Description: FRANZ WEST (b. 1947) Laokoöns federnder Kopf (Lessingstudie) lacquer and acrylic on papier-mâché, styrofoam, cardboard and metal on acrylic and wood base object: 31 x 20 x 20 in. (78.7 x 50.8 x 50.8 cm.) base: 40½ x 20 x 20 in. (103.3 x 50.8 x 50.8 cm.) Executed in 2002. This work is accompanied by the book Laokoön oder über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie by Gottfried Ephraim Lessing.
Artist or Maker: FRANZ WEST (b. 1947)
Exhibited: Berlin, BuroFriedrich; Vienna, Bawag Foundation; Frankfurt, Revolver, Funky Lessons, September 2004-February 2005, pp. 118-125 (illustrated).
Notes: Viennese sculptor Franz West embraces contradiction in his work. Throughout his career, West has created sculptures that not only resist categorization but aggressively challenge conventional understandings of sculpture.
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Born in Vienna in 1947, West, an artistic autodidact, began making sculptures in the early 1970s. These first works, known as Paßstücke, or "Adaptives," exemplify West's earliest critique of traditional conceptions of art. These small-scaled, amorphous forms made of papier-mâché eschew classical sculptural traditions. Their surfaces are tactile, lumpy, and seemingly unfinished, at a far remove from the slick and precise surfaces of Modernist sculpture. In their organic formlessness they reference the body and, following West's imperative, they engage that body. Undermining the conventional understanding that art is "untouchable and sacrosanct," (F. West and D. Birnbaum, "A thousand words: Franz West," Artforum, New York, February 1999, p. 84) West's audience is invited to touch the objects, pick them up, and interact with them. They are not only for the eye but meant to be handled, even appended, to the body like a prosthetic. Though not all of West's sculptures are meant to be treated in this way, the principles underlying the Paßstücke inform, to a large extent, all of his subsequent work. From one piece to the next, West's work straddles the line between serious sculpture and absurdity. He infuses each object with a wry humor while earnestly challenging the understanding of sculpture as a static art.
At first glance, Laokoöon, 2002, appears to be firmly in line with sculptural tradition. While the surface and shape of Laokoöon's bubblegum pink, inchoate, organic form recalls many of the Paßstücke, it is, unlike the earlier work, positioned on a pedestal. Laoköon is not a sculpture devised to be touched or handled; it is elevated to the status of proper art-object and separated from the surrounding world through its position on the pedestal. However, a closer inspection reveals that all is not right with the pedestal. Its surface is neither smooth nor polished, but crude and unrefined like the pink mass positioned on its top. In fact, it is not pedestal at all but a central component of the sculpture itself. Rather than separating art from life, it seems to spring directly from everyday existence, casting doubt on the tradition that its title references.
Collapsing the distinction between subject and object is of primary importance for West. All of his sculptures, touchable or not, seek to activate the body of the spectator. As Robert Fleck explains, "Although essentially soliciting quiet contemplation, [his sculptures] are nevertheless only 'completed' when they communicate directing with the shifting perceptions and bodily behaviour patterns of those who experience them" (R. Fleck, "Sex and the Modern Sculptor," Franz West, London, 1999, p. 28). At times, West solicits physical interaction through the forms he creates, as in his furniture-sculptures, which he began in the late 1980s. Mao Memorial, 1994, is an installation consisting of six chaise lounges that West constructed by welding together scrap metal. He later alluded to Maoist uniforms by covering the structures with blue and adding decorative red pillows. Situated in an art gallery or museum, Mao Memorial, as furniture, invites the audience to sit or recline on it; and as art object, it precipitates a reversal of standard sculptural convention.
Constantly challenging the audience's expectations, Drei Sitzwürst, 2000, is an amalgam of sorts between West's furniture-sculpture and smaller papier-mâché works. The piece, whose title literally translates to "Three Seat Sausages," is a large three-part aluminum sculpture in bright pink, orange, and yellow. Unlike his earlier furniture work, it does not closely resemble any standard piece of furniture. Instead, it consists of three low-lying, elongated globules that call to mind bodily organs, worms or slugs, and, as the title deftly suggests, sausages. But, like all of West's work, Drei Sitzwürst is not a piece to be admired from afar. It has a practical and interactive function: it is a sausage-seat, an abstracted, amorphous bench that teeters on the edge of humor and grotesquerie.