A delightful court jester in an art world that often takes itself too seriously, Franz West straddles the line between the solemn and the absurd. His poignant forms—maladroit groupings of furniture; eccentric, misshapen, polychrome lumps of papier-mâché and plaster in bright outlandish colors; ambiguous organic shapes; and complex collages with sexual undertones—are permeated by a fairy-tale atmosphere. West’s 1994 installation Rest, 27 welded steel couches with cotton slipcovers and accompanying tables, was featured on the rooftop of the DIA Foundation in New York. He has shown outdoor works at Documenta IX and X, at Lincoln Center in 2004, and at the 2006 Venice Biennale, where an eerie “Lemure” head, visible from the Grand Canal, seductively beckoned visitors into Palazzo Grassi. The exhibition “Franz West, To Build a House You Start with the Roof,” curated by Darsie Alexander, was organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art and is on view at the L.A. County Museum of Art through June 7.
West considers the viewer’s physical engagement an essential part of the art experience. This is evident both in his “Adaptives” (“Paßtucke”), human-scaled, plaster sculptures meant to be held and worn by museum visitors, and in later installations incorporating cabinets, tables, and chairs. Over the course of nearly four decades, West’s intriguing forms, provocative collages, and giant outdoor installations have played a significant role in redefining and expanding the boundaries of sculpture. Some see his work as an important precursor to current interests in relational aesthetics and interactive installation environments, defying categorization and enlisting viewers rather then simply addressing audiences.
Elaine A. King: Few contemporary artists recognize the power of humor and farce, yet both resound through your work. You came of age while the Viennese Actionists were active, between 1960 and ’71. However, you rejected the transgressive performances, naked bodies, destructiveness, and violence of Hermann Nitsch, Otto Mühl, and Günther Brus. Why did you explore another avenue?
Franz West: The Actionists are all approximately 10 years older than me. I think that Actionism in its most brutal form was a reaction to the Nazi period, which I did not directly witness or experience. That period held no direct relevance for me beyond historical information. Perhaps my mother’s dental practice played a vitally influential role in shaping my attitude and aesthetic. She had her office in a room of our home, and I was filled with horror at the organic, decomposing materials in that medical space. I preferred to look into the future, which I saw as being optimistic. The forerunners of Pop art became known here in Vienna at that time, and art with a connection to daily life and to color was important.
EAK: Often when people discuss your work they reference the Austrian scholars Freud and Wittgenstein.
FW: Yes, they and their work are relevant in the sense that it was de rigueur for a young artist at that time to adopt their way of thinking; this resulted in a particular prevailing mood from which one worked. That’s how their ideas influenced my thinking.