Franz West’s death last July, at age 65, was still deeply felt in his lifelong home, Vienna, when I visited for the opening of his retrospective, “Franz West: Wo ist mein Achter?” (Where Is My Eight?), at the Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig (MUMOK) in February. Posted at the top of the steep stairway leading to the museum’s entrance was one of the sculptor’s big Lemurenköpfe (Lemur Heads), 2001, its white goblin’s face now seeming like a carnivalesque apparition from beyond the grave. The playfulness and wit that characterized West’s art throughout his career were much in evidence inside, as well, a reminder on that gray, snowy weekend of his light touch. By the mid-1970s, West and his irreverent colleagues had begun to dispel the heavy atmosphere left behind by the Vienna Actionists, and he continued over four decades to fold the daunting intellectualism of his native culture into a largely hospitable practice.
“Wo is mein Achter?” is typical of the absurdist nature of many of West’s titles. Replete with puns and neologisms, they are frequently untranslatable. This one refers to a 2003 collage, Lost Eight, in which a woman cut from an advertisement brandishes an oversize pair of pants, demonstrating a dieting triumph. The plaintive query “Where is my eight?”—a translation, approved by West, of the offbeat German—refers to the lost kilos: “acht,” which in English (“eight”) rhymes with “weight.” In devising the title of his show, was West, already suffering from his final illness, also making a mordant comment on his impending mortality, as nearly the entirety of his “weight” was about to disappear from the earth?
West was instrumental in the initial planning stages of the exhibition, working with Eva Badura-Triska, the curator who had also organized his first retrospective at MUMOK in 1996 (“Proforma,” at the museum’s previous location in the city’s Schweizergarten). Settling on 153 works from the thousands the artist produced, Badura-Triska has focused on West’s Kombi-werke (Combining Works), installations that pastiche his own and/or other artists’ works in wall displays and roomlike environments. Shown with a number of individual pieces from the span of West’s career, the Kombi-werke project a thematic consistency in his own practice over disparate periods, as well as the generous sense of community he maintained with other artists throughout his life.
“Relational” ahead of his time, West in the mid-’70s conceived his earliest sculptures, the portable Adaptives, as interactive works. The catalogue’s many photos of his artist and literary friends manipulating the unwieldy pieces can be both droll and unsettling. Made of white plaster and/or epoxy, and at first built around actual objects that leave their shapes faintly in the finished piece, the works are largely abstract, suggesting doodles and calligraphic flourishes as well as bandaged limbs. Carried about like weird prosthetics, they demand an awkward choreography from their users. “The inspiration for such movements is derived,” West said, “from the observation of waiters in tails elegantly balancing their overburdened trays through packed restaurants, coal carriers at their work, the spitting bowls used by dentists, the movement of orchestral conductors and such like.” 1
As with so much of his work, West spoke of his Adaptives in many ways; in 1980, for example, he told his poet friend Reinhard Priessnitz (1945-1985), the man who that year coined the Adaptives’ original German name, Passstücke: “The objects are to be used. They represent the potential attempt to give shape to neurotic symptoms.” 2 Such “neurosis” was comparatively gentle, given what had come before. West was present at some of the most notorious performances by the Vienna Actionists during the ’60s, including Festival of Psycho-Physical Naturalism (1963), which featured a disemboweled lamb and a lot of blood. Stunned and depressed, the 16-year-old West quit school after seeing this, but determined to become an artist. 3 He later condemned the Actionists and other self-important artists, as he saw them, for what he called Beeindruckungkunst—art designed to impress. (He placed Joseph Beuys, arguably another great influence on West’s participatory sculpture, in the same category.) Though just as deeply imbued as the Actionists with Viennese psychoanalytic thought, West took a less violent route, through his objects. 4 As Robert Storr observed, West operated through “seduction” rather than “shock.” 5 Besides, as the artist quipped, with his mother a dentist and her office adjacent to his childhood home, he had had enough of moaning patients and bloody procedures. He was done with Actionism before the fact.
Badura-Triska opens her essay for the show’s catalogue with a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), which includes the line, “Whatever we see could be other than it is.” West read Wittgenstein constantly and felt a profound affinity with his critique of the relativism of language. Malleable of contour and flexible in disposition, West’s work, too, seems constantly to shift in emphasis and meaning depending on its context. Yet however pervasive his quotation of Wittgenstein and many other philosophers in wall texts and interviews, West never followed a script; nor was he by nature didactic. And, as Badura-Triska writes, he was no postmodernist: “It would . . . be more correct to count West’s attitude among those that existed throughout the twentieth century alongside or in opposition to heroic modernism, not sharing but breaking up the latter’s linear mode of connecting and often utopian concepts of progress.” 6 West was a maker of objects, insisting on the term sculptor when others wished to call him an artist-philosopher. 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.
West did not undertake any formal training in art until 1977, when (at 30) he enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, where he remained until 1982. He had already begun making his Adaptives and showing his drawings and collages before entering the academy. By the mid-1980s he was well known in Europe, and his career accelerated from there. He was to take part in many major international exhibitions, including two Documentas and four Venice Biennales, by the time he died. He won the Biennale’s Golden Lion for lifetime achievement in 2011. 7
West began making furniture sculptures in the early ’80s, eventually installing them in small, roomlike environments that included accessories and wall-mounted pieces. While viewers could no longer pick the work up and carry it around, their engagement is just as physical as with the Adaptives, as they sit or lounge on quirky-looking chairs and sofas in cast metal, plaster, foam, textiles and other materials. Sometimes the environments are placed on low platforms, and accompanied by wall labels with literary texts, exhortations and instructions—say, inviting participants to perform various actions, take off articles of apparel, or even (in one case) to defecate. For Curaçao (1996), included in the retrospective, the label reads, “If you want to take a seat, you should remove your clothing as far as possible, but at least your shoes. A museum guard will give you a glass of curaçao every hour, on the hour. However, don’t serve yourself!” The azure liqueur is actually present in a bottle tucked into a blue, papier-mâché podlike cabinet at one end of a cast-iron sofa fitted loosely with yellow fabric; sofa and cabinet are displayed on a low wooden platform splattered with paint, like the floor of an artist’s studio.
In some of West’s smaller furniture environments, the seats are arranged so that when visitors sit down, their backs are to the wall. In this way, viewers act both as participants and conspicous objects of contemplation. West’s furniture installations can also be large and ambitious, marshaling crowds of people to engage in leisurely interactions. In 1992, for example, he created the 72-seat Auditorium at Documenta 9, contributing rows of metal sofas, each draped in an Oriental carpet, where weary visitors rested. Similar rug-draped sofas appeared in the MUMOK exhibition, in a study lounge designed for the show by West’s compatriot and friend Heimo Zobernig. Viewers relaxed there, watching monitors screening West-related interviews and documentaries; books by and about the artist were scattered on seats and tables.
As his career moved along, and he was given larger shows and surveys, West began to encounter earlier works that he reassigned and recontextualized, incorporating them into multipart Kombi-werke with fresh new titles. His previous art provided the opportunity for West to unleash freewheeling associations. In 1996, for example, he hung one of his early wall pieces, painted Pepto-Bismol pink, behind a pink-painted chair, its back to the wall. He titled the ensemble Gaumensegel (Am Zahnfleisch rutschen) [Soft Palate (Sliding on the Gums)], alluding to false teeth. He showed another version in 1997 with a copy of the wall element, retitling it Fake. Then, in 1998, he expanded the installation to include an additional four chairs, two CDs whose covers happened to be pink, and a pair of speakers that emit song cycles from those CDs, by Schubert and Schumann. He retitled it again: Chou-Chou. He had spotted the pink CD covers in a store window, which provoked a “train” of thought based on the utterance of the first syllables of the composers’ names. Moreover, in her waiting room, his mother would play Schumann and Schubert; West free-associated the color pink with his mother’s dental practice, and then with the classical music that dominated Viennese culture when he was growing up and of which he was thoroughly weary. 8
Chou-Chou represents a very personal string of associations connected to the artist’s own past, but his reach was extensive, both in numerous collaborations and in assemblages of objects by artists who constituted his international community. West conceived the two sides of the installation Synchronie (Abriss) [Synchrony (Synopsis)], 1997, as male and female, positioning his furniture in front of works by (on the male side) Michelangelo Pistoletto, Meyer Vaisman, Zobernig et al. and (on the female side) the Italian artists Carla Accardi and Mariella Simoni. A convivial nook is formed by Kasseler Rippchen (Kassel-Style Spare Ribs), 1996, a corner installation with furniture by West, objects by Jason Rhoades and Wolfgang Winter, and wall pieces by more than a dozen artists, including Albert Oehlen, Martin Kippenberger, Andreas Rohrbach, Mary Heilmann and Kiki Smith. Written on a glass tabletop, in English: “Sit down and drink a beer but leave the bottle here.”
Having produced innumerable collages and works on paper throughout his career, West would often mass them in what he called his “picture walls”-themselves a type of Kombi-werke. In the MUMOK show, Variable (1997) includes 10 wall pieces by West, dating from 1977 to ’97: mixed-medium gouaches, painted screenprints and drawings in ballpoint pen on black-and-white photographs along with two flat sculptures. His collages generally excerpt whole figures from magazines and advertising flyers, or from photographs of his friends, sometimes playing with the Adaptives. Thickly painted grounds constitute an ambience for the figures that impinges into their outlines like some amorphous, sinister force. The cheerful expressions of models as a result can look false and even grotesque, an effect exaggerated by the obscene interactions West foments among them, and the props he provides. He also created “poster” paintings for his various exhibitions, populated by the same sort of figures. Announcing the salient facts of the show in large script, they are, however, unique works that are mainly retrospective in nature. Only rarely were they produced as editions that actually advertised a show.
In the 1980s, recognizing that the Adaptives presented problems of display in galleries and museums, West began to create nonportable, self-sufficient works that he called “legitimate sculptures.” At first, he thought of them as Adaptives placed in a permanent “waiting position,” and, as with the Adaptives, he often began with found objects. MUMOK included the key 1986 sculpture Redundanz (Redundancy), which consists of three large, roughly modeled papier-mâché elements, painted slapdash, as his sculptures in this (perhaps his favorite) material tend to be. One is a tall stack of hats, perhaps a wry comment on Duchamp’s hat-rack readymade, redeemed, as it were, by the human touch. The other two elements are an accordion-fold object that embeds in papier-mâché a long curtain still on its rod and a boat-shaped form. The history of Redundanz may be taken as emblematic of West’s willingness to adapt his work to any circumstances. First exhibited at Galerie Peter Pakesch in Vienna in 1986, it was shown again later that year in conjunction with three works by Zobernig. In 1988, a dealer sold the hat element, much to West’s dismay; so he substituted a component resembling an elongated inverted pyramid, and retitled the work Reduktion (Reduction). Over the years, MUMOK managed to acquire all four parts (in essence two works) and showed Redundanz with the substitute element of Reduktion propped against a nearby wall—”redundant,” indeed.
West often fashioned papier-mâché into large, aggressively modeled units shaped roughly like heads. Parrhesia (Freedom of Speech), 2012, for example, consists of seven such “heads” mounted with spikes to wooden cartons; their expressive surfaces and singular profiles suggest a voluble gathering. West used the head shape in the Lemurenköpfe as well for more than a decade. Made of a corporeal plaster-and-gauze, they could be quite gargantuan, much larger than the sentry outside the museum, with wobbly-edged open holes for eyes and mouths. “I like to drink a lot,” West observed in a 1998 interview; “sometimes in the morning when you wake up you have a really bad head and, in the blanket you sometimes see faces. They say that you see lemurs.” Appearing in folklore, West said, the term was “used to describe people as half human, half ape. These lemurs however come from the Roman lemures, the ghosts of the dead.” 9
In 1996, West’s “legitimate sculptures” evolved into the large-scale riveted-aluminum works that, installed in parks, museum plazas and sculpture gardens, have come to represent the artist’s public face. In making a sudden turn to single colors at once cheerful and, imposed on natural settings, obnoxious—tangerine, sky blue, pink and other pastel hues—he alluded to the death of his beloved half brother, Otto Kobalek, in 1995. As West explained, the colors “really seemed to me like a bunch of flowers for his funeral.” 10 And these sculptures truly do have an ambivalent presence. Are they hospitable or menacing, benign or scatological? Are their colors friendly or sickly? The more phallic shapes can look positively obscene in photographs in which people appear, somehow morphing into three dimensions the scenarios of his collages.
Two such sculptures on view at MUMOK were completed posthumously. One of them, a blue flourish over 18 feet tall, looks from one angle like the letter W in a shaky cursive. It was claimed for seating by the amiable crowd that gathered for a performance on the Sunday following the opening. There was a wistfulness hovering about the ample spaces, for West was a social being and, however international his ties, his connections to the local scene ran deep. On board: an avant-garde duo, Philipp Quehenberger and Didi Kern, who performed an exhilarating, deafening round of “electronic jazz and noise.” They were among the artist’s favorite musicians; he regularly attended their gigs at a local club.
Also that afternoon, a Bulgarian dancer named Ivo Dimchev performed energetically with four or five of West’s Adaptives to a soundtrack of electronic music; he appears as well in two videos, part of a 2010 Kombi-werk called Ion. On a platform near the monitor screening the videos, a 2010 epoxy-resin cast of an original Adaptive from 1975-76, shaped roughly like a 6 or 9, is available for visitors to pick up and use any way they wish, creating impromptu duets with Dimchev. Companions were snapping pictures on their iPhones, much as West’s friends recorded each other manipulating the Adaptives in the early years. It seemed the Adaptives had come full circle, the collaborative spirit of the work living on despite its author’s demise.
Currently on view “Franz West: Wo ist mein Achter?,” at the Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, Germany, June 29-Oct. 13.