Franz West

Wiener Secession

Franz West is one of those Viennese originals whose claim to seriousness is not easily conveyed. Because of the clumsiness, a kind of deliberate elevation of neurosis to the status of ritual, that he cultivated in social situations, he was for a long time an outsider in the Viennese art scene. Then, something over two years ago, he was included in the series of sculpture shows that Harald Szeemann curated in 1985 and ’86, in Zurich, Vienna, and Düsseldorf and his work began a cometlike rise to public attention. Thus the timing of this first retrospective was well-chosen, offering West, now 40, the chance to demonstrate the continuity and development of his work since the early ’70s.

The exhibition’s order was not chronological but grouped the works into classes—paintings, Paszstücke (“Well-fitting” pieces), “transitions,” and indoor (small) and outdoor (large) sculptures. This order, however, was followed more in the catalogue than in the exhibition itself. In the Wiener Secession’s gigantic hall, groups of works ricocheted off one another in confusing abundance—the monochrome paintings of the ’70s against the plaster-white “Paszstücke” (small, dislocated, eccentric sculptures of collaged and painted objects and furniture, suggesting the human body in hysterical cramp), a showy gilt monumental sculpture from 1987 against Eo Ipso, 1987, the warped metal chair-and-sofa-like street piece seen in the “Skulptur Projekte in Münster” exhibition last summer. The West show’s attempt to avoid the petrifaction of a museum was welcome, but the lack of structure overtaxed the viewer, who was constantly distracted from one piece by another, and thus was hindered from actually getting to know the work.

West’s art is subtly charged by a play of materials and a biting humor. The work of writers and artists from the past often provides a visual and intellectual context for his sculptures, informing them in an unforced way that seems integral to their meaning rather than laid on from outside. West’s “senseless scribbling” inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s discourses on esthetics became the starting point for a virtuoso wire sculpture. And the hatred of one of the original Vienna Secession painters for another—Richard Gerstl’s for Gustav Klimt—is evoked in a spiral-shaped gilt relief. More tangible forms of collaboration, for example with the contemporary painter Herbert Brandl, lead to a kind of material agglomeration in which the sculptural and the painterly can hardly be separated. But the best works, Approximation, 1986, for example, infuse West’s own sense of corporeality into all their levels—linguistic, material, formal.

Considering the exhibition’s scope, it was surprising that some important portions of West’s oeuvre were missing. At the start of the ’80s, for instance, he created a group of such eccentric forms as eyes, noses, ears, and other body parts hanging on loosely erected iron poles; none of these was shown. For reasons unclear, the selection emphasized painted objects, as if to propose West as an adherent of a transitional concept of sculpture. But West’s actual strength lies not in this kind of combination of hardness and sensuality, and, by extension, of physicality and spirituality, but rather in drawing out the tensions between dualities such as these and subordinating them to his own artistic will. This strength was not fully communicated in the exhibition, which showed West as a good artist, yet not as good as he is in actuality.

Helmut Druxler

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.