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Franz West
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Wikipedia About Franz West

essay Franz West, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Franz West belongs to a generation of Viennese artists who had to acknowledge the incredible importance of the Vienna Actionist movement of the 1960s and at the same time learn to forget about it in order to establish their own autonomous practices. Building on the Actionists’ political and aesthetic engagement of the body (its presence and its fluids) in postwar art-historical discourse, West has since the early 1970s built an oeuvre that has privileged the value of the haptic experience.

Starting in 1976, West initiated a sculptural series titled Pass-stücke (Adaptives) that does not so much invite or suggest the viewers’ participation as it demands it. The Pass-stücke, made of papier-mâché, plaster, and gauze coagulated over metal armatures, are in general oddly shaped, evoking weird body extensions or tumors. On occasion, discarded domestic items such as bottles, sticks, wires, or brooms are recycled within the works, providing some compositional variation on the primal, libidinous, and always humorous impetus that generated them. They are frequently displayed insouciantly against a wall or fortuitously leaning on rough-and-tumble pedestals; West often includes photographs or videos to encourage audiences to pick up the objects and adopt any pose that comes to mind.

The name Pass-stücke is a multilayered pun. The German word pass could refer to the way something fits or harmonizes with something else, or could mean being attentive. As a noun, its meanings range from “gait” or “pace” to “passport” or “permit,” depending on the context. West himself suggests a translation by using the word “adaptives:” inscrutable objects meant to be adapted to a body, they are human limbs as well as social prosthetics.

3 Pass-stücke (3 Adaptives) (1997) asserts the vitality of the series as the recurrent backbone of West’s practice. Meant to be manipulated to reveal both the user and the object’s ergonomic potential, the work’s clumsiness does not ignore a critical debate on the relationship between the sculpture and the pedestal, between form and mold, stasis and motion, and the phenomenological conversation among sculpture, space, and the spectator. The piece provides a clear analysis of the sculptural condition through a criticism of classical representation and passive contemplation.

The same could be said of the Sitzwuste (2000), colorful sculptures meant to be used as tables or benches whose title—a made-up word—is a play on the German words for seating (sitz) and sausage (wurst). Slightly grotesque and a bit scatological, they relieve the artist and his audience from the rigidity of “public sculpture” and playfully translate or stage the language of sculpture into a language of the body.

West’s ambition is to relocate, or liberate, the aesthetic experience at the limit of art through the development of relational objects affecting the psychological or physical structure of the subject. With a smile, without didacticism, West questions the nature of the space between the body and the artwork as a way to interrogate the space between the body and the world, the space between us all. He is part of a history of alternative modernism that stretches from André Breton to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, from Otto Muehl to Felix Gonzalez-Torres, from Yayoi Kusama to Mike Kelley, all of whom have refuted what Antonin Artaud identified in The Theater of Cruelty as a “body with-out organs.”1

  1. See Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double (New York: Grove Press, 1966).

Vergne, Philippe. “Franz West.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center