Expecting the Unexpected: The Art of Franz West

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Playfully punk at first glance, artist Franz West hints at depth beneath the abstract surface. In a new, major retrospective, Franz West opens at the Tate Modern museum this week following a showing at Paris’s Centre Pompidou last fall. With his signature edgy aesthetic, the artist dashes the white-cube expectations of gallery and museum spaces in nearly 200 abstractions.

Highlights of this showcase include replicas of West’s early portable sculptures, “Passstücke” (“Adaptives”). Made from papier-mâché, works including „The First Passstück,“ 1978/1994 were designed specifically for viewers to handle and move. Along with mobility, many of West’s artworks impart a whimsical element with decorated everyday objects. In „Untitled,“ 1988, a bottle transcends its utility to become an object of art in this detailed work. Expecting the unexpected is the best predictor for the evolution of West’s artistry.

Furniture design became another key medium for West. In works including “Viennoiserie,” 1998, he created abstract functional pieces and immersive environments for audiences to engage. His late career was defined by his grand, large-scale installations, which became his greatest artistic acclaim. Expansive works including „Epiphanie an Stühlen,“ 2011 and „Untitled,“ 2007 were made even more distinct by vivid colors, unexpected shapes, and rough surfaces. In classic West style, irreverence and subtle wit slip in through references to Freud or Wittgenstein, even in his most bold creations. “Franz West’s work is playful and at the same time highly philosophical,” exhibition curator Monika Bayer-Wermuth tells CR. “It is cheeky but also serious and relevant.”

West (1947–2012) first took an interest in the arts through classical painting during family trips to Italy in his youth. Then around 1960, he began his own creative practice. Initially, he worked in a foundation of drawing and painting, before moving on to collage works with magazine images and Pop Art effects. A few years later, he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, where he was mentored by futuristic artist, Bruno Gironcoli. Another source of inspiration was the Viennese Actionist group, performance artists whose unconventional work gained attention during the era. These influences spurred West to design art around audience interaction and exchange. The viewer’s participation activates the art, making it a necessary final component for any art piece.

Central to West’s vision was the idea of art as a collective effort. He regularly worked with a variety of other artists, as well as musicians, writers, and photographers. By including these additional perspectives, he felt his work became more thorough and dynamic. West’s art, a collection of nearly 6,000 abstract, timeless pieces, continues to resonate with the next generation of artists. “West collaborated a lot and surrounded himself with a circle of friends mainly from art and music but he never belonged to certain group or movement,” Bayer-Wermuth explains. “And even when he became internationally very successful, he cultivated a certain anarchic spirit—as an artist but also in his work. These contradictions make West’s work and also himself as an artist so unique.”

West distinguished himself as both a boundary-breaker and a boundary-blurring creator. His work exists in the spaces between art mediums and styles, philosophical ideas, and light-hearted play. His approach obscures clear definitions of art and life, situating itself authentically in both worlds. The Franz West exhibition shows the truly original, multi-dimensional style of the artist’s practice, a lasting vanguard for contemporary art of the present and future.

Franz West is on view at the Tate Modern in London from February 20 to June 2, 2019.

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