PRINT March 1989


FRANZ WEST'S SCULPTURES ORBIT around opposing poles. Their initial impact is of a kind of bodily impurity—the forms are amorphous, the surfaces crusty, even coarse. Yet there is also an underlying elegance in these works, even a hyperelegance, as if their blemishes of the skin had erupted from some dazzling interior charge. They are at once Caliban and Ariel.

To combat the “cleanly” aspects of Modernism—the Modernism of even, unornamented lines and coolly ideated forms—is an old trait in Viennese art, which, from Hermann Nitsch’s and Otto Mühl’s physical-theater Aktionismus work back through Secession painters such as Gustav Klimt, Richard Gerstl, and Egon Schiele, has posited esthetic good hygiene as anti-body and therefore anti-life. To varying degrees, such artists consciously turned away from social reality in favor of a quasi-autistic, narcissistic focus on the self and on the body—a fascination perhaps appropriate in the city of Freud, who similarly excavated the hidden psychosexuality beneath the bourgeois front. Yet Vienna was also where Adolf Loos spent most of his working life, and where he proposed and demonstrated an architecture that might as well have been the model against which these artists reacted—austere, plain, clean, cerebral. And as the city of the Hapsburgs, Vienna was an imperial capital of brilliance and luxury.

Perhaps the dialogue in West’s works between physicality and elegance is an inheritance from the feudal structure of the old empire, which was largely a relationship between the peasant classes and the aristocracy, with the bourgeoisie triangulating them relatively weakly, even in the regime’s last days. And his work also applies a strict logic in its working process: all appearances to the contrary, this is not an expressionistic art, but employs a rigorously conceptual approach to form. It breaks with the idea of the closeness of gesture and psyche in the act of creation, an item of faith for Nitsch, Arnulf Rainer, Siegfried Anzinger, and others, and engages instead a certain ceremoniousness, a deliberateness in its language, an intellectual underpinning in its vocabulary. West does not try to smooth over or synthesize these various tensions; rather, he sounds them out, charges them with new meaning. His works are always attempts to dissolve their own fabric—the intellectual, psychic, material, and formal stuff of which they are made. Here his stretched, attenuated forms, his bravuras of stasis, speak for themselves.

To abbreviate a rather lengthy debate, let’s agree that contemporary sculpture functions less as a continuation of ’60s Minimalism, as Harald Szeemann proposes, than as a complex, argumentative challenge to it. For even though Minimalism contributed to the thinking on sculpture a philosophical dimension that remains important to artists like West, its attitude to corporeality has been pretty much abandoned. When Minimal art attempted to strip sculpture of its relationship to the body, of its reference to the organic, and removed it from its privileged position on the pedestal, the end of the art form seemed to have been reached. (These were also the years of the “death of painting.”) Yet (or perhaps therefore) in the ’70s, when the theoretical impulse of Minimal art was played out (though Minimal forms remained influential), the body returned, even if only in the new work’s encouragement of an entirely different level of physical participation from the viewer. The sculpture of the ’70s was less static, less neutral—less radically confrontational—than Minimalism proper; it asked to be explored, yielding different views from different positions (where a Donald Judd cube was cubic no matter how you looked at it). It was more interactive, proposing what Manfred Schneckenburger has called “forms of action” to its viewers, action both intellectual and corporeal. Thus West’s early “Paszstücke” (Well-fitting pieces), which developed in the mid ’70s as a confrontation with Aktionismus and with the Minimalism-related work of such European artists as Franz Erhard Walther, were manipulable rather than simply visual structures. These eccentric forms are abstract yet relatable to the human body, suggesting musical instruments that one could play, or masks or strange costumes one could dance or perform in. And in fact West has made photographs and videos of people “wearing” or otherwise behaving with the “Paszstücke,” which look like neurotic expressions or extensions of their bodies.

In the early ’80s, after studying with Bruno Gironcoli at Vienna’s Akademie der Bildenden Künste, West was greatly influenced by his confrontations with panchromatic sculpture and with the “new figuration” in the emergent painting of the period. For West, a solution to the problems of sculpture could never be a simple return to the representation of the body, or a complete abandonment of the theoretical positions of Minimalism in favor of an expressionistic approach. He was more concerned to create a complex correlative to Minimalism, to create, so to speak, a plastic space, whether on or off the pedestal didn’t matter, in which moments of immediate relationship between the object and the body, an exploration of the psychic mechanisms of the audience’s reception of the work, and intellectual chains of association all could merge. His pieces in the “Aperto” exhibition at the 1988 Venice Biennale are an example: only after reading their title, “Geraune,” and a brief text in the catalogue could one recognize his impudent, luxuriant abstract accumulations as very specific forms of body language—as mouths, as Raunen (whispers), making these hollow forms into speaking sculptures.

The everyday object and the sculptural object, solidity or density and skin, quick pun and considered theoretical thought—these are the tensions that animate West’s work, along with a questioning of the traditions of sculptural form, particularly Minimalist ideas of the “body” of sculpture. Most often, West works in the tradition of the found object, but the everyday things he uses he alters unrecognizably, layering on papier-mâché, paint, or metallic foil as a means of tackling enormous sculptural issues: stasis, the relationship between object and body, intellectual plan as opposed to spontaneity, and so forth. The final forms and colors completely hide whatever object was their starting point; Ulrich Loock has called them “plastic crusts,”1 since the solid corporeal interior of traditionally modeled sculpture is absent from them.

Works in tin such as Eo Ipso, 1987, shown at the “Skulptur Projekte in Münster” exhibition in 1987, can also be understood as crusts: in that their inner substance is no more substantial than the thickness of the sheet metal of which they are made, they are a coalescence of the density of sculptural matter and the sculptural skin. At the same time, they refer to the world outside art, the “life-world,” in which all of us, including the artist, reside. Eo Ipso, for example, can be seen as a distorted chair or love seat or public bench, and in Münster was shown outdoors, on the sidewalk of a street in a residential neighborhood. It presented itself, in other words, in the space of general experience rather than in the seclusion that conventionally houses art; but the space the work created was one that charged all the forms and materials within it, and all the passersby moving through it, shifting them into a dimension of the conceptual and the psychic. Or perhaps it might be better to say that the work creates a situation in which the viewer charges the art—that this energy is a projection of the audience. And the audience includes West, for he identifies with the viewer, in a projection of his own that sets him somewhat outside his own work. Thus he can collaborate with friends on texts that appear in catalogues and wall panels as integral parts of the sculptures. This associative exchange among writers, musicians, critics, and others is where the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk surfaces in his art; the synthetic, syncretic spirit it reflects can also be seen as an artistic need at the end of the ’80s, and as a specifically Austrian heritage at least since the Baroque.

The attitudes, gestures, and movements that the “Paszstücke” transfer from the dimension of action into the dimension of form and back again are generally cramped, tense, sometimes almost hysterical. This suggestion of some kind of loss of physical and mental integrity is part of a hallucinatory externalization of certain parts of the body in West’s work, and of their alienation from familiarity by processes of thinning and thickening as well as of separation. (For all their synthetic character, West’s titles—Zitat [Quote, 1985], Bemerkungen [Remarks, 1986], Approximation, 1986, for example—often also emphasize the fragmentary.) As protuberances, tumors, and isolated objects, eyes, ears, noses, and mouths finally fall into muteness and anesthesia. In Römische Allüre (Roman allure, 1984), they are set on flexible iron rods, which tremble with any vibration. The results have a quality of the grotesque, though in this case the forms are neither cramped nor clumsy. Other works—Tagesröte (Dawning light, 1985), for example, a ridged wall relief—barely show their derivation from the figure, in this case from the thorax and shoulder blades. And their colors, ranging from a broken white to lip pink, may relate to the colors of flesh, but are sweet instead of gruesome. Internalizing their references to the body, these works liberate for themselves a broad, poetic intellectual horizon.

Here we can distinguish two tendencies in West’s art. First, in the earlier part of his development, he used a vocabulary of simultaneous reduction of form—the shapes are as briefly drawn as a sketch—and a kind of overstuffing of content introduced by titles and supplementary writings. These pieces include flat reliefs like Freude, 1985, a title that the accompanying text describes as a feminine form of “Freud,” but that also means “joy”; the text further reveals that the work’s image, a three-dimensional golden meander on a golden field, is a reference to urinating in the sand. Idiosyngramm, 1985—the word again a punning compound of references to language, drawing, idiosyncrasy—is another flat, ribbonlike relief, also in gold, and we are told that it refers to Gerstl’s almost physical aversion to the decorative art of Klimt. The most important work of this group is from 1985, an untitled freestanding ghost in papier-mâché-covered wire. Accompanying the piece in the place of a title is a small drawing taken from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Vorlesungen und Gespräche über Asthetik, Psychologie, und Religion (Lectures and talks on esthetics, psychology, and religion, 1968); the drawing is simply what Wittgenstein called senseless scribbling, a scrawl that gains meaning only in the play of language, in its social use. West has transformed what in his accompanying text he calls “the styling of the figure” into an autonomous sculptural form.

A second approach, taken in West’s more recent work, operates not by the reduction of forms but by the transgression of boundaries, the transference of one identity into another. These are the everyday objects—tools, furniture—covered with papier-mâchè and thick paint. Zitat is a bed frame covered with lead foil; other works use tables, ironing boards, drums, barrels, trunks, bottles, and such. All lose entirely the quality of their own selfhood as objects, unfolding in the working process, and in the projections of the viewer, into things entirely other. Approximation is based on two screens or room dividers that have been built up with plaster and then covered thickly with pink paint. One of them shows the relief of a hook or hanger, a shape roughly echoing the plan of the two screens. As in certain of Richard Serra’s works, we are confronted with a pair of elements standing in a tense relationship to one another and to us; a narrow column of empty space is drawn between them, and they demand that we move around or squeeze through them if they are to be fully seen. The deep furrows of their surfaces may also choreograph a physical action in the spectator. Any kind of screen, of course, divides and thus creates space; that is its function. But West makes this object and action monumental, and here we must explain a pun in the etymology of the German word for monument, Denkmal: literally, it means “Think now,” and this is the sense of West’s work, a stimulus for thought and for remembrance.

West’s recent sculptures are not images of the human body but rather reflections of the body’s environment as he interprets it. Their colorful, swollen, amorphous forms, made in collaboration with the painter Herbert Brandl, can be read in many ways. Kollega (Colleague, 1988) is accompanied by a quotation of the 19th-century Austrian physicist Ernst Mach: Und wenn ich einen Geist sehe, so sehe ich wirklich einen Geist (And when I see a ghost, I really see a ghost). Accordingly, West’s ghosts are not ghostlike, or anything so picturesque and evanescent. His concern is not with nature but with language, thought, and sight, and if there are ghosts in his work they move with the animism, the self-animation, of the art object. West has also made works constituted of functional objects that have barely been altered: tables and chairs with carpet stretched over them, for example, in the “Nature morte” series, 1987–88; the outdoor metal chairs shown in “Skulpturen Republik,” an exhibition last fall in Vienna on the topic of art in public spaces; or the Austrian barber’s table he has retitled Psyche, 1987. These last pieces return to the problems West addressed in the “Paszstücke”: here are forms that develop out of the body only in the rather contradictory sense that they are made for it, and not necessarily for its comfort. Teasingly, West writes about one of the chairs, “Vergessen Sie nicht, gelegentlich die Beine übereinander zu schlagen” (Don’t forget to cross your legs occasionally). The chair is positioned so that anyone sitting in it is confronted with a blank wall. Yet Leonardo was able to find endless artistic possibility in just the kind of view the chair invites us to practice. The work’s placement, and West’s awareness of the reactive role of the viewer, aims for a readjustment of our perceptions and senses.

West’s art, despite the precision with which it is realized, invokes the idea of process: it actually incarnates process, in fact, by constantly incorporating and digesting foreign objects. (Loock has remarked on the digestive quality of making papier-mâché.) Thus the work bullies images of social interactions, relationships, and emotions out of an involuntary, organic function of our own corporeality. These hysterical reflections of the body, these objects overtaken by neurosis, this punning language of words whose meanings are always breaking down for reuse in some other sense, can all be seen as references to or invocations of the biological cycle of life. Perhaps West’s sculptures may be seen as waste products, as stand-ins for the kind of scatological stuff that is pictured abstractly in Freude. In the context of the museum or gallery, this would give them a certain radical subversiveness—embodiments of digestion, they mock what would digest them. But the stronger current of meaning is simply to do with life, with the body, and with a sculpture that can somehow keep its truth to these human constants but also, through the application of mind, can renew it in fresh form.

Helmut Draxler is a writer who lives in Vienna. He contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.



1. See Ulrich Loock, Franz West, exhibition catalogue, Bern: Kunsthalle, 1988.

An exhibition of Franz West’s work will be shown at P.S. New York, from April 23 to June 11.