Here’s what happened. I hated the work immediately. It’s messy, convoluted, sometimes downright ugly, deliberately unresolved at times, overwrought at others, and often hypocritical. Here at last was the fountainhead of everything I rail against in contemporary art’s insistence on the false choice between craft and idea. West seems to have clearly chosen idea over form. When in the 1960s he pioneered Actionism in a German culture barely a full generation removed from WWII, I can see how he and his colleagues might have found breathing room in a non-objective, existential art form of individual autonomy that paid excruciatingly close attention to what the artist did when he was being a “regular citizen” in a traumatized society. The Nazis had used visual art as an irresistible strategy of propaganda and control, bent memes of art history to their evil, and poisoned the well of visual culture. And if ever there was a body of work that threw off the mantle of bitter beauty, refused to deliver a message, brashly sought to overturn the dominant paradigm, and amused itself by making people uncomfortable, this is it. And on top of that, the promised interactivity never really materialized—there were a few boring things that could be touched, a monstrously unsanitary shower cap that could be worn, a few other things about as interactive as tying your own shoelace, and little if any documentation of the actions, performances, and time-based mischief of which the objects in the museum’s galleries were, for the most part, the residual artifacts.
And then, just in the nick of time, I was rescued, albeit unintentionally, by Herr West himself. We came upon him in the midst of a heated argument with the museum guard assigned to watch over the Wegener Rooms, a four-part sculptural installation with collages, lumpy sculptures, and sturdy, industrial, steel chairs, welded by the artist himself in 1988, upon which he was not being allowed to sit. The man is over 60, he made the chair himself, and the whole point of his work is to encourage the dissolution of boundaries and the quietly witty act of defiance. Having witnessed that scene unfold, I couldn’t help but wonder, was West just as nonplussed by the sobriety and misapprehension of his darkly soulful humor as were Skip and I? Or maybe he brought this on himself by making work that, while undeniably influential, in dismissing the possibility of pleasure in form at any level, fails to transcend the historical specificity of the time and place of its making.