Top image: Rrose DRAMA 2001. Photo copyright Tate, Matt Greenwood
“I’ve always thought that the ideal is to do nothing and still be able to make a living out of it…”
So goes the guiding mantra of Franz West, one of the twentieth century’s most significant artists whose subversive charm, wit and satirical irreverence permeates his posthumous and first ever UK retrospective at Tate Modern.
Born in Vienna in 1947 under the shadow of post-Second World War Europe, West was exposed early on to the tectonic changes of a world in conflict, where old and new, tradition and modernism, lived in stark and everyday opposition. West’s formative artistic experience came via his mother with whom he visited the early Renaissance frescoes of Giotto and Fra Angelico in Padua and Florence during extensive absences from school. It was his mother’s dentistry practice that would also come to shape West’s own sculptural intuition, with her pink plaster dental moulds bearing an uncanny resemblance to West’s own widespread adoption of the material and colour.
Despite studying at the Akademie der bildenden Künste in Vienna from 1977 to 1982, West was a largely self-taught artist whose membership to Vienna’s international and collaborative bohemian art scene not only influenced his diverse use of media but engendered a participatory quality to his work that remained intrinsic throughout his practice.
Equally unwavering was his deliberate renunciation of conventionally defined notions of beauty or perfection. In his sculptural work, for which he is arguably best known, West eschews all notion of symmetry, refinement or finish, instead opting for strangely amorphous and often absurd forms intended to be touched, sat on, experienced and felt.
Their ludic and haptic qualities – not normally associated with the ‘no touching’ policy of museum spaces – are central to West’s art. His public ‘love seat’ sculptures, first made for Münster’s Skulptur Projekte in 1987 (Eo Ipso, constructed from his mother’s old washing machine) were designed to bring sitters into intimate proximity. The work not only reflects West’s own inclination for slackerdom but also for participatory and functional sculptures that rendered the idea of autonomously conceived objects obsolete. This key facet of West’s practice is celebrated by Tate with the inclusion of Auditorium, West’s assimilation of 72 roughly constructed and carpet-covered divans, first shown at documenta IX in 1992, and here dispersed throughout the exhibition.
In necessitating human interaction and performative activation, West’s sculptures raise the question of reciprocity between work and viewer that disturbs the status quo of pristine gallery spaces and throws up a derisive middle-finger to the bourgeois elite – the kind of gesture West never shied from making.
Nowhere is this anti-aesthetic ethos more clearly embodied than with his Passtücke (Adaptives), a term first coined by critic and poet Reinhard Pressnitz in 1980, who referred to these primitive, hand-held constructions of papier-mâche and re-bar as ‘formalisations of neurotic states’. Directly influenced by Freud’s writings on the connection between the subconscious and the human body, there is a sensorial pleasure that for West bordered on the voyeuristic. This became especially apparent in Sieben Säulen, shown in 1990 at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, where the knobbly and unwieldy sculptures were carried and ‘adapted’ by naked performers. Fitting for British prudishness, viewers at Tate Modern are politely invited to interact with the Passtücke in specially created changing rooms. Not only did his Passtücke provide an invitation to collaborate – many were painted by the likes of Eugenia Rochas, Erwin Wurm and Hubert Schmalix – but these humble sculptures question the relationship between sculpture and the body, the collective and individual, the sacred and profane.
By extension, his large-scale outdoor sculptures – brightly coloured intestinal, phallic, turd-like forms – invite us to sit, lie or play, once more demonstrating West’s preference for the soporific, functional and everyday. Five of these sculptures, including Rrose/Drama (2001), are installed on Tate Modern’s South Landscape for the duration of the show.
Elsewhere, the exhibition explores West’s Legitimate Sculptures, made from 1987 onward, that pushed his use of re-purposed materials and further subverted conventional means of display. These abstract and visceral sculptures, coagulations of papier-mâche, domestic objects, whiskey bottles and other studio jetsam, often exhibited corporeal qualities like the multiple orifices of Deutscher Humor (1987), the phallic resemblance of Placebo (1986) or the gaping mouths of Lemurenköpfe (1992). Constructed of roughly cut wood and empty paint cans and placed on pedestals made from suitcases and wardrobes, these sculptures, accompanied by cryptic wall texts, are further evidence of West’s radical departure from convention.
One of West’s numerous film pieces (many of which were produced in collaboration with Austrian film maker Bernhard Riff), Redundanz (1986), is presented in a complex three-part ensemble, while additional highlights include his rarely exhibited sketches of 1970s Viennese night life and a selection of his provocative collage poster designs.
In total, around 200 works, a cross-section of his wide-ranging practice, have been brought together for Tate’s show, making it the most comprehensive survey of West’s work to date. The exhibition was originated by the Centre Pompidou in Paris, but Tate’s Senior Curator Mark Godfrey delivered a masterstroke by inviting Sarah Lucas, YBA, friend and colleague of West, to work on the installation, thereby giving the Paris show a fresh and London-specific twist. Lucas’s own formal language is closely aligned to West’s, and in keeping with his collaborative ideals, Lucas designed and produced the partitioning screens and breeze block plinths, which, with a frivolity and subversive humour typical of the man (and Lucas), were often as key for West as the sculptures they supported. West died in 2012 but his irreverent spirit is very much alive today.
Franz West at Tate Modern is on until the 2 June 2019.