The History of Contemporary Art is still being written. We can trace a narrative line until somewhere in the 70s, or in the 80s if we are bold enough. It is almost easier to look at artists who are part of our daily artistic life than at those whose efforts reached their peak at the turn of the 80s into the 90s. The barely known Franz West is part of that period.
The retrospective at Centre Pompidou, exhibited until December 10, which is a collaboration between the Centre Pompidou and Tate Modern, will go to London between February and May 2019, with some of the works being changed in the process. When we step into gallery 2, 72 carelessly covered metal seats are waiting for us, as well as Oriental carpets. Although we have not shown our ticket yet, we are already standing before the work Auditorium (1992), which we become part of if we take a seat (and we can do it). This exhibition goes beyond the Centre Pompidou building and will house four sculptures designed as exterior sculptures in several locations in the Marais, such as the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris or the Musée National Picasso. They are monumental sculptures in epoxy resin or aluminium, which take us by surprise, as they are installed in the gardens or the entrances of these institutions and can be seen from the street.
West relies on and adulterates common materials and objects, hence producing sculptures such as the colourful Sisyphos, evoking the stone that Sisyphus continually pushes up the hill. But his eclectic work swings between drawing, sculpture, painting and installation. At Centre Pompidou, we can also see films by other artists, such as Friedl Kubelka or Graf Zokan, who owe their more radical artistic approach, like West himself, to the Viennese Stockholder movement. Which, in the 60s and 70s, and in the post-war aftermath, took the performing arts towards the realm of violence, as a form of rebellion against the established artistic system. These small films portray West or the use of some of his works, particularly the series Passstücke (Adaptives): similar to removable prostheses, built in different materials like paper-mâché or epoxy resin. These pieces are assembled to be used by people and thus appropriated as part of the human body, as if they were prostheses. Therefore, they acquire an expression that differs from person to person in every moment, being adaptable and making the spectator part of the sculpture in a performative gesture.
Franz West’s work is extremely wide-ranging and also includes poster projects or furniture projects that we can appreciate at the Centre Pompidou. His posters have a deeply manual character and work almost like paintings, unlike digital graphic spots that we are used to seeing. West works the posters like he does his other pictorial works: using collages and acrylic paint or gouache.
When we look at Franz West’s retrospective at Centre Pompidou, we feel that this narrative line of the History of Art, as EH Gombrich wrote it (one that continues to be a beautiful story), easily excludes barely known artists or marginal movements. But if, as James Elkins[i] emphasizes, there is no direct line, not just a single History of Art, but rather a tangle of art stories, where each one of us can create their own connections, then Franz West will be in the spotlight (he already is at Centre Pompidou) in one of these stories, alongside Pop Art and the history of performance.
[i] ELKINS, James, Stories of Art. New York and London, Routledge, 2002