A Tribute to Franz West: Part One
16 February 1947 – 25 July 2012
Featuring WORK, WRITINGS, press clippings, ADAPTIVES, a look at the retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, HANS ULRICH OBRIST and FRANZ WEST in conversation, & MORE.
In the Pink! On the Funny, Filthy Art of Franz West.
A myth is not the same thing as a lie, in much the same way that an artist is not quite the same thing as a politician — it would seem to me to be entirely reasonable, therefore, to treat a maybe-untrue but true seeming anecdote about an artist like the real thing, and especially reasonable in the rare case in which the anecdote in question perfectly describes the artist. “In 1968,” writes Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker, “Franz 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, traumatised silence by rising to say, ‘Thank you very much. I enjoyed your performance enormously. I think these gentlemen have earned a round of applause.’”
“I used to associate pink with intimate things. When I was a child, ladies generally had pink [underwear]. If you looked under their skirts, you saw pink.”
Proximate to masturbation and scatology, hilarious and at ease with the avant-garde, sardonic and — impossibly and simultaneously — polite: Franz West, c’est toi. The fact that West claimed that he had no memory of the incident seems borderline irrelevant; its “tone of devastating benevolence,” argues Schjedahl, “essentialises the funny, redemptive pivot that his art made in the mood and mode of Vienna’s avant-garde.” Treat it like a superhero’s on-the-nose origin story, and the work succeeding it makes perfect sense: consider sculptures shaded like cartoon-pink dicks and shaped like turds, resembling nothing else exactly, and yet biological and Freudian enough to scare the horses. It’s absurd that we consider baby pink to be the territory of millennials, and sunshine yellow the preserve of Gen Z, when in fact both colours practically belong to West. “Pink seemed [a] primary [colour] to me,” he said. “I used to associate pink with intimate things. When I was a child, ladies generally had pink [underwear]. If you looked under their skirts, you saw pink. I became interested in yellow later on. Yellow can be compared to urine or gold. For me, yellow was a symbol of saying yes to life.”
Born in 1947, and raised in a “filthy” housing block teeming with former-Nazi tenants, West was the son of a coal-dealing father and a Jewish dentist mother, meaning that he was no stranger to dirt, threat, perversity or the realities of the imperfect human body from the outset. By the time he reached his late teens, blood and suffering a la Brus fatigued him. “Every forty minutes,” he recalled, “a new [dental] patient was screaming.” “The sounds of whirling drills,” Frieze magazine suggested, “and the image of his mother creating white and pink moulds of teeth from plaster and resin” impacted the visual language of his work: “[the] garish pastel pinks and greens…recall the materials his mother used in her dental practice.” “By the mid-1970s,” critic Fiona Hirsch wrote, not long after his untimely death at 65, “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…Though just as deeply imbued as the Actionists with Viennese psychoanalytic thought, West took a less violent route, through his objects. As [curator] Robert Storr observed, West operated through ‘seduction’ rather than ‘shock.’”
“In 2006,” Wurm once recalled, “I installed the work House Attack on the roof of [the Austrian museum] Mumok. At the time, Franz West wrote me a note saying how angry he was about this work because it was not his idea. That was a great compliment.” The work, a full-sized house appearing to have been delivered from the sky, precarious and drunk, has Wurmian and Westian qualities by dint of not being especially hard to understand, but being particularly hard to see in person without feeling something primitive, amygdalan. (If there is a Latin name for the phobia of being crushed by, for example, an enormous falling house, I cannot find it: one might venture to suggest that outside Latin, the official term is “being sane.”) It is one of art’s most tedious paradoxes that work not adequately alienating for the viewer is too often seen as alienating for the critic. West, being what Schjeldahl calls “an urbane hippie,” is less interested in academic muscle, and the flexing of it, than he is in flesh. “For all West’s playfulness,” the critic Adrian Searle writes at The Guardian, “as a man as well as an artist, and the lewdness of many of his sculptures…he was a serious, largely self-taught reader and thinker, especially of philosophical and psychoanalytic literature.”
“I remember asking the question, years ago: can a sculpture be embarrassing?” the artist Erwin Wurm told me this spring. “Not in the sense that it is bad, or in the sense that it’s embarrassing for the artist — but in the sense that it addresses the emotion of embarrassment, the ridiculousness of it. The most marginal concerns of our existence can also be the most important ones, because they help us to address the bigger issues, like death and so on.” Wurm, like West, is Austrian; like West, whose own Adaptives series is a clear precursor to his interactive One Minute Sculptures, Wurm has frequently transmogrified absurdity into something more piquant, i.e. more like life and death. Shame, its own specific brand of fear, makes body and soul work in parallel like no other emotion, other than perhaps love, and there is no quicker way to make a viewer feel aware of the stupidity of his or her biology than to display it in a funhouse mirror. Humans are not sleek, aerodynamic, and even nonpareil examples of the species — per the media: athletes, models, movie stars et cetera — look odd, like a thing-half formed, when viewed with an artist’s alienlike remove.
And thank God, in light of the art world’s persistent snobbery, for an autodidact! In a recent profile of our greatest living lewd and bodily sculptor, Sarah Lucas, for The New York Times, the paper’s art critic Roberta Smith identifies her work’s prevailing tone as — how extremely West — a “tender sarcasm.” Like Franz West, whom she adores, and with whom she collaborated several times before his death in 2012, Lucas employs nudge nudge, wank wank irreverence (no move more iconic, in the age of MeToo and ironic misandry, than having your first solo show and calling it, back in 1990, PENIS NAILED TO A BOARD) as a smokescreen for her spooky, preternatural genius. “Franz West was really original,” she told The Telegraph in 2013. “He was one of the rare people who could really do it – like a conjuring trick. Franz could make a sculpture standing there [on the pavement]. And I know I’ve got it too, because I look back at all the things I’ve made and it’s amazing, because I’m never busy, I’ve never got a studio, and I haven’t got anybody working for me. Where does it come from? It’s an intuitive thing. Keeping it in the air.”
Intuition, and not training, is the cornerstone of greatness, and the reason that the wit and satirist Fran Leibowitz is fond of saying that creative study is like “going to tall school.” Lucas and West both attended, in this parlance. “tall school” — The Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna for late-blooming West, at 26, and The Working Men’s College, The London School of Printing, and Goldsmiths for Lucas — but they did not necessarily achieve their stature as a consequence. West, in classic urbane hippie mode, was fond of quoting Joseph Beuys’ belief that “every human being is an artist.” (Interesting to note: in an on-camera interview, in which she praises Franz West as “a wizard” making work like “free jazz,” Lucas self-identifies as “an old hippie,” making hippiedom another of their mirror qualities.) Any time his friends described an artwork he had made as “beautiful,” he trashed it. “I have always thought that the ideal,” he also often said, “is to do nothing, and still be able to make a living out of it.”
“The objects are to be used. They represent the potential attempt to give shape to neurotic symptoms.”
“West,” writes critic Julie Ryan, “would refer to himself as ‘lazy.’ He described waking up in the middle of the night to eat a few slices of meat from the refrigerator, just to get enough energy so he could fall back asleep again.” How perverse (and so, once more: how West) for an artist famous for his work’s vitality to self-identify as an inactive bum; how modern, and how borderline-millennial-memeable, to be so proudly and pleasurably unenergetic in the face of one’s success. He did not, of course, believe that everyone should be inert, even if he did genuinely think that everyone had the capacity to be an artist: his Adaptables — in West’s tongue, Paßstücke, a term first coined by the poet Richard Preissnitz — relied on the movement and activity, and the bodies, of those viewers who were brave enough to step up and manipulate them. What they were intended to reveal, however, was not physical, but psychological. “The objects,” he explained, “are to be used. They represent the potential attempt to give shape to neurotic symptoms.”
“What is sculpture?” Erwin Wurm once asked an interviewer, before giving his own personal answer to the question: “Sculpture is to add volume, to take volume away, and you can also say that when you gain or lose weight.” If gaining or losing weight, in literal and physical terms, is an act of sculpture, why would carrying around neuroses — unwieldy, transformative, a block to intimacy or to sudden and impulsive action — not be? West has merely visualised their psychological effects. At his retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, which opened in September 2018, the Adaptables are on display for members of the public to pick up, to lie on, to hold (although there are apparently no telling, comically-revealing mirrors in the gallery’s display, despite the fact that when the Paßstücke were shown during West’s lifetime, there quite often were). If “beauty” is worth trashing, silliness — and the resulting, or often-resulting, ugliness — are to be elevated; audiences who understand this will enjoy the work just fine. “A West exhibition,” said The Telegraph’s obituary, “[often] resembled nothing so much as a set from Monty Python. Those who did not mind manhandling or climbing aboard some suggestively ambiguous-looking piece of sculpture could become part of West’s DIY theatre. Those whose strong point was not audience participation were often left squirming for the exit.” “It doesn’t matter what the art looks like,” the artist grinned, “but how it’s used.”
When West says that it does not matter what the work looks like, but how you use it, is it an intentional double-entendre? No doubt. The large, pink phallic forms he makes are rumoured to be commentary on the soft-porn industry; his interest in the chair as an art object sprang in part, he said, from realising that “stuhl [chair] and stuhlgang [bowel movements] sound a bit like each other.” In an interview from 1998, he refers to the “doubtless now denture-wearing” members of Pink Floyd, and answers an enquiry as to whether he has ever taken crystal meth with a deadpan (or is it?): “of course!” The retrospective he was working on before he died, which opened shortly after in the spring of 2013, was called Wo ist mein Achter?, meaning Where is my Eight? “[The title of the show] 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,” Art in America’s Faye Hirsch explained, in her review. “The plaintive query…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?” Again, no doubt — it seems unlikely West would miss an opportunity to make a joke about death, especially at his own expense.