Franz West (1947-2012)
DEATH IN AMERICA: Selections from the Zadig & Voltaire Collection
Franz West (1947-2012)


Franz West (1947-2012)
steel, cardboard, papier-mâché, acrylic and polystyrene
56 1/2 x 33 x 31 1/2 in. (143.5 x 83.8 x 80 cm.)
Executed in 2012.
Gagosian Gallery, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner
London, Gagosian Gallery, Man with a Ball, September-November 2012, pp. 88-89 (illustrated).


Franz West’s work focuses on extraordinary forms made of ordinary materials–plaster, papier-mâché, wire, polyester, and aluminum. Wiggling, floating, and extending into the spaces they occupied, the sculptures West creates grow in size as his work developed, from interactive wearables to public art as expansive as the spaces that would contain them.

Created toward the end of his life, both these untitled works embody West’s maxim: “ doesn’t matter what the art looks like but how it’s used” (F. West, quoted by R. Smith, “Franz West…Creator of an Art Universe” New York Times, July 26, 2012). These mysterious and playful forms invite further investigation and contemplation as his oeuvre focused on friendliness and viewer interaction, a radical approach for someone initially influenced by the abstract and nihilism of the Actionists of Vienna.

Initially, the artist used pieces of furniture to take ownership of space, a theme that grew as his sculptures became larger, eventually producing more monumental forms. These forms, particularly the metal works constructed for outdoors, are organic and inflated, abstract but still approachable, meant for sitting on or lying under. His neon-colored, sausage-like shapes traverse through the air, free of both the self-seriousness and decorum often present in public art. West rejected the traditionally passive way of viewing art, instead putting the work up against the skin of the viewer. While abstracting shapes that seemed to defy convention, he created works that invited the viewer in. With his enthusiastic scale and friendliness, he set aside the trap of static abstraction, instead placing his brightly-colored structures in spaces where they were allowed to command and animate their environment.

Veering away from the performative existentialism of his forbearers in Actionism, West’s work fills the space but is lighthearted. It vibrates with the spirit of the avant-garde without drowning in it, in turn rejecting and embracing object-based art practices. The filaments of post-war European art can be traced throughout his work from the lengthy figures of Alberto Giacometti, to Dieter Roth’s objects, and the plaster surfaces of Jean Fautrier. West’s first influence was the Viennese Actionism movement of the early 1970s, and this quickly turned into works adapting everyday objects or creating new objects with ambiguous purpose. This early work included covering objects and furniture in gauze and plaster, yielding art which is bulbous, white, and tactile.

These works became West’s early Adaptives, portable mixed-media sculptures that are completed when the viewer handles the object and makes it a part of their experience. As the 1980s arrived, the objects grew in dimension, expanding both in size and the role the viewer played. Often they became the wearer, thus actively participating in the work and the abstraction.

Franz West was born in 1947 in Vienna, where he studied at the Academy of Applied Arts. His background was not steeped in the visual arts (his father was a coal dealer, his mother a dentist), and before he joined the academy, he briefly studying civil engineering in 1960s, wandering across Europe and the Middle East before returning to Vienna in his mid-20s. One of the most innovative sculptures of his generation, Franz West’s work has been displayed in cities all over the world, including New York’s Central Park. The artist represented Austria at the 1990 Venice Biennale and his work is featured in major public collections, including Centre Pompidou, Paris and The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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