PRINT November 2012


Franz West

Franz West, Wegener Räume 2/6–5/6, 1988, metal, wood, papier- mâché, gauze, paint, plaster, collage. Installation view, Galerie Peter Pakesch, Vienna.


AS SOMEONE WHO HAS WORKED in the field of art for a long time, and who sees art as an essential part of human identity, I have always found it a great privilege to be able to watch firsthand the gradual development of an artist. I feel especially privileged to have done so in the case of an artist as outstanding as Franz West. I knew Franz for many years, and for more than two decades I worked closely with him in a variety of roles: as a gallerist, friend, and museum curator. I was always amazed by the way he continually altered our notions of how art functions and what it means. For Franz, art was always interaction: an intellectual challenge as well as a sublime aesthetic experience. It is this combination that makes his oeuvre both so uniquely appealing and so radical.

In 1978, I went to pick up several of Valie Export’s pieces from Vienna’s Galerie Nächst St. Stephan for an exhibition I was organizing of her work at the Forum Stadtpark in Graz. In this venerable setting, an artist unknown to both myself and the wider public was installing a show. I was taken by his work, and we struck up a conversation, fascinating and very particular to him, which continued for years throughout many exciting projects. St. Stephan was already a major Viennese gallery at the time, and it was reportedly thanks to the support of Reinhard Priessnitz, the poet who was a mentor to Franz and others in 1970s Vienna, that he was invited to show there. But the invitation turned out to be something of a misunderstanding. The gallery staff was not prepared for his way of thinking and acting, for his collages and what they meant. Franz fundamentally questioned the Viennese system and syntax of art. His works commented on recent art movements and other Viennese artists, which was not necessarily pleasant for a well-known gallery that had seen power struggles in its not so distant past. The selection of each collage was determined by a debate over cultural politics, and many were rejected. He immediately gave me—an unknown young curator—some of the pieces that were turned down, and I still treasure them. That was part of his generosity and his way of communicating. Understanding how objects and artworks come about and are exchanged was essential to him, because he always wanted to transfer ideas, thoughts, and emotions in the most direct way. These obsessions fueled the kind of interaction that made his work so new.

Years later, in 1991, we went to Moscow when Viktor Misiano invited Franz and Heimo Zobernig to produce an in situ work in connection with one of the first international projects in perestroika Russia, “Apt-Art International.” Franz fabricated one of his Passstück (“adaptives”) sculptures and took it out into the street. There he asked people walking by to pose with the piece while he photographed them. Some weeks later he did the same, with the same Passstück, in Chicago. These moments of surprise created some of the most astonishing photographs: The passersby contributed to and became part of the artwork. This created an original, dynamic space of interaction for the viewer, a mode of reception and engagement that we could only retrospectively recognize as “new.”

I can remember a vast number of such stories, in which Franz would activate artworks in situations and locations that were just slightly off the radar. In this way, he not only created some of the most stunning sculptures of the past thirty years, setting new boundaries for the three-dimensional, but also changed our praxis of art. Franz reminded us that art’s influence extended far beyond the gallery, that it could be a force with the power to define our existence.

Franz’s passion for philosophy, language, and music should be seen with these broader interests and ambitions in mind. He would read philosophical texts “like fashion magazines,” as Peter Noever once pointed out, and he related to a whole range of Viennese identities and traditions, weaving them all into an original system. Freud and Wittgenstein became part of this, as did Viennese Actionism and his reflections on Adolf Loos’s architectural theory. In music, Franz was very early in appreciating the work of Giacinto Scelsi as well as in embracing the new electronic scene in his town, and so was far beyond the Viennese musical tastes of those days. And he constantly tested all this knowledge and experience of history through his encounters with the public and fellow artists. Again, interaction was the key word, and a process he continually scrutinized and refined. This process generated a wealth of unique friendships and collaborations, which made our cooperation in my gallery in Vienna in the 1980s and early 1990s so special. Giving and taking with the greatest generosity and the most fastidious reflection—this was the essence of Franz West.

Peter Pakesch is head of Austria’s Universal­museum Joanneum and Kunsthaus Graz, where he curated a retrospective of Franz West’s work in 2010. He was also West’s gallerist from 1984 to 1993.

Franz West in his Sandwirtgasse studio, Vienna, 1988. Photo: Archiv Galerie Peter Pakesch, Wien Museum.


IN THE SPRING 1989, Alanna Heiss and I curated “Possibility” at P.S. 1 in New York, the first large exhibition of Franz West’s work in a US museum. The project had been proposed to us by Peter Pakesch, then Franz’s main representative at his eponymous gallery in Vienna. The exhibition seemed to be part of a surge of interest in Franz, not only in Austria but abroad, facilitated in no small part by Pakesch’s strong advocacy of his work (he garnered major support for the show from the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Arts, and Culture). An exhibition of Franz’s work titled “Seats and Sculptures” had opened just a few weeks earlier at the Koury Wingate Gallery in New York, while Pakesch had shown Wegener Räume 2/6–5/6, 1988—a work named after the balloonist, geologist, and explorer Alfred Wegener, in which Franz installed chambers and booths that interconnected individual objects to create sculptures of almost seismic proportion—in his own gallery from November 1988 until late January 1989.

Both Galerie Peter Pakesch and Koury Wingate Gallery contributed directly to the transportation of works for our show as well as the production of new pieces, which were made on-site at P.S. 1 by Franz and his assistant, master welder Mathis Esterhazy. With almost seventy pieces on view, the exhibition had a budget totaling some $100,000, one-fifth of which went to the making of new works. Looking back, I am struck by how incredibly economical this seems compared with the costs of mounting similar exhibitions today. “Possibility” was, I think, a pioneering example of a collaborative, perfectly orchestrated, serious international effort to introduce the work of an unfamiliar artist to a fresh commercial and cultural environment: a form of public-private partnership that is more and more common today. Franz could not have cared less about the ins and outs of this system of organization, but it did offer him complete flexibility and freedom in revisiting existing works and creating new work.

Franz worked in the basement of P.S. 1 on a daily basis for at least one month, although I remember him mainly staring through the barred windows and musing about the rogue scenes—huge pickup trucks and Chevrolets, Catholic Koreans and even more Catholic Puerto Ricans, wiseguys and flirting teenagers—in the street beyond. Program coordinator R. H. Quaytman made great Polaroids of Franz’s smiling, inquisitive gazes. It was in the basement of P.S. 1, while joining Franz’s fabrication efforts, that I saw a connection between his work and a problem that Wittgenstein posed in his Grundlagen der Mathematik: A man believes himself to be imprisoned in a room, because he cannot pull the door open. In reality, the door is unlocked. It does not occur to the man to push at the door. Instead, he pulls at it fruitlessly. This absurd linguistic and physical situation inspired photographer Ari Marcopoulos and our fabulous editor and publisher, the late Carole Kismaric, to make a raw picture book documenting the exhibition titled Possibilities, which included an essay by Jeffrey Rian. It ended: “In America, where Gemütlichkeit is shunned, where prepacked fast-food is considered a time saver so that one can ‘live’ freer, and where eroticism is expressed through voyeurism, how can an artist like Franz West be understood? . . . West reminds us that comfort can also be a form of constraint. But he makes sure that we have a drink and a place to sit.” In adapting and overcoming the paradox between limitation and freedom lies the comical relief of Franz’s work.

In 1988, Franz had come to see our autumn exhibition at P.S. 1, “Michelangelo Pistoletto: Division and Multiplication of the Mirror.” And just as did Pistoletto, whom he came to admire very much, Franz loved the gritty, raw aspects of our exhibition rooms back then. Was this show part of what inspired Franz to make large in situ installations in his own show, involving equally direct participation by the viewer? Triptych, 1989, for example, was spread over three rooms. In each, a large paravent (a kind of screen made of iron, papier-mâché, and plaster) was hiding a welded scrap-metal chair. The screens accompanied several Passstücke, which were placed on a pedestal in the middle of the room or leaning against the wall. The windows of the three rooms were partially curtained with newspapers and gauze. The visitor was invited to interact with the pieces, but only on the condition of being naked. Anyone needing a shot of whiskey—a bottle was provided—before, during, or after the enactment could have it.

The heart of the show was not any individual work but rather a room with many metal seats, large and small, in which visitors were invited to sit and converse. A theme for their conversations was suggested by the piece Freude (Joyce), 1985, hanging in the same room, which was a bas-relief in papier-mâché and gold foil resembling an ancient Peloponnesian object. In 1986, Franz had written a short text about this work, and he decided he wanted to expand it for the show. Vittorio Martini, Ferdinand Schmatz, and I worked on this text over several weeks of long and manifold causeries with Franz, constantly faxing different versions, in German and English, between Vienna and New York. In the end we settled on: “Freud’s Freude (Joy) merely understood as a feminine derivation of the name Freud. While urinating in Piraeus, the positive interpretation of Freud as a golden meander became apparent. Joyce’s Joyfulness merely understood as a neutral derivation of the name Joyce. While translating this text, the psychoanalytic suspicion dissolves into Joyfulness.” And we were not the only ones to use the fax machine in a spirit of dialogue: We just had acquired one in Long Island City, and Franz’s artist friends and collaborators, many of whom had pieces in the show, kept faxing congratulatory—but also pornographic—illustrations to our offices.

At the time, I described Franz’s works in interviews as “homeopathic.” I thought their unkempt and sprawling form could be a kind of antidote to most contemporary art in New York, which I considered overly hygienic. But clearly my words had little or no effect: At the opening and at many viewings thereafter, American collectors who visited the show kept exclaiming, “Oh, it’s so pristine!” I decided then that whoever could be blind to the fantastic messiness and profound destabilization of that work deserved to be imprisoned forever in one of the Wegenerian or Wittgensteinian rooms created by Franz West.

Chris Dercon is Director of Tate Modern in London.

Franz West’s Rolls-Royce with custom hood ornament, outside the Hermann Nitsch Museum, Mistelbach, Austria, 2007. Photo: Alison Gingeras.


FRANZ WEST made art through his third eye.

David Hammons is an artist based in New York.

Franz West, Eidolon, 2009, painted aluminum. Installation view, Montauk, New York, 2012. Photo: Adam Lindemann.


FRANZ WEST HAD A CRAZY OBSESSION with luxury cars. Like many aspects of his iconoclastic life and work, this might not make much sense at first, since Franz didn’t know how to drive and never had a license. But his peculiar fetish made perfect sense when considering his penchant for grand, decadent gestures as well as his connoisseurship of form—he was interested in all types of bodies. Take, for example, his outlandish performance Par Bleu (La Limousine Bleu) on the occasion of his major show at Vienna’s esteemed Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art in 2001. At the opening, Franz arranged for several quarts of cotton-candy-pink paint to be poured on top of a Maserati Quattroporte. For the stodgy Viennese establishment in attendance, this gesture was the stuff of tabloid provocation, not to mention a flagrant waste of a perfectly good status symbol. For Franz, his “Mysterienspiel mit Maserati” was as serious an exploration of the conundrum of objects and aesthetics as the early Passstück sculptures on display in the adjacent hallowed galleries. I now realize that the connective thread that ran through numerous pilgrimages to see Franz in his beloved hometown was the automobile. Whether we were spending hours at a showroom studying the latest models of European sports cars or taking leisurely drives to the vineyards right outside the city limits, our Viennese high jinks combined an indulgence in elegant industrial design, intense, meandering conversation, artistic exploration, and friendship.

A few years back, Franz enthusiastically told me over the phone about how he had traded some of his work with a British collector for a vintage Rolls-Royce. The image that immediately came to mind—Franz chauffeured around Vienna by a trusted studio assistant in his new aristocratic ride—could not be more emblematic of the perverse yet playful sensibility that permeated all that he did. By the time I got to see his prized chariot, it wasn’t just a Rolls—it had been Westified. He swapped out the Spirit of Ecstasy (Rolls-Royce’s iconic silver-angel hood ornament) for one of his suggestive sculptures rendered in miniature. The view out the front windshield was now accented by a brownish abstract squiggle, which resembled a cross between poop and a penis. In fact, he made a few of these hood ornaments and stored them in the glove box: different colors and forms that he switched out on the daily ride to his Esteplatz studio, depending on his mood.

In the fall of 2007, I was in Vienna on a work junket with my husband. As always, our first stop was Franz’s studio, where we lounged on his signature furniture sculptures, catching up, smoking a joint, plotting about art, and kvetching about sleepless nights with our young children. In the course of conversation, Franz proposed that we borrow his Rolls and drive to see the newly opened Hermann Nitsch Museum some thirty-five miles outside Vienna. His proposition embodied another thread of our friendship: Every time we got together, we compulsively talked about the Actionists. I loved when Franz regaled us with stories of his early years going out to Schloss Prinzendorf, Nitsch’s blood-soaked compound, or to Otto Muehl’s crazy libidinal commune at Friedrichshof. He’d arrive at these father figures’ studios with one of his new papier-mâché Passstücke under his arm and make a trade: a then-valueless, senseless, unsellable Franz West for an iconic Muehl, Nitsch, or Günter Brus. Naughtily, Franz would recall, he’d come back to town and promptly sell the much more prized works of his elders for much-needed cash. Right in Freud’s hometown, West enacted his Oedipal revenge. So his proposal some decades later to undertake a road trip in the Rolls made complete sense.

The villagers of Mistelbach—the sleepy hamlet that hosts the Nitsch Museum—seemed totally shocked by the louche looks of our borrowed car as they stared at us in the museum parking lot. (And given that they were accustomed to the strange goings-on, animal sacrifices, and gratuitous nudity of Nitsch’s Orgien Mysterien Theater, this really says something!) Emboldened by Franz’s example, we decided to try to find Nitsch’s mythical castle, too. After an hour of searching, we found it and waltzed up to the front gate. Surprisingly, the caretaker (Herr Nitsch was in Italy) let us in to snoop around. Despite being unannounced strangers, we gained entry, all because we said we were there at Franz’s suggestion—and had his customized Rolls as proof.

I happened to be in Montauk when the dreaded phone call came this past summer. Thinking of my dear friend, I made a pilgrimage to a bluff on the edge of the Atlantic where you can drive no farther, and where the large version of the Rolls’s phallic squiggle is perched. As I looked at Eidolon, 2009, in the ocean mist, memories of Franz flooded forth. Yet it was that subversive gleam in his eye that I knew I would most miss.

Alison M. Gingeras is a curator and writer who lives in New York and Warsaw.