This retrospective of Franz West indoor sculptures features works spanning three decades of the artist’s career – from 1980 to 2010 – and traces the development of his legendary papier-mâché sculptures.
From West’s early Adaptives, also known as Paßstücke, through his progression into what he called Legitimate Sculptures, this exhibition coincides with the retrospective being held at the Tate Modern.
Internationally celebrated for his humorous and playfully ambiguous sculptures, Franz West revolutionised the concept of sculpture through his pioneering efforts that explored the relationship between art and the viewer.
West was heavily influenced by various performance art movements of the 1960s, including the Viennese Actionists, which he reinterpreted into his interactive papier-mâché Adaptives series. With this breakout body of work, West redefined the spectator’s experience with sculpture by creating an active dialogue between the two.
Believing that art should have a function, West’s sculptures are both physically and intellectually immersive for the viewer, and it is through his experimental and innovative use of form, materials, language, and colour that West set a new precedent for sculpture from the second half of the twentieth century.
West began constructing his sculptures in the mid 1970s, and by using papier-mâché, wire, plaster or polyester, he could easily sculpt abstract organic forms that would later harden to become rock solid. Light-weight and only a few feet in size, these portable sculptures are interactive, demanding the viewer’s intervention rather than observation.
He famously stated that “it doesn’t matter what art looks like but how it’s used”, arguing that there is beauty in function. The participation of the viewer is paramount and only by holding, touching, wearing or using the artwork in some way are the Adaptives deemed complete.
During the latter part of 1980s, West’s artistic vision, which necessitated interaction between sculpture and audience, was at odds with the desires of commercial galleries, who preferred the works to remain untouched and to be displayed traditionally in order to maintain their financial value.
He decided that if his pieces could not be exhibited in the way that he intended, he too would adapt. In 1986 at the Neue Galerie in Graz, he debuted a new series of works in an exhibition with the self-mocking title, Legitimate Sculptures. These vague, bulbous forms were created predominantly from painted papier-mâché and often mixed with polystyrene, cardboard, wood and steel. Larger in scale, they regularly sit perched atop handmade plinths or stands that accompany the works. In contrast to the Adaptives, they were no longer easy to carry and too fragile to handle.
West strived for a more critical analysis of his sculptures from the spectator. He recanted on his previous invitation to touch the works, this time visitors were requested to interact intellectually instead of physically. These sculptures reach their completion through the viewers’ examination and through the various chains of associations that are triggered whilst engaging with the work.
The importance of colour, form and function is visually evident in West’s work, but equally important is his subtle use of language to provide multiple contexts for his arbitrary forms. West explored the various tools of semantics and applied to his work the theory that words are not fixed, but instead are dependent upon their context, thus allowing for multiple interpretations.
For Franz West, the exchange between viewer and artwork, be-it through touch or interpretation, formed the foundation of his practice. His innovative use of materials, form, colour and language, blurred the lines between sculpture and installation. As a result, West created new archetypes for sculpture that allowed the viewer to intervene and interact. His sculptures captivate us because, although they are inherently ambivalent, they provide small glimpses of recognisable shapes hidden in the contours of the works.