Franz West lived in Vienna for his seemingly too-brief life, and died there on July 25, 2012, at age 65. It wasn’t expected, but it wasn’t a shock either; the failings of the body were never lost on Franz, not only because he had his own recurring health challenges, but because he devoted much of his career to thinking about the oddities and wonder of the physical realm. How people walk, interact, make love, snore in public, and do other intimately human and occasionally embarrassing things was a theme in much of his art. Many people called Franz a sculptor, but the term is limited insofar as it describes only a portion of his practice. He created enigmatic works made of papier-mâché, fashioned complex collages from magazines and found materials, and animated public environments with brightly colored outdoor objects that invited interaction. Above all, he freed art from the pedestal and made it approachable and often visibly public, made for and with other people.
I first met Franz while working on a 2008 retrospective exhibition organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art, where I was then employed. Late for our appointment and hung over with jet lag, I tumbled into a studio full of food, people, and Franz on his cellphone. The scene—a constant buzz of activity, with curators and friends forming a seemingly unending cycle of comings and goings—would be the same during virtually every encounter I had with the artist during the next three years. The image of the solitary artist working in relative isolation was just not Franz. Though respectful of the need for quiet and concentration, he was a consummate host who could endure bafflingly long days with studio assistants many years his junior, whom he fueled with daily lunches at a favorite local Chinese restaurant in his beloved Vienna. While clearly the visionary and mind behind every work, Franz relied on talented collaborators and helpers who contributed to the lively energy of his work environment and pushed his practice in new directions. He tracked the work of young artists and musicians closely, ending every Monday night at a live club near downtown that played deafening electronic music—one of his passions. In truth, I learned as much about this artist by hanging out with him as I did poring over a hundred hours of interview tape recounting his history.
Franz grew up in postwar Vienna, playing as a child in the ruins of bombed-out buildings and hollow church interiors. His mother, a prominent dentist in the city, was a strong presence and early supporter, encouraging her son’s interest in art and giving him—or so the artist recalled years later—his first materials: the white gauze and plaster of oral hygiene. While often contextualized by the intensely physical and often sadomasochistic work of the Viennese Actionists, Franz’s work remained wry and playful, incorporating colors that evoked bathrooms and high school interiors. Orifices and extremities—including feet, hands, ears and mouths—are frequently invoked in his work as contact points for human interaction and communication. His “sit-able” outdoor sculptures—such as the three hyper-colored Sitzwuste benches on the Walker’s campus—are an ode to the human ass, which he privileged with the colorful perches of welded metal that now adorn sculpture gardens throughout Europe and the United States.
Franz engaged in an early form of “participation art” long before it became the buzzword it is in the art world today. He started making interactive objects called “adaptives” in the early 1970s, with the idea that art should be scaled for human beings with a natural propensity for touching things. These white papier-mâché objects could be awkward to handle and sported a deliberately clunky aesthetic, forcing participants to adapt themselves to their oddly shaped contours and limbs. Encountering these objects was like holding up a behavioral mirror: any insecurity or physical habit would inevitably surface in the handling of these strange objects (some instinctively swung their adaptives as golf clubs while others turned theirs into brooms, brushes, or walking sticks). Strategically placed mirrors made participants feel either ridiculous or hilarious, depending on the variables of mood and personality.
Franz never made it to the opening in Baltimore, instructed by his doctor to stay home. Instead he made a medal in honor of Michael Phelps, Baltimore homeboy who had just swept the Olympics with eight gold medals. It was the weirdest “medal” I had ever seen, and imagining it dangling from Phelps’ neck made everyone laugh. Perhaps the events of this summer in London will merit a second showing. Franz—a man of many comebacks and victories—would have liked that.
As former senior curator and department head of contemporary art at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Walker chief curator Darsie Alexander organized the 2008 retrospective and publication Franz West, To Build a House You Start with the Roof: Work, 1972–2008.