Franz West

Some have doubted the appropriateness of granting Franz West a museum retrospective at this point in his career, as he only began to achieve wide recognition during the mid ’80s. Skepticism might also stem from the fact that the fascination of his earlier shows lay in their focus on particular situations, something hardly possible in a large-scale exhibition. By showing the long prehistory of West’s work, however, this exhibition made it clear that he adopted his characteristic stance very early on—by about the mid ’70s—while it also demonstrated that his origins can be traced to the particular artistic and intellectual climate in Vienna during the ’60s. Even before West began working as an artist, the Vienna Actionists stood for him both as a reference point and a line of demarcation: he shared with this movement an interest in the body and in performativity, but from the beginning he avoided their pathos, their expressionism, their quasi-sacred earnestness, and the romanticism that lay behind their supposedly revolutionary stance.

Unlike West’s “environments,” the intimate spaces he has created that facilitate the spectator’s engagement with objects, the retrospective could not, of course, be compressed into a particular situation. It did, however, call attention to the openendedness of his work, which is made apparent by his willingness to reconceive existing pieces over time. Taking care to avoid fetishizing form, West has even employed restorers to “further develop” damaged sculptures; in his work the craftsmanship traditionally associated with art production does not depend upon the creativity of an individual. In the mid ’70s he began to create his “Paßstücke” (Adapters), 1974–, objects often rendered in plaster that adapt to the body that comes into contact with them—or, conversely, the body relates to and adapts to them; in most casesthese objects are accompanied by documentation in the form of photographs or videos. West doesn’t solicit the spectator’s participation in order to realize an idea, but rather in an effort to produce a visual realization of psychic experience, on the basis of an unorthodox reading of Freud. “If one could see neuroses,” West has said, “they might look like the `Adapters.’” One can, of course, dispute such a statement, but then again, who really knows how neuroses look? What distinguishes these sculptures is less how they fulfill this perhaps ironic claim than West’s willful grasp of Viennese intellectual history and the Viennese milieu.

During the ’80s West developed objects that had initially stood on the floor or rested against the wall into more or less autonomous sculptures; at the same time he developed their various forms into opportunities for sitting—into armchairs, chaises longues, and couches. Through use these objects become true, everyday “adapters.” High points in this group of works were the furnishings for public spaces at Documenta IX in 1992 and those installed in front of the Los Angeles MoCA in 1994; these became popular meeting places. More and more the prevailing concept here is one of idling, or of loitering outside defined contexts of action. These works are, of course, tied to West’s “environments” from the late ’70s, which were settings for unpredictable, synesthetic experiences.

In addition to addressing his role as a historical link between the Viennese Actionists and the younger generation of Austrian artists of the early ’80s, this retrospective highlighted West’s importance as a figure who has been able to bring together various local and international scenes, not only through his collaborative art projects and his support of younger artists, but also through the intellectual debates his work has generated. Just as West freed Actionism of false pathos and heroics, in his own work he has been able to avoid the danger of being overclever—a risk always present when objects are so loosely executed.

Christian Kravagna

Translated from the German by David Jacobson