New York

Franz West

David Zwirner | 519 West 19th Street

The Dadaists wanted to throw it in the face of bourgeois culture; Piero Manzoni canned it as a consumable, signaling a perversely clean form of capitalist repression; and Joseph Beuys ironically monumentalized it. Enacting a Nietzschean flight into corporeal affirmation/negation, Hermann Nitsch’s and Otto Mühl’s Wiener Aktionismus group’s quasi-Dionysian performances often involved smearing the body with what appear to be its own secretions.

This complex history of the scatological in art is reflected in the work of Austrian artist, Franz West, specifically in his investment in the art object as a kind of petrification of pre-Oedipal narcissism. Indeed, the recurring use of papier-mâché in West’s work suggests a desire to reclaim the supposedly unrepressed scene of childhood—a gesture of resistance against societal taboos and prohibitions. West’s use of these materials seems to reflect a process of subject formation in which the narcissistic attachment to the body emerges as a kind of physical self-abstraction—perhaps the primal stage (or state) of artmaking.

Yet it is also evident that West’s practice is about the projection of this intrinsically neo-Romantic vision of art into the social arena, where the contradictions between formal esthetics and the dream of function, ality produce a radical ambiguity. In this show, as in others, West included his trademark newspaper-covered, skeletal, metal benches. Here, these furniture sculptures (or, objectified furniture pieces) had a specific use value, providing viewers with a means to watch a videotape of a Senegalese man playing with one of West’s objects, called a Paßstück. Inspired by certain traditional African tribal objects that synthesize ornamentation and function, the Paßstück, 1992, resembles a crudely articulated ray gun with an elongated handle. The clever absurdity of this object immediately strikes us when we encounter it displayed, like some impoverished artifact, upon a rudimentary pedestal. Clearly, West understands that the codes of display neatly cancel out his own ironically idealist suggestion that art—construed as a kind of nonsensical “ritual” of libidinal gratification—has the power (symbolic or otherwise) to create linkages between the decadent irresponsibility of vanguard culture and the norms of everyday life.

But why did the artist title the exhibition, “Investigations of American Art?” Well, precious few clues are offered in another videotape featuring a discussion between the artist and German curator Kasper König—a deliberately fragmentary and obscured “interpretation” of the works. Characteristically, West collapses the boundaries between meaning and non-meaning, between sophistication and naiveté, between pragmatism and idealism, between representation and abstraction. This approach is similarly evidenced in the Formal structure of the works themselves, since it becomes virtually impossible, if not irrelevant, to distinguish between base/pedestal and the sculpture itself. Indicative of West’s fascination with the tautological, the formal awkwardness of the objects is echoed by the provisional character of the rectilinear structures that support them. Although the titles of some of the works make reference to things American (i.e., PanAm — Building, 1992), there really is no straightforward relationship, even if we are able to detect fragments of seemingly recognizable forms—architectural elements, body parts, toys, etc. These esthetic extrusions seem to fuse antithetical components into a kind of impoverished fetish of psychological excavation—into the petrified remains of a fleeting moment of (imaginary) reconciliation between body and mind. In his ambivalent, distracted attempt to defile Formalist esthetics, West’s wonderfully pathetic objects in sickly pastellike colors inadvertently create a poetics of the inconsequential.

Joshua Decter