A detail of a Franz West sculpture.
“While Step up, step up! Come on, come on!
You quivering lemur creatures,
Patched up from sinew, band, and bone,
Exiguous demi-natures.”

—Goethe, Faust II, Act V, lines 115 11–14

A sculpture by Franz West, titled Lemurenköpfe (Lemure Heads), dated in 1992 and 2000.

Franz West

Lemurenköpfe (Lemure Heads), 1992
Painted aluminum and steel
Left figure: 96 1/4 x 47 1/4 x 50 inches (244.5 x 120 x 127 cm)
Right figure: 96 1/2 x 57 2/5 x 57 7/8 inches (245.1 x 145.8 x 147 cm)

On the occasion of the gallery’s participation in the inaugural edition of Paris+ par Art Basel, we are pleased to present Franz West’s Lemurenköpfe (Lemure Heads), 1992, which will be on view in the Jardin des Tuileries. Representing a major milestone in West’s work, the pair of Lemurenköpfe (Lemure Heads) featured here were first seen at documenta IX in 1992. Playful and uncanny, the Lemure Heads are instantly recognisable as West’s work, and are among the most arresting outdoor sculptures of the twentieth century.

Emerging in the early 1970s, the Austrian-born artist Franz West (1947–2012) developed a unique aesthetic that engaged equally high and low reference points and often privileged social interaction as an intrinsic component of his work, calling attention to the larger context of exhibition and the way in which viewers interact with works of art and with each other.

A detail of a sculpture titled Lemurenköpfe (Lemure Heads) by Franz West, dated 1992/2000

Franz West, Lemurenköpfe (Lemure Heads), 1992 (detail)

Franz West, Lemurenköpfe (Lemure Heads), 1992 (detail)

A sculpture titled Lemurenköpfe (Lemure Heads) by Franz West, dated 1992/2000.

Franz West, Lemurenköpfe (Lemure Heads), 1992 (detail)

Franz West, Lemurenköpfe (Lemure Heads), 1992 (detail)

At the time these works were made, West had reached an important turning point in his practice, transitioning from the Passstücke (Adaptives) of the 1970s—small sculptures that people could play with—to his “legitimate sculptures” of the mid-1980s and early 1990s. Newly mounted on pedestals and “legitimate” in the sense of traditional sculpture which cannot be touched, these works nonetheless retained a playful, irreverent character through materials like papier mâché and unusual supports.

A photo of Lisa de Cohen with one of Franz West's Adaptives in 1983.

Lisa de Cohen with a Franz West Adaptive, 1983

Lisa de Cohen with a Franz West Adaptive, 1983

(Left) A photo of Franz West with an early Adaptive, undated; (Right) A photo by Friedl Kubelka of Otto Kobalek with an Adaptive by Franz West, dated 1974.

Franz West with an early Adaptive, n.d. (left); Otto Kobalek with an Adaptive by Franz West, 1974. Photo by Friedl Kubelka/The Hepworth Wakefield (right)

Franz West with an early Adaptive, n.d. (left); Otto Kobalek with an Adaptive by Franz West, 1974. Photo by Friedl Kubelka/The Hepworth Wakefield (right)

“The Legitimate Sculptures were not understood as autonomous pieces ... but as invitations to a dialogue that now had to take place primarily on a visual and intellectual level.”

Eva Badura-Triska, 2016

A photo of Franz West in his studio in 1995.

Franz West with legitimate sculptures in his studio, 1995

Franz West with legitimate sculptures in his studio, 1995

West began to conceptualize the Lemure Heads in the late 1980s for a commission for four sculptures to be positioned at opposite ends of a bridge in Vienna—a project eventually realized in 2001. The artist quickly determined that he wanted to make something that was vaguely human looking—as he described, “An attempt at transferring [Auguste] Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais … to the contemporary realm.”

A photo of Auguste Rodin's The Burghers of Calais, dated 1884–1889.

Auguste Rodin, The Burghers of Calais, 1884

Auguste Rodin, The Burghers of Calais, 1884

Ancient Roman Lemure mask

Roman Lemure, n.d.

Roman Lemure, n.d.

While these mythological figures have multiple associations—including puppets, African masks, and bacchanalia—an important point of reference for West was the Roman Lemures, or restless spirits of the dead, as described by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his 1832 play Faust II. Austrian writer Karl Kraus applied the term to humanity in the wake of World War II. The eighteenth-century taxonomist Carl Linnaeus named a species of primate “lemurs” as a nod to their mask-like faces.

A photo of Franz West's Franz West Lemurenköpfe (Lemure Heads), 1992/2000 in his studio in Vienna in 1992.

Franz West's Lemurenköpfe (Lemure Heads), 1992, plaster versions in his studio, Vienna, 1992. Artwork © Archiv Franz West. Photo by Harald Schönfellinger

Franz West's Lemurenköpfe (Lemure Heads), 1992, plaster versions in his studio, Vienna, 1992. Artwork © Archiv Franz West. Photo by Harald Schönfellinger

In their fully realized form, the Lemurenköpfe were first exhibited in 1992 at the celebrated 9th edition of documenta curated by Jan Hoet and titled The artist, the work and the viewer. Four plaster Lemurenköpfe were presented inside, while two pairs of aluminum cast heads—including the first casts of the present work—were installed outdoors.

A portrait with Harry Belafonte and Charles White

Franz West, Lemurenköpfe (Lemur Heads), 1992, installed at documenta IX, Kassel, Germany, 1992

Franz West, Lemurenköpfe (Lemur Heads), 1992, installed at documenta IX, Kassel, Germany, 1992

“At documenta,” Eva Badura-Triska writes, “the Lemure Heads were accompanied by a text entitled ‘Animismusstudien’ (‘Studies in Animism’), which included the vulgar saying in Austrian dialect, ‘Mochs Meul zua, de Scheisse stingd aussä’ (‘Shut your gob, the shit’s stinking out of it’), a crude physical metaphor intended to stop people talking nonsense. Here, it was linked to an invitation to the audience to throw ‘leftovers from the table and the kitchen’ into the figures’ mouths, where the foodstuffs ‘can be brought to putrefaction.’”

A photo of Franz West's Lemurenköpfe (Lemur Heads),1992/2000, installed in Innsbruck.

Franz West, Lemurenköpfe (Lemure Heads), 1992, (the present work) installed as part of Franz West. Die Aluskulptur, Skulptur im Schlosspark Ambras, Innsbruck, Austria, 2000

Franz West, Lemurenköpfe (Lemure Heads), 1992, (the present work) installed as part of Franz West. Die Aluskulptur, Skulptur im Schlosspark Ambras, Innsbruck, Austria, 2000

Other outdoor versions of the Lemure Heads were later installed in public spaces such as a bridge near the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna, and large examples were installed in Knokke-Heist, Belgium.

A photo of Franz West's Lemure Heads installed in Knokke-Heist, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium.

Franz West, Heads/Lemurs, 2004, installed at Knokke-Heist, Belgium

Franz West, Heads/Lemurs, 2004, installed at Knokke-Heist, Belgium

“The absurdity of many of West’s mise-en-scènes sends our minds spinning…. Transform[ing] viewers not just into users but also into thinkers…. And so we laugh at the flippant way West pairs philosophical musings with a lump of papier-mâché; or at the way he mocks traditions of modernist sculpture by balancing large abstract clumps on skinny poles and even spatulas; or at the way he updates the grand history of outdoor monuments.”

Christine Mehring, 2008

A photo of Franz West's Lemurenköpfe (Lemure Heads), 1992/2000 at the Stubenbrucke in Vienna.

Franz West, 4 Larvae (Lemur Heads), 2001, installed at the Stubenbrücke, Vienna

Franz West, 4 Larvae (Lemur Heads), 2001, installed at the Stubenbrücke, Vienna

A photo of Franz West with his Lemurenköpfe (Lemure Heads), 1992/2000, at the Stubenbrucke in Vienna.

Franz West at the Stubenbrücke, Vienna (spread from Man with a Ball, exhibition catalog, 2012)

Franz West at the Stubenbrücke, Vienna (spread from Man with a Ball, exhibition catalog, 2012)

“There is a distinct look to West’s work that defies quick visual digestion.... It veers frequently towards the biomorphic and the prosthetic, mines the intellectualism of Freud and Wittgenstein, and possesses an awkward beauty that speaks with equal fluency to the aesthetics of painterly abstraction and trash art.”

Darsie Alexander, 2008

Installation view of the Lemurenköpfe (Lemur Heads) by Franz West, dated 1992, in the Jardin de Tuilleries, Paris, in 2022.

Franz West, Lemurenköpfe (Lemur Heads), 1992, installed in the Jardin des Tuileries as part of Paris+ par Art Basel, 2022

Franz West, Lemurenköpfe (Lemur Heads), 1992, installed in the Jardin des Tuileries as part of Paris+ par Art Basel, 2022

“A certain melancholy pervades [West’s] practice. But it is a twisted melancholy. Not a simple case of ironic detachment. It is rather connected to an examination of the collapse of utopias. In light of this you might as well do something. A continuing debate about repositioning.”

Liam Gillick, 2008

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