Franz West (1947–2012)

Franz West, 2009. Photo: Markus Rössle.

IN 1999, I curated an exhibition of the work of Mike Kelley and Franz West in Brussels. Catherine Bastide joined me in this adventure; it took place almost by chance, and was based solely on an intuition that those two bodies of work had something to say to each other, and together something to say to the times—which were then dominated by identity politics and relational aesthetics. I had worked with Mike before, but never with Franz. We all met in Franz’s home in Vienna. The idea was to record a conversation between us that would also lead to the exhibition. I was young, inexperienced, and extremely awed by these two. Mike was simultaneously reluctant and interested; Franz was on his guard. The conversation became the catalogue, as well as a theater play later presented at FRAC Angoulême with an amateur theater group. Franz simply asked the actors to yell the text at each other as fast and as loud as possible to a soundtrack by Peter Weibel’s proto-punk band, Hotel Morphila. Everyone made fun of us, and the result was aggressive and hilarious.

It was obvious that Mike and Franz admired each other’s work. It was also clear they would never have much to do with one another on a personal level. They never befriended. Mike’s analytical approach and hyperanxiety did not sit well with Franz’s constructed nonchalance and hedonism, with the pleasure he took in not saying much although it was clear he saw and understood it all. Indeed, Franz took great pleasure in gently torturing the agoraphobic Mike with long drives in the woods outside of Vienna, indulging in delicious meals and small conversations at long tables populated by his ever changing entourage.

In 2003, I invited Franz to participate in the Lyon Biennial. On that occasion, I hoped to combine his work with that of Bruno Gironcoli, who had been one of his most influential professors at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. We met at Gironcoli’s studio, a grotto-like warehouse from which the walls had to be torn down in order to accommodate transport for his gigantic sculptures. Gironcoli suffered from a severe brain tumor; he was himself an obese giant, an ogre who could not speak anything but German, and he was constantly drooling and falling asleep. But when Franz arrived to meet us, he was extremely respectful and gentle with Gironcoli, who obviously resented him for his success. It was, to say the least, a highly uncomfortable encounter, and yet it resulted in two wonderful rooms in the Biennial.

Franz had an intoxicating capacity to drift freely through everyday experience. He knew how to enjoy cars, antiques, food, gems, books, and he was always looking for people who could follow him while preserving the lightness of it all, a lightness that came to him at a very high price. He was seduction made man, a combination of acute insight, aristocratic detachment, dark humor, and talent. He could see through people, and he knew exactly what he could or could not do with you. And his intelligence sometimes led him to play with people as a puppet master. But really, how far he would go was always up to you.

While I was working on an exhibition in Toulouse, France, in 2011, nearly every day I passed one of Franz’s sculptures, installed in a public garden. There is almost no trace of the contemporary in Toulouse, and I noticed that the tall, organic pink metal structure was used as a meeting point for teenagers, and that people had their picture taken at its feet. I was told the city had been afraid of people’s reaction to the sculpture, anticipating rejection and degradation. In the end, it was clearly adopted as a sign of freedom and pleasure, creating its own playful and contemporary space.

I can only think of Franz as someone deep and brilliant and painfully clairvoyant, someone who decided to opt for life and to find joy, beauty, and humor in the lowest and the highest alike, reinventing sculpture while doing so.

Anne Pontégnie is co-director of Le Consortium in Dijon, France, and curator of the Cranford Collection in London.