Tools of Engagement
OVER THE PAST two decades, Franz West has gained renown for his boundary-blurring installations of sculpture, furniture, and their perplexing mongrel offspring. Less well known, however, are the Austrian artist's formative efforts within the fervent Viennese cultural scene of the late 1960s and early '70s, where he forged the participatory aesthetic and unassuming political tactics that have made him a touchstone for future generations. On the occasion of West's first US retrospective, opening this month at the Baltimore Museum of Art, art historian CHRISTINE MEHRING unearths these roots and explores their relevance to West's ongoing polymorphous production.
ON JUNE 7,1968, the crowd in Lecture Hall 1 of the University of Vienna's New Institute Building was treated to an evening of "Art and Revolution," consisting of writer Oswald Wiener's lecture on the relationship between language and thought, as well as less decorous displays of onstage nudity, vomiting, and urination. These stunts, courtesy of Wiener's Viennese Actionist pals, later led an outraged public to dub the legendary event the Uni-Ferkelei (campus mess or ribaldry), while the authorities charged participant Gunter Brus with defecating and masturbating during a rendition of the national anthem, and Wiener with reportedly instructing the audience to repeat these activities in Vienna's St. Stephan's Cathedral. At the close of the evening, sponsored by the Socialist Austrian Student Organization, Wiener asked whether anyone in the crowd would like to comment on the proceedings, a question that was met with a deafening silence. One young man stood up to break the self-conscious hush and politely replied: "Thank you very much. I enjoyed your performance enormously." Turning to the four-hundred-plus attendees, he proclaimed, "I think these gentlemen have earned a round of applause." (1) This was the twenty-one-year-old Franz West, and applaud the audience did.
Although this story is by now a well-known originary myth in West circles, its full import has hardly been grasped and extends beyond the general reaction of a young artist-to-be against the imposing specter of Viennese Actionism. West never considered his spontaneous remark "artistic," and he would only begin to make art proper two years later, but we would do well to note that the ensuing clapping was directed not just at the stage but also at West as a member of the audience. In this respect, his impromptu performance'"' prefigures the entwinement of art's making and reception that would become his hallmark. And while West's pursuit of participation gained ever-greater nuance over the following decades, we should likewise regard his increasing attention to the viewer's body and psychology--as well as to design, exhibition environments, collaboration, and humor--as both literal and figurative responses to that watershed year of 1968. When the union of art and revolution had run its course, West was at the forefront of a generation of artists who proposed more modest modes of social engagement. Thus his seemingly juvenile public pronouncement can be seen to have borne the seeds of a life's work, which by the 1990s had earned West a reputation as a pioneer of the then-emerging relational aesthetics and design art.
West's mature work as an artist began in the early '70s, with a series of lacquered monochromes featuring tiny, decorative stickers--duckies, florets, coats of arms, and the like. The panels' deeply cultural palette is informed by found period colors, resulting in part perhaps from West's confessed inability to handle color, but largely from his sensitivity to the design of his surroundings. "The lacquer colors are very common colors one sees everywhere, for example when one strolls through Ottakring [a Vienna neighborhood]," West remarked in 1980. "A majority of the population perceives the stickers as sweet [berzig]. The whole thing results in a gruesome effect, even for an old, dumb dame [altes, blades Weiberl]. …