In honor of the closing (December 17th) of the artist's retrospective show Franz West: Works 1970-2010 at Gagosian Gallery in Geneva, we take a look at the artist's writings, and the inspiration and theory behind his sculptural and collage works. In this interview with art historian, curator, and critic Bice Curiger, excerpted from Phaidon's Franz West monograph, the artist talks about sculptural installation as a form of collage, how color and texture plays a role in his work, and the relationship between the public and the personal.
We're sitting here in Chou-Chou (1998), a new work of yours for 'Pink Fluid', an exhibition I have curated at the Maritime Museum in Stockholm. It's a bit like being on stage. We are sitting on a row of chairs as though we were facing an audience. Why is your work slightly stagey?
I came to the arts through the surroundings I was sitting in. Broadly speaking, that means artists and students in the Viennese coffee houses that you used to find in the 1960s and 1970s. I came to art via the places where artists meet, places where you would go and sit. My brother, Otto Kobaliek was an actor, and maybe there's a connection; it's never occurred to me before...
As stage raises things up, like a plinth. You raise something up out of its normal surroundings, as though you were somehow drawing an abstract field, a slightly more neutral area in a way, where things can be reborn.
Of course I consider myself a visual artist. I studied sculpture, which I hadn't necessarily planned to do. Sculpture is more about three-dimensionality than painting, and gets you away from the picture surface. In my case that went even further, almost as far as the stage. My pictures were mainly collages. The unambiguous reproduction you have in a collage becomes less clear in meaning precisely because it is a reproduction—unless you are part of it yourself. It's the same with us, sitting in Chou-Chou right now. If someone were to come into this space we would be collaged into the work.
Maybe that's not quite correct. As a body, you stand or walk around the sculpture. It's almost equivalent to your own corporeality, to taking up space in one's own three-dimensionality in a defined artspace. As far as sculpture in the normal sense is concerned, the viewer is more or less obliged to engage in movement. There is something standing here that you walk around, and perhaps the impression you have of what is being presented also determines whether the movement is quick or especially slow, depending on whether you are really concentrating. So here we are. Fortunately, we don't have to move like that just now, but even with the Pass-stücke (Adaptives, 1974-), those sculptures that you are supposed to move about with, there is a limit.
About your objects: a chair in your work is not just a chair—it is a meta-chair. I remember you once said about a couch, 'The perception of art takes place through the pressure points that develop when you lie on it', so that the couch is like a tool for perceiving art. You become aware of the art in the friction between the couch and...
Yes. When I thought about the word Stuhl [chair] it struck me that Stuhl and Stuhlgang [bowel movements] sound a bit like each other. And I came to the chairs through art critic Denys Zacharapoulos, who taught for a while at the Academy in Vienna, in the Institute for Contemporary Art. There were chairs there that you could stack, so they could be grouped; the rooms could also be used as studios. These chairs were rather shabby and he asked me if I would design new chairs for the rooms. When I heard the word Stuhl my first thoughts were of discharging fecal matter. It must have been the same for Dieter Roth, with the 'stools' in his own work and in art in general.
His so-called 'Shit-books' in the 1970s?
In his pictures too. I once heard Roth talking about one of his own exhibitions, and he said, 'it's full of shit'. In some symbols or metaphors, chairs and stools and shit might be regarded as having been produced by the artist.
As far as the group of seats o, it was like this. When I was first asked to make new chairs for the student rooms in the Institute, I thought, no, I'm not doing that. It was in fact a major shift from the way things were, from the 1970s to the mid or late 1980s. In the past, as I understood it, it would have been unthinkable for an artist to make furniture. People would have thought it far too profane, until the Italian furniture firm Meta-Memphis approached artists to design furniture for them. And some conceptual artists, like Lawrence Weiner and Joseph Kosuth for instance, made chairs for this company. Since the late 1980s I have made special chairs and designs. Whether or not they get approved however...
So, Meta-Memphis, 'meta-chair'; there must be a 'meta-people' sitting on them? It has already been said that, along with the things you exhibit, you include ideas with them, or use these ideas as material. Materials are not just what we can grasp with our hands; while we are sitting in the piece Chou-Chou we also hear, or in a sense 'see,' music. Music in this work is actually material, it is taken up and becomes an integral part of the object standing there.
Actually that takes us back to the beginning: to the fact that it's like a collage. When I was invited to take part in 'Pink Fluid', I felt a bit off about the title. For the last fifteen years I've had to listen to Pink Floyd and that kind of music in public places. Then I heard two records by Schubert and Schumann being played and noticed they were in pink sleeves. These were a kind of equivalent, the same kind of imposition, and these two are just as long gone as the—now doubtless denture-wearing—members of Pink Floyd.
The musical element in Chou-Chou is like walk-in collage. This is the function of the music, like the photographs in my collages. I made my first collages out of advertisements from magazines. I didn't cut them up, I just re-arranged them, and you could understand them as pieces of collage, in the sense of reproductions of parts of reality which are then out together differently, not in the same way as normally in other configurations of daily life. In this situation the difference is spatial, because you sit in it. As far as the effect it has on one's own artistic intentions is concerned, the individual has to regulate that effect him or herself. You can sit down and ask yourself 'So what's the difference?' That would be my reaction. The other possible reaction would be to sit here like us; that could be the purpose of the piece. And is that interesting to anyone else? You find the same thing in the work of some philosophers: Berkeley said Esse est percipi, i.e. 'To be is to be perceived'. At worst you could always cling to that. I think he meant that materials do not really exist; this is called Idealism. In any case a collage is a two-dimensional, or in this case three-dimensional, materiality. I once read an interview with Marcel Duchamp done at the time he made the Large Glass (1915-23). In those days the fourth dimension was a topic in philosophy, and the point was to find this fourth dimension. It could be the same thing here.
I also think of the function and use of color in collage. In your case there are many works that might also be described as colorless. The materials—paper mache, plaster, newspapers—have their own colorlessness, but then you apply extremely bright colors to them. The colors often have something material about them.
I have had some very unfortunate experiences with color. The thing is, when I started with color, I used it according to my taste at the time and after a short time, when I saw it again I was always appalled. If you later decide that your own work is bad, then the more colorful it is, the worse it seems. I have always had more certainty about the forms I use; at least the shapes seem more unchanging, so to speak. With colors you're much more dependent on the mood of the moment than with forms, which are more static. A form is the same at night as by day, while you can't even see colors at night; at least you can bump into shapes in the dark. And also with the constancy of form I can be unambiguous much more easily than with color. Colors always refer to something else, I feel. If you use them for any length of time, you become used to them.
But this pink picture in Chou-Chou is a 'fake', as it says in the title, a replica of another work.
Yes, it's an exact copy.
...of a work titled Fake that you made in the 1970s?
Yes. In those days I used a lot of brown. Ochre and pink seemed primary colors to me. I used to associate pink with intimate things. When I was a child, ladies generally had a pink combinaison [undergarment]. If you looked under their skirts, you saw pink. And the ochre, that's perhaps the color of their stockings.
And the yellow?
I became interested in yellow later on. Yellow can be compared to urine or gold. In Freud I read of urination as confirmation...
Yes. I've asked a few psychologists about it but none of them have known what I meant. Whatever the case, for me yellow was a symbol of saying yes to life. That's also very important, because when I started, my things were saying no to all the dictates from above. Now that's changed. I had a horror of my early collages with all their references. My response to these references was to oppose them with high spirits and humor, yet a kind of softening-agent, saps their claims to being serious, and softens things. Maybe I've put this into practice.
Last time we saw each other you said you had just read Malaparte's The Skin (1949). I was wondering why you were interested in it?
He describes a raw reality that remains supple by being lubricated or oiled with a kind of sarcasm. This reality doesn't exist at the moment.
One might associate that idea with thoughts of creases and wrinkles in a person's skin. A lot of your sculptures seem, by the look of them, to have a raw, mobile surface.
I had an apartment, I didn't have any money, and didn't like the hierarchical way firms work, so I painted the walls and doors myself for a few hours, here and there. When you paint a room, while it's still wet it looks grey, and then the grey begins to dry; gradually it becomes white. It is a lovely process. In Vienna the architraves above the door are curved. The shapes of older architraves are semi-circular, which for me signifies movement and change. I think that's where the Adaptives came from. I made them white, despite Malaparte's descriptions of skin being alive. The skin on milk was something that as a child I especially disliked. We used to be given warm milk and if there was a skin on it, it was really horrible. I had an old aunt, who always said that this was the best bit, and she just swallowed it right down." There's supposed to be something especially healthful about it.
Your work seems to have such potential for change, something positively physical, as if something liquid has turned into something solid, crystalline.
Well, the status quo of the viewer, of the recipient, should be a different form of perception. When I started making these things I had different needs, when I went into a museum, to those I have now. My needs have changed in the twenty-five or thirty years since I started, and now they are being realized. At first it wasn't possible to exhibit the Adaptives. My only chance was with private galleries, where no-one was allowed to touch anything. Things might get broken (Malaparte again). They could never be shown publicly like that. In some ways when you're fifty you feel that the ideas you had when you were twenty-five seem too far away, but as a motif they seem interesting to me. Otherwise when I am pushed into something, I really don't know what to make.
In recent years you have made large scale spatial installations the 'Proforma' exhibition (Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna, 1996), for instance, was very architectural, and so was Clamp (Carnegie International, Pittsburgh, 1995). In Clamp, the installation included seven working telephones and the walls were papered with pages from the telephone book. So that wasn't about the Adaptives you could get hold of, but about a telephone you can use, and which vastly extends the immediate effect of the work.
Yes, only now you don't need tat any more. At the time I didn't take into account that we already had mobile phones, but Clamp was just another of my experiments, a situation with the viewer. Actually all I really wanted to do was install my studio in the museum. I had just moved out of my studio, so I wanted to put that studio in there. In the studio where I now make sculptures, sometimes I get a phone call, and I get caught up in the call. I read during the day, and then in my sculptures I recapitulate what I have read. Then the phone rings, and while I'm taking the call, talking to someone else, I see it, I see the sculpture. If I were alone I would go on working and wouldn't know when to stop. But then I see it while I'm talking on the phone, and it is at this point that I know I can leave it.
That is another question: to what extent can the impression—not the message but the impression—satisfy our notion of perceiving art? If I see a sculpture or hear music that I find beautiful or interesting, it does not necessarily have to be beautiful. Is that enough? That is the problem in my works. I proceed with a concept, and that concept gets realized. With the smaller things that I make with my own hands, or when I choose the color, the auditory, visual or sensual parts of the object come together. But some of the time, when I make sculptures, I repeat what I've read, and that is my repetoire. The movements, the ideas, the changes, go hand in hand with each other, and that goes into the title, the accompanying text, or the style, something like that.
....In your work there is a certain tension between the intimate, individual experience and the public. After all, you make works for the outdoors, for the public at large. The seventy-two couches you installed at Documenta IX (Auditorium, Kassel, Germany, 1992) for example. What is your approach to public art?
Initially, public spaces seemed to me the most natural places to show art. However, over the years I must have become a little less other-worldly: now they just won't do, public spaces, the only spaces that don't cost anything. You don't even need to go far to find them. And you don't even need particularly to perceive 'public' work; it's simply there. There are enough bad artists out there, as anyone can see. What is presented as art-in-architecture, at least in Austria, is pathetically obvious, but at least it's not shut away in museums and totally uninteresting. Best of all I like art in the streets; it doesn't demand that you make a special journey to see it, it's simply there. You don't even have to look at it—that is probably the ideal art. Horkheimer said that he would prefer it if life were more intense and art less interesting—not that there were no art, just that art were less meaningful, and that's what I like about public art. Art that people have hanging around, that stands about in spaces with other people—that's the kind of art I want to do.
Flause, 1998, Installation at the Open Air Museum of Sculpture, Antwerp
Not a long time ago you made a piece in connection to James Lee Byars?
Yes, but it was a coincidence. I don't want to joke about an artist who has passed away. In 1997 Byars had the show before me at Serralves Foundation, Porto. So I was in the museum, having a look at the space, and there was a piece by James Lee Byars. I had never seen it before, and yet I had made almost the identical sculpture to his! It was basically a column a few meters high and I had done exactly the same thing; only the material was different. I didn't put my work in the same place, but Byars wanted to reciprocate by making exactly the same thing, a square column, and setting it in exactly the same place as my work. In the end I put it in front of the museum. It just sort of crept round there. It's partly in memory of James Lee Byars, whom I got to know personally. His exhibits touched me deeply in their unusualness. It's always a bit difficult, because a lot of people I knew have died, a lot of friends from the art world. Reverence is not the be-all and end-all of the Adaptives, rather, they sound be used to oppose the notion of reverence. But when it comes to friends and acquaintances passing away, and there is a lack of reverence, then it becomes problematic. But called that work after James Lee Byars and put it in front of the museum. I wish I could do it again.