city that was set in its artistic ways. West, largely self-taught, was strongly attracted to the new art scene, but in his early days he was clearly a peripheral character.1 An odd duck who at first sold his work in the street, he took drugs and drank heavily, got beaten up and thrown out of bars, and seemed to many just a satellite of his flamboyant older half-brother, performance artist Otto Kobalek. West, however, was charming, inspired, and possessed of a real—if unorthodox and complicated—talent for friendship (attested to in the catalogue by the recollections of numerous friends and collaborators). He hung in there, and by the 1980s found his work increasingly exhibited, both in Austria and abroad.
Key to West’s development was his reaction to Vienna’s best-known avant-garde group, the Actionists—Günter Brus, Hermann Nitsch, Otto Muehl, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, and others. There is nothing to catch people’s eye like pissing in public and drinking your urine, shitting while singing the national anthem (again publicly), and covering your body with shit while masturbating—all of which Günter Brus did. Unsurprisingly, such artists received a great deal of attention, something that West very much wanted for himself. They, however, were not terribly interested in him, perhaps because they sensed his lack of adulation. While West liked the aggressive, performative aspect of the Actionists, their emphasis on the body, and their desire to offend the bourgeoisie, he rejected what was, to his way of thinking, their self-indulgent seriousness, their Christ-like posturing, and their obsession with blood, pain, mutilation, and suffering. He wanted something equally powerful but lighter and considerably more casual. The Pompidou’s Christine Macel, co-curator of the exhibition, refers to West’s desire to become “a dandy with an elegant and rebellious body of work and an unpredictable intelligence, at once frivolous and intellectual.”2 A certain studied idleness, in the mode of Duchamp, was part of his artistic affect. Macel remarks, “Sitting down and lying down were also West’s greatest sources of inspiration. This was a matter of necessity as much as of inclination, for his health sometimes forced him to adopt such states of otium.”3 For all of that, West was remarkably productive.
Emerging in an early-1970s Viennese art scene dominated by the legacy of the Wiener Gruppe and the meteoric rise of the Actionists, Franz West, unsurprisingly, was a loner for much of his career. A great believer in the potency of pleasure, he approached artmaking with a playful, mind-drifting everydayness, fusing it with social functionality – hardly in line with the heroic expressivity of the Wiener artists’ post-Dadaism nor with the severe, messianic existentialism of Actionism.
The late Austrian artist Franz West (1947–2012) was one of the most influential artists of the past 50 years. His retrospective at Tate Modern explores his irreverent sensibility and irreverent approach to art and materials, bringing together almost 200 works including abstract sculptures, furniture, collages and large outdoor works
Austria’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, like the Burgtheater and Vienna State Opera, occupies a special place within the country’s high culture. More than an ordinary exhibition venue, it is a flagship. In his novel "Old Masters" (1985), Thomas Bernhard pushed this quality to the extreme, equating the institution with the country as a whole before launching into one of his infamous tirades: ‘the whole of this Austria, when all is said and done, is nothing but a Kunsthistorisches Museum, a Catholic-National-Socialist one, an appalling one ... A chaotic rubbish-heap, that is what today’s Austria is, this ridiculous pygmy state which drips with self-overestimation and which, 40 years after the so-called "Second World War", has reached its absolute low only as a totally amputated state’. Museums have great merits, but Bernhard managed to give his comparison between state and museum a vitriolic quality.
In the winter of 1989, four years after "Old Masters" was published and three years after the beginning of the ‘Waldheim affair’ (in which Austria’s president, Kurt Waldheim, was implicated in Nazi war crimes), which made headlines around the world, the Kunsthistorisches Museum hosted a well-received exhibition of works by the painter and sculptor Franz West, the first living artist ever to be shown there. In the museum’s Gemäldegalerie, West positioned 15 stripped-down metal couches, chairs and daybeds in front of the paintings by Velázquez and others, and invited museumgoers to sit or lie on them, thus becoming part of an artwork themselves. With his furniture pieces and later aluminium sculptures, writes curator Veit Loers, West’s focus from the outset ‘was not on autonomous artistic products, but rather on gentle interventions, surreal mises-en-scène within Austria’s then still authoritarian cultural landscape where art was assigned a specific role, kept in check wherever possible.’ The anti-image of a society in search of peace and quiet, sometimes to the point of dozing off, became visible. West often staged himself as part of this, having himself photographed as a reclining, resting or daydreaming artist – contemplation as part of artistic production.
The artist, who the following year was invited by Hans Hollein to represent Austria at the Venice Biennale, was manifestly unfazed by his entry into the holiest of holies of national culture. ‘My works,’ West wrote in a text dated 1989, ‘correspond to the reusable coffins introduced by Josef II to save money (the appearance of an orderly burial was preserved while the corpse, having escaped the ambiguity of meaning, fell through a trapdoor into the grave). The items of furniture are skeletons – just as items of upholstered furniture have skeletons.’ The morbid quality of these remarks is reminiscent of ‘Wiener Schmäh’, a form of snarky humour cultivated in Vienna that is hard to define. For outsiders and the uninitiated, it often oversteps the line to blithe insult. Laughing at oneself and not taking oneself too seriously are certainly part of it. This sense of anarchy and the aesthetic associated with it is something West shared with peers like the German Martin Kippenberger and younger artists alike, including the Viennese Gelitin collective. There is also his obvious love of wordplay, as explored in the language experiments of the Vienna Group who circulated around the poet H.C. Artmann. In this light, the sculpture "Deutscher Humor" (German Humour) 1987 can be understood as exemplary, since the Germans are often said to have no sense of humour at all.
His first major retrospective in France at Centre Pompidou, Paris, reveals the artists's ongoing dialogue between the visible and the haptic
A retrospective of Austrian artist Franz West at the Centre Pompidou in Paris begins where most biographical tales perhaps should – with his mother, Emilie West. Born to a well-to-do Viennese Jewish family, she espoused communist ideals and the artist’s father, Ferdinand Zokan, a Serbian coal merchant. The family lived in a public housing complex, out of which Emilie ran a private dental practice. Her clients included many artists and poets, among them Reinhard Priessnitz, a poet and theorist who would give the name "Paßstücke" (Adaptives) to West’s most iconic series of sculptures. This early contact with Vienna’s artistic milieu would have a profound impact on the young West’s later career, as would the sounds of whirling drills and the image of his mother creating white and pink moulds of teeth from plaster and resin.
Including 180 works made between 1972 and 2012, the exhibition is not only the first major retrospective of West’s work to be shown in France but also one of the largest and most comprehensive. At its spiritual and narrative heart are the ‘Paßstücke’ (1973–2010): sculptures consisting of a minimal steel skeleton dressed somewhat haphazardly with painted plaster. Derived from the German verb anpassen (to adapt), the ‘Paßstücke’ were named for their ability to seemingly accommodate the body of whoever handled them. Seeing the unique way that each person held, manipulated and even wore the sculptures, Priessnitz believed that these works could give form to individual neuroses.
Visitors can discretely explore their own psyches with four of the 11 ‘Paßstücke’ installed near a pair of large dressing rooms resembling those that West often included in his installations. There are no mirrors in the Pompidou show, though they were also among the elements that West included to enrich the visitor’s experience of these works. Hidden in the dressing rooms, visitors could watch themselves manipulate the ‘Paßstücke’, thereby opening up a dialogue between the visible and the invisible, the sense of sight and the sense of touch.
Although they appeared early in his career, these sculptures encapsulate the essence of West’s oeuvre – his affinity for grotesque, misshapen forms, his acerbic humour, his love of accident and spontaneity and his desire for human contact.
For the rest of his career, West reshuffled these themes, with a few formal innovations. The 1980s saw the arrival of colour in his work – garish pastel pinks and greens that recall the materials his mother used in her dental practice. Furniture also makes an entry into the artist’s formal repertoire around this time. Functional, although hardly ergonomic, several of these untitled and inelegant chunks of welded scrap metal, made between 1988 and 1989, are dressed with a single sheet of newspaper as a sardonic concession to comfort.
Despite his desire to remain close to a trash aesthetic (West destroyed any pieces that his friends had the carelessness to describe as beautiful), the work he made towards the end of the 1990s is more refined. Rough forms become streamlined, colours more saturated and convivial, as with "Knotzen" (2002): a trio of hard metal sculptures that look deceptively like brightly painted beanbag chairs and which visitors can sit upon. The final part of the exhibition displays works from the 2000s, including the original collage versions of the posters West made for his Gagosian Gallery shows as well as several maquettes for large-scale public sculptures, one new direction that the artist was exploring at this time.
By making the ‘Paßstücke’ monumental, however, West precluded the element that made his first sculptures so groundbreaking: their ability to be held. If many artists in the latter half of the 20th century explored tactility – from Jean Dubuffet’s multisensory installations to Lygia Clark’s ‘Relational Objects’ made of webs of rubber bands and plastic sacks – West, in his iconoclastic spirit, went perhaps the farthest to assert touch as the sense capable of dethroning the pre-eminence of vision.
“Franz West” is a clean shard of a retrospective, smartly limiting itself to a single decade, the 1990s, of the late Austrian artist’s diverse career.
The iconoclast, who died in 2012, left behind a mess of designed objects, artworks, styles, cross-pollination with his peers, and treasured wares, all arranged here, material affirmation of a lifetime of pursuing the path drawn by his promiscuous inquisitiveness, deadpan humor, and prodding of societal rites and etiquette. A massive constellation, heavy in visual volume — oversized papier-mâché or aluminum forms on iron pedestals ["Untitled (10 Sculptures)", 1990–1997; "Lemurenköpfe", 1992]; large wooden cupboards, rather empty inside ["Dortmund und Gmünd (Die Visualisierte Rhythmik)", 1993/1999]; deep sofas draped in rich textiles, held up on pencil-thin iron frames ("Untitled", 1993) — rests lightly in pristine white rooms, spacious enough to take up the greater part of a city block in Chelsea. Scattered videos playing on small screens feature friends Kasper König, Mike Kelley and Joseph Kosuth, among many others. Invitations to use certain pieces on display — one can sit on "Divan", 2003, or “make an ergonomic gesture” with a "Paßstück (Adaptive)" from 1996, the accompanying "Video with Usage Tips" handily playing next to it — all impart the warmth and intimacy of a visit to an old friend’s home.
Slipping through the crevices on both sides of the sealed time restraint of the show is a loose series of West’s "Passstücke", or "Adaptives", which debuted around 1980, and which he continued to mold until the end of his career. The abstract, pale plaster shapes, available for individual interpretation and performance, served as a gentle poke — an oblique, literal question mark inserting itself into relational norms and expectations in social interactions. Absurd, unassuming and wryly in line with the artist’s sense of humor, the tactile "Adaptives" continue to present themselves with an odd (f)utility.
Seminal works from the 1990s by Austrian sculptural artist Franz West (1947–2012) are currently on view at David Zwirner gallery in New York. On November 7, Whitewall attended a walkthrough of the exhibit led by Zwirner to hear about the significance this decade played on West’s creations. “The show features works from the 90s for two reasons: the first is that was the decade we had the privilege of first presenting his work, and the second is that was the decade in which most of the ideas that Franz developed really played out and came to fruition. We made an attempt to bring all these different ideas to this exhibition,” said Zwirner.
As we learned from the gallerist, the show not only catalogs an important time-period for the artist, but a pivotal time in Zwirner’s own career. He opened his gallery in 1993 with an exhibition of West’s work.
The last room of the gallery displays white aluminum sculptures originally created for the Austrian pavilion at the 44th Venice Biennale in 1990, as well as West’s large-scale Lemure Heads, which were first shown at Documenta 9 in 1992. After seeing West’s works at Documenta, Zwirner traveled to Vienna to request to show his work for the gallery’s inaugural show. Their meeting was serendipitous in a way–due to a recession in the art market, two of the galleries representing West had just closed making it the perfect time to begin working with Zwirner. The artist had four subsequent shows with the gallery throughout the decade.
The sculptures created for the Venice Biennale invite viewers to physically interact with them. Zwirner described this series “Paßstücke”(Adaptives) as “signature work of West that plays with the relation of the volume of art with everyday life.” The interactive pieces set West apart from his contemporaries. As Zwirner explained, “It completely changes your relationship with a work—you become a formal element.”
In the 90s, the artist expanded on his signature style of combining high and low reference points with everyday materials to redefine the social experience of art by adding energetic color to his paper mache sculptures and including furniture and art by other artists to his installations. Examples of this in the current show are two sculptures set atop pedestals that double as bookshelves. West decided that two bookshelves were not enough to fill a library, so he created two new works, and dubbed the series “Two and Two.” One could describe the pedestals as functional art. “The subversion and use of furniture together with sculpture is self-evident. It was West’s attempt to narrow the field of the aesthetics of art and objects of everyday life,” said Zwirner.
The books that fill the shelves are part of Zwirner’s personal library, largely gifted by West. Accrued over a period of 8-10 years, the books were sent to Zwirner with annotations or notes outlining key chapters that the artist found especially important.
West began collecting artworks made by his colleagues in the 90s and arranged them into new works of art. “He looked at the art world as an entire system of creating work,” said Zwirner. “Nothing in this arrangement is his actual work, he is merely showing what is possible in the arts,” he said, referring to an installation in corner of the gallery. West not only included works by artists such as Kiki Smith and Jason Rhoades, but also an impromptu duct-tape sculpture made by his art handler at the time.
Zwirner explained that the continual appeal of West’s sculptures is due to hi “nonchalant approach to shapes and his sure-footedness as a colorist.” West’s dynamic work challenges traditional approaches to sculptural designs, functions, and displays, and continues to inspire artists.
Franz West will be on view at the David Zwirner in New York through December 13.
As you turn the corner of David Chipperfield’s elegant series of dove grey concrete cuboids, The Hepworth Wakefield, to climb the stairs to the gallery’s entrance, an enormous white plaster nose stands ahead of you. It is outrageous in its eyelessness. It thrusts into the air, without logic or elegance; with just an appalled ‘O’ for a mouth. It seems all at odds with the classical serenity of Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture.
This cartoon head is "Lemurenheim" (‘Lemur Head’, 2002), a work in plaster made by the Austrian artist Franz West in collaboration with the artist Rudolf Stingel in response to an invitation by the architect Hermann Czech to create a series of sculptures for a bridge in Vienna. At the time of the commission, West was drinking heavily (it was alcoholism that would ultimately precipitate his early death in 2013, aged just 66), and a common Viennese phrase to capture the sensation of waking up with a hangover is ‘seeing lemuren’ or ‘zombies’. West played with the idea of these zombies rising out of the river.
In addition, the word ‘lemur’ is sometimes used to designate the ancient middle-class ladies who haunt Viennese coffee shops. This assertively sculptural, hand-made object is thus the progeny of a multiple play on words. It is also an emblem of the human condition, as well as a joke on our human habit of projection, whereby every large circular object with a hole in it becomes a head, capable of tragedy. Thus those two Viennese titans of modern thought, Freud and Wittgenstein, through the ideas of psychoanalysis and language games, can be seen both to have their share in this comic monster.
Standing beside the river Calder, with its own ghosts, this head is as good a summary of West’s work as one could hope to find. It draws deeply on his intellectual heroes while exuberantly bringing something entirely new into existence. It refuses any one description or explanation but most certainly requires a response. Most fittingly of all, while it is itself the result of a collaboration with one artist, the sculpture also points ahead to the show inside, which reveals unexpected parallels between Vienna’s star artist and Wakefield’s own Hepworth.
The show ‘Where is My Eight’ was initiated by West in 2012 for mumok, (Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien), in Vienna, where West lived, with the show’s title a play on that of an earlier work. The show encompasses work from his famous "Passstücke" (or ‘Adaptives’, from the 1970s – bizarre shapes and objects made from plaster and metal which invite the audience to pick them up and interact), through his beguiling "Das Geraune" (‘Murmuring’, 1988), a collection of three giant papier-mâché forms with holes for mouths, to the enormous outdoor sculptures in aluminium and epoxy resin he conceived from 1996. Also part of the show is the tremendous "Parrhesia" (‘Freedom of Speech’, 2010), a collection of seven roughly painted papier-mâché head-like forms mounted with spikes on plinths, a haunting reminder of our democratic duty to speak out the truth, as we see it.
In 2013, however, the artist died, leaving the curator Eva Badura-Triska, a longtime friend and admirer, to complete the project in West’s spirit. Inevitably, this show has become both retrospective and memorial. As Badura-Triska explained to the assembled press in Wakefield, reconciling these two ambitions is an almost impossible task, given that part of West’s way of working was always to improvise, expanding the possible range of meanings of old works by mixing them up again in new contexts. How do you honour a champion of irreverence or enable the audience to experience work as provisional, essentially undogmatic, even though it will now for ever be unchanging?
Franz West review – his sculptures look like they've wandered in, up to no good
Showing the Austrian maverick at the temple to Britain's greatest female sculptor reveals what a complex and joyous artist he was
If you stand among Barbara Hepworth's carved and rounded plaster and wood shapes at the Hepworth in Wakefield for long enough, you feel that time will wear a hole right through you. Hepworth's art seemed to aim for a kind of timelessness. But time is all I feel among these soothing shadows and hushed planes. I feel eroded in their presence.
Among these prototypes for her bronzes sit three rough, crumbly hollow lumps. The invigilators might want to keep an eye on them. They look like they've wandered in, up to no good, slack-mouthed and conspiring. Franz West's uncouth papier-mâché forms are a great counterpoint to the reserve and sanded-down refinement of Hepworth.
Part of an excellent survey of the late Austrian artist's work that has travelled to Wakefield from Frankfurt and Vienna, West's 1988 ensemble Das Geraune (Murmuring) is the only work at the Hepworth placed in direct relationship to the British modernist. Where Hepworth's art encourages a sort of mute contemplation, West's is all about how objects speak and have their way with us. His sculpture, objects and collaborations with other artists feel part of the world rather than apart from it. "It doesn't matter what the art looks like but how it's used," West said.
Much of the show is devoted not just to West's own works but also to the arrangements he made both of them and the paintings, drawings and sculptures he swopped with other artists. These are interesting, but in my view more so as insight into friendship patterns and artistic fellow feeling than as full-blown collaborations.
Since his death in 2012 at the age of 66, there has been a flurry of exhibitions devoted to West, sometimes juxtaposing him with entirely different artists. One recent show in London put him together with Hans Arp. The exhibition highlighted not only what an inventive sculptor West could be, but also how crazy Arp was.
Franz West is often described as the arch joker in a pack of late 20th-century sculptors known for their irreverent cornucopias of materials. Yet while the coal-and-sackcloth statements of Jannis Kounellis, for example, declared that art was a serious business, West’s profferings – zany, bulbous sculptures, kinky collages and funky furniture that he encouraged spectators to sit on – labelled him a cheeky Lord of Misrule. He would bring art to the masses yet make them chuckle too.
I never found him that funny. His squidgy, effervescent, papier-mâché efflorations sent shivers up my spine, as did his collages of fashion, porn and newspaper images. His invitations to perch on the sofas and chairs felt like commandments: thou shalt giggle; thou shalt chill out.
West never denied that his humour sprang from dark sources. Born in Vienna in 1947, he grew up in a city lacerated by its war record. He remembered playing in filthy, debris-littered streets where virtually all the residents had been Nazis. His own parents were communists, Jewish on his mother’s side. Even without the political backstory, his memories of seeing his mother, who was a dentist, in a blood-spattered apron, and hearing the screams of her patients, are the stuff of Freudian case history.
An obsession with neurotic gore was thoroughly explored by West’s predecessors, the Viennese Actionists, who masturbated and mutilated themselves throughout the 1960s. Their mission was to force their fathers to confront the violence of their past while simultaneously reclaiming art from the taint of commodification
West snubbed the melodrama but shared the sentiment. His kinky proto-genitalia and faecal gestures – for that is the primordial stuffing within his anti-Platonic forms – might poke fun at our psychosexual neuroses yet they bring them up close and personal too. He wanted to make “art you could get in touch with”.
His predilection for furniture had another genesis too, partly inspired by a juvenile visit to Rome where he experienced the Spanish Steps as the equivalent of a village square; somewhere that allowed people to be “sitting in the art consuming life.”
That democratic spirit saw collaboration become a cornerstone of West’s practice. From his earliest days, he made work in tandem with other artists, ranging from barely known Viennese graduates to such Arte Povera colossi as Michelangelo Pistoletto, the conceptualists Douglas Gordon and Sarah Lucas, to the contemporary abstractionist and sculptor Anselm Reyle and the Georgian-born painter Tamuna Sirbiladze, West’s wife.
Whenever designers describe their work as “artistic,” I tend to cringe, not least because they are usually referring to flashy, barely stable, inexplicably uncomfortable furniture. And when artists talk about designing objects, I cringe again, because the outcome is likely to be just as showy and impractical.
Yet there are exceptions. One is the furniture of the late Austrian sculptor Franz West, which can currently be seen in two exhibitions, “Franz West: Where Is My Eight?” — a retrospective of his career running through Oct. 13 at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, and “Mostly West,” a survey of his collaborations with other artists at Inverleith House in Edinburgh until Sept. 22.
West’s furniture is as nutty, subversive and intriguing as the rest of his work. Few, if any of his chairs, tables, lights or other objects could be considered to be models of “good design,” but he did not intend them to be. When West, who died last year, made furniture, he treated it not as a design project, but as something else. Looking at the results in Frankfurt and Edinburgh made me wonder what that “something” was, and why he had succeeded in a field where so many of his fellow artists have failed.
The answers are rooted in the feisty debate on the constantly changing, often contentious relationship of art and design. To most people, art is a medium of self-expression, often in work made by the artists themselves. While designers fulfill a practical role, typically defined by their clients, and delegate the making of their work to other people. Artists are admired for being purist and uncompromising, while designers are darkly suspected of kowtowing to commercial demands.
Neither stereotype is accurate. Many artists delegate production too, and the feebler ones forego freedom of expression to pander to the art market. As for designers, they have been given greater control over production by digital technology, which has also helped them to pursue their own agendas: Maybe by realizing their political objectives, or by treating design as a medium of expression and intellectual enquiry.
Even so, there are still elemental differences between the two disciplines. One is that every design exercise must have a function. Art can too, but only if the artist wishes it to. Most design projects are also rooted in design culture: Maybe by adhering to the design process, or making references to design history. Again, art can do the same: Artists have produced remarkably perceptive critiques of design over the years. In “The Encyclopedic Palace,” the principal exhibition at this year’s Venice Art Biennale running through Oct. 24, several young artists including Ed Atkins, Camille Henrot, Helen Marten and James Richards explore the impact of digital technology, which is a core concern of the new genre of conceptual designers. Yet, unlike designers, artists are free to choose whether to engage with such issues.
West’s furniture demonstrates the differences beautifully. Born in Vienna in 1947, he started to make art in 1970, focusing on drawing and then sculpture. After devoting much of the 1970s to producing Passstücke, or Adaptives, a series of abstract forms with no obvious purpose other than to provoke a physical response, West pursued similar objectives in two strands of work — abstract sculpture and furniture. The evolution of both strands is explored in the Frankfurt retrospective, which was first shown this year at Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Vienna.
Please do touch: Franz West brings mischief to Inverleith House, Edinburgh
A major exhibition at the Edinburgh Festival features the collaborative ventures of the late Austrian artist Franz West. Visitors are encouraged to interact with the works and Adrian Hamilton joins in the fun
Franz West, who died a year ago, was the most loved and lovable of Austrian artists. Variously described as a prankster, a mischief-maker and a joker, he was above all engaging – engaging in his personality, engaging in the way that he sought in his art to make light of the consumerist society his country had become and, most urgently, engaging in the way that he worked to attract the viewer to interact with the sculptures and installations he created.
It’s only right therefore for Edinburgh’s ever adventurous Inverleith House to pay homage to him not with a survey of his works or a retrospective but with an exhibition of the collaborative ventures he involved himself and others in through much of his career.
Good for Inverleith, a once gracious mansion set in the midst of the cultivated vistas of the Royal Botanic Garden. If conceptual art is to have any meaning, and Franz West was a leading light, it need not be stamped with the hand of a single author. Commercial galleries of course would have us believe otherwise but then their promotion of their own “artists” demands they do so.
West would have none of that. Although he was an artist of supreme individuality – even in his installations he kept firm control as primary instigator of the works – he didn’t see them as expressions of himself so much as living objects to fill the mind and the physical embrace of the public. The artist was the enabler not the owner. Collaboration with other artists was not simply acceptable but creative. Honoured with the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale in 2011, the year before his death, he produced an installation, Extroversion, in which he turned his Viennese kitchen inside out and showed the works of his artistic friends on the outside that was inside. It was playful but also supremely generous.
“Don't Touch” is an unspoken warning in any art museum. Sometimes an institution might post a sign explaining to visitors why touching the art on view is bad — not just for the obvious catastrophic reasons, but because even oils from hands that appear to be clean can cause incremental damage. Mostly, though, visitors already know what they are (or, rather, aren't) supposed to do in art's presence.
Touch is a privilege typically reserved for the artist who made the art, as well as its professional caretakers. In fact, “the artist's touch” has been a central value in Western art for hundreds of years.
By the start of the 1960s, with the Abstract Expressionist generation of American painters riding high, it had even become something of a fetish. The loaded brush, the whiplash line, poured paint, the palette knife and sponge — signs of distinctive gestures mattered, almost like handwriting. De-mythologizing the artist's touch was left to Andy Warhol, who announced that he instead wanted to be a machine, and to Sol LeWitt and his idea-oriented cohort of Conceptual artists. They pulled the plug for good.
Enter Franz West, the impish Viennese artist whose compelling retrospective is at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Born in 1947, West is a generation younger than Warhol and LeWitt. The fetish for the artist's touch having been retired just before he arrived on the scene, he took the next step. In the mid-1970s, West handed things over to the audience.
Wrapping pieces of wood and cardboard and lengths of wire with gauze, coating it in plaster or papier mâché and painting the whole thing white, West made sculptures that the audience was meant to pick up, manipulate, examine at close range, hang on an arm or around the neck, or even stick one's face into. The shapes are abstract. But often, part of the sculpture suggests a handle — a direct visual invitation to audience participation. Silently it says, "Touch me, hold me".
Other shapes appear designed to fit around the neck, under the arm or on other embraceable parts of the body. Or, they echo bodily orifices. (Can a sculpture have a belly button?) A glass bottle at the end of a long stick, both embedded in lumpy papier mâché, looks like a ritual implement meant to be passed around in some primitive religious ceremony.
These materials also evoke the damaged condition art holds in contemporary life. Like a cast made for a broken limb, white plaster and gauze result in sculptures bound in a medical dressing.
West calls these sculptures “Passstücke” -- originally translated as “fitting pieces” (passende Stücke) but now referred to as “adaptives.” In biology, adaptation is a structure or form modified to fit a changing environment. West's touch-me sculptures attempted the same for art's new circumstance.
The Austrian sculptor didn't begin to study art seriously until he was 26, which might explain two distinctive features of his work. First, West's expressive take on things is jaundiced and mature, snarky but sophisticated — Benny Hill with brains. And second, like an adolescent prankster with an old soul, its tone deepens and becomes more resonant over the next three decades, even though the die was cast right from the start.
Retrospectives of two veteran contemporary artists who make a lot of people happy, including me, have opened, as if on order for hard times. “Franz West, To Build a House You Start with the Roof: Work 1972-2008,” at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and “Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone,” at the New Museum, in New York, merit, besides praise, something like pledges of allegiance. Both artists affirm values beneath and beyond the market anxieties and affiliated buzz in the art world, where they have demonstrated sturdy integrity throughout career ups and downs. West, the Viennese sculptor, collagist, and furniture-maker, is a gentle anarchist whose audience-friendly works anticipated—and considerably outshine—the recent vogue of “relational aesthetics” in international art. (I have in mind the likes of food events by Rikrit Tiravanija and interactive environments by any number of other virtual-camp counsellors.) West’s please-touch-me objects dependably entertain but never seem trivial. At sixty-one, he projects the disconcerting gravitas of a serious man who is constitutionally averse to taking anything seriously. The spunky, songful, subtly disciplined informality of the American abstract painter and ceramist (and also, recently, furniture-maker) Heilmann, sixty-eight, has provided low-profile joys in art since the late nineteen-sixties. Hers is the type of art you may cherish as a touchstone of your own private taste.
West grew up in postwar Vienna, where children played in bomb ruins. “It was more than dirty—filthy,” he has said. His parents were Communists. The family lived in a housing project “full of old Nazis,” where his father sold coal and his Jewish mother was a dentist, working in their apartment with primitive equipment. “Every forty minutes, a new patient was screaming.” He studied art intermittently while leading a life, between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five, that he describes as “pretty catastrophic”—ridden with drugs and aimless travels, amid café existentialists. He emerged on a scene dominated by the Vienna Actionists, who assaulted the complacency of their countrymen with determinedly horrific, sadomasochistic performances. In 1968, West attended an infamous event at the University of Vienna that featured the artist Gunter Brus stripping naked, cutting himself with a razor, smearing himself with excrement, and masturbating while singing the Austrian National Anthem. At the end, the Actionists solicited questions from the audience. It has very often been told that the young West broke a long, traumatized silence by rising to say, “Thank you very much. I enjoyed your performance enormously. I think these gentlemen have earned a round of applause.” The tale may be apocryphal. (West says he doesn’t remember it happening.) But its tone of devastating benevolence essentializes the funny, redemptive pivot that his art made in the mood and mode of Vienna’s avant-garde.
West is that rarest of birds: an urbane hippie. Reportedly, his studio in Vienna is part factory, part be-in. First among equals, he channels collaborative energies. (The Baltimore show’s koanlike title isn’t his; the curator Darsie Alexander thought of it, and West approved.) His art enlists, rather than addresses, its viewers. His best-known works are the “Adaptives” (“Passstücke,” also translatable as “Prostheses”), which he started making in 1974: odd-shaped, white-painted lumps of papier-mâché on bent steel rods, vaguely Giacometti-esque in look. They are meant to be handled. To pick one up is to become a self-conscious performer, improvising ways to hold, wield, or wear it. At the show, you may take your selected “Adaptive” into a large booth that contains a mirror and is papered with pages of the Baltimore "Examiner" from the day of the opening. (Elsewhere, a bench is supplied with each morning’s Baltimore "Sun", emphasizing a Westian time frame of incessant present-tenseness.) West’s startlingly comfortable sofas, in welded rebar and cushioned or carpet-draped steel mesh, precipitate a vision of society at once domestic and public, in which everyone is both a spectator and a spectacle. Huge floor lamps in rebar supporting paint-spattered fluorescent tubes within scratched plastic cylinders are gemütlich and grand. Sublimely witty collages of painted-over images from print ads and soft-core pornography unfailingly look amateurish (not easy after years of practice). Resistance is futile. West’s libidinous civility conquers all.
West’s recent abstract, painted-aluminum sculptures—successors to his coarse but fragile, galumphing forms in papier-mâché—may be the most energetic and affable art for public spaces since Alexander Calder. Made of overlapping, welded patches, and coated in shiny, chipper single colors, the works suggest children’s Play-Doh inspirations, with slightly naughty scatological nuances. 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. Contemplating the work’s echt Viennese title, I wondered which of the sections was supposed to be which. Then it came to me. Sitting on one of the stools, I was the ego, dissolving into the properly wild but—since it was socially shared and condoned—undangerous id. I remembered the hippie era, when flailingly sanguine visions of collective ecstasy sprang up and sputtered out. Forty years on, I thought, somebody has got it right.