Franz West was an Austrian artist who produced contemporary sculpture, collages, furniture and installations. These works—all colourful, light-hearted and engaging—vary in scale from small, mobile gallery pieces to large installations in public parks and other civic spaces. For much of his long career he regularly featured in major international survey shows across the globe. He often collaborated with leading contemporary artists such as Sarah Lucas and Douglas Gordon, as well as younger artists like Anselm Reyle. West's work can be found in major public and private collections throughout Europe and the United States.Read More
Born to communist parents in Allied-occupied post-war Vienna, West did not engage in artistic pursuits until he was well into his 20s. He had initially been studying civil engineering but dropped out in the mid-1960s to travel around Europe and the Middle East. He started making art—drawing, then sculpture and performance—around 1970, though he was at this point without any formal training. In 1977 West returned to Vienna to study art under Bruno Gironcoli at the Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 1982. He was exposed to the performance art of the Viennese Actionists in the 1960s and 1970s, but rejected their insistence on provocative, violent ordeals and complex existential intensity. Instead he sought something more accessible. The theme of communication and interaction is present in all of West's work as he sought to disrupt the traditionally passive relationship between art viewers.
West's choice of materials is indicative of his rejection of high culture's pretentions. He made his art from plaster, papier mâché, wire, aluminium, styrofoam and carpet: materials one might expect to find in the home, the workshop or a typical school art room. In all of West's works his creative process is left visible; nothing is perfect or smooth. It is often said that he felt it does not matter what art looks like but how it is used.
West's earliest series of signature sculptures were the 'Adaptives' ('Passstücke') from the late 1970s. These small objects—made of plaster or papier mâché and painted white—were abstract forms ergonomically designed to be worn. Functioning as extensions of limbs, their completion as art could only come by the viewer adorning and performing with them. Some of the exhibited 'Adaptives' were supplemented with videos of people wearing them. The 'Adaptives'—made from non-traditional materials and roughly aligning form and function by encouraging viewer participation—became the foundation of the artist's practice.
From the 1980s, West's biomorphic sculptural forms began to develop in scale and size, translating into grand, painted or lacquered metal works and installations. The greatest manifestations of this were his later outdoor works such as The Ego and the Id (2008), with their colourful, spindly, snaking and bulbous forms. His vividly painted, organic, abstract papier mâché works such as Untitled (painted by Herbert Brandl) (1988) also developed into large-scale, imposing pieces like Untitled (large sculpture with can) (2009) and Lemur (2009).
Rising to prominence in the mid-1980s, West also began to produce and exhibit furniture as both installation sculptures and interventions in museum spaces. Initially, influenced by the early-20th-century design ethic of the Vienna Secessionists, he welded together pieces of scrap metal in a collage-like technique to make furniture resembling his 'Adaptives'. This approach is visible in the 2.1-metre piece, Untitled (2010), with its patchwork of lacquered aluminium sheeting. By the late 1980s West produced more familiar designs for tables, chairs, lamps and other domestic objects. Not intended as examples of cutting edge furniture design, some were too flimsy to be functional. Continuing this into the 2000s West made furniture such as Nannerl (2006)—composed of colourful coco mat, carpet on a steel frame—and provocatively introduced such pieces into exhibitions.
West's first large-scale public installation, Auditorium (for the 1992 documenta IX), consisted of 72 sofas—made from metal frames, ornate Turkish rugs and foam—as seating for a parking lot cinema. Most of his large-scale installations contain humour or playfulness. In Etude de couleur (1991) a colourful, panelled catwalk led to a functional urinal, highlighting the importance of colour while nodding to the heritage of Duchamp.
West also worked with two-dimensional media. From the 1970s through to the late 2000s, he produced collages, combining advertising imagery with abstract compositional arrangements. From the mid- to late 2000s, West utilised painting and collage techniques in the 'Poster Designs' that accompanied his exhibitions. The promotional design became an autonomous picture displayed in the show. The details of the exhibition referred to—the show's title, venue, date and other relevant information—became the subject matter. The 'Poster Designs'—both about the show and in it—implicated the viewer in the art.
Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2010