June 2009, Franz West @ LA County Museum of Art

Franz West, Wegener Rooms 2/6–5/6 (Wegener Räume 2/6–5/6), 1988,
Installation of four collages, four papier-mâché sculptures on artist’s pedestals, four metal chairs, and cruciform wall,
Grässlin Collection, St. Georgen, c. Franz West, Photographer Thomas Berger, St. Georgen]


 

Franz West: To Build a House You Start With the Roof: Work, 1972-2008
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
March 12 through June 7, 2009 

 
I had been looking forward to this exhibition for months before it opened. Not because I was a particular fan of Franz West, but precisely because I knew next to nothing about him and had the distinct impression that I ought to know more. The press materials promised both “the first comprehensive Franz West survey in the US” and “interactive installations [that] encourage visitors to touch and engage with art.” And for additional personal allure, the exhibition’s time span exactly mirrored, to within a matter of weeks, my lifespan. So, I expected an education; instead I got an emotional rollercoaster. It started with a steep climb of buzz, followed by a cloud of bewilderment and self-doubt that wavered between alienation and resentment until being dissipated by the bright sun of comic irony and Skip Arnold's secret flask of moonshine. A lifelong friend of West’s though much younger, Arnold has made a startlingly successful career out of inappropriate behavior and provocation, self-inflicted injury and projected distress, and making compelling and dramatic, if not always beautiful, works of art from non-traditional materials. He was the best docent one could have imagined. He is a dear, close friend of mine, and as much of an expert on West’s true intentions as it is possible to be. But if you know him, then you also know that if he is your voice of reason, you are pretty far gone.
 
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.


Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Los Angeles. She is currently LA Editor for WhiteHot Magazine, Arts Editor for Vs. Magazine, Contributing Editor to Art Ltd., and a contributor to the LA Weekly, Flaunt, Huffington Post, Palm Springs Life, and KCET’s Artbound. She studied Art History at Vassar College, curates one or two exhibitions a year, and speaks in public with alarming frequency. An account of her activities is sometimes updated at sndx.net.

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