Works of art and their audiences: Franz West

by Olivia Tait

Installation view of Test, when it was first exhibited with its earlier title Test, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Franz West. Test, Los Angeles CA, Franz West, Rest, 1994. Photo: Sue Tallon

  • Jan 14, 2019

‘Test’ (1994) epitomizes Franz West’s profound transformation of the relationship between works of art and their audiences. A significant example from his series of furniture pieces and installations, ‘Test’ encompasses the evolution of the artist’s sculptural practice.

West’s renowned Adaptives (Passstücke), the artist’s first sculptural works, which he started producing during the 1970s, are abstract, unwieldy objects meant to be handled, worn, or carried by viewers. This exploration of art as a form of spontaneous performance activated by the viewer eventually inspired West’s creation of furniture objects, including chairs and sofas, in the early 1980s. These were installed along the Punta della Dogana in Venice, as well as in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, inviting visitors to actively use his furniture sculptures to contemplate their surroundings, including iconic buildings and canonical masterpieces. A manifestation of West’s interest in psychoanalysis, his furniture installations distill his extensive reading of Sigmund Freud, offering viewers the chance to sit down, recline, and talk. The early metal benches and chairs were transformed into more comfortable objects during the 1990s, as in the case of his celebrated multi-part installation ‘Auditorium’ (1992) made for documenta IX, which included 72 divans covered with old carpets and installed in a large courtyard. The large-scale installation proved not only extremely popular, but more importantly, brought together visitors to discuss the works of art they encountered at documenta, as well as providing a space to relax and pause.

‘[I want] to be able to step into it, to sit on it, lie on it… this is the art of today, lying down on the bed looking up into space. It doesn’t matter what the art looks like but how it’s used.’[3]

Marking the beginning of his international success, ‘Test’ was first conceived for an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles with the title ‘Test’, where it offered a powerful space designed to provoke dialogue and exchange. An early review extolled how West ‘purposefully fashioned sofas for a convivial public living room, in which any and all are recognized as members of a communal family.’[1] Both its title and colorful covers, designed by artist Gilbert Bretterbauer and made with fabrics sourced directly in Los Angeles, were altered when the installation was shown at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York a few months later. Installed on the Center’s roof and renamed ‘Test’, the 28 sofas received new black-and-white covers. Dia’s original exhibition brochure noted that ‘the stark dark-light contrast was provoked by the site, by its physical characteristics as well as its cultural ones, and not least its preferred sartorial codes.’[2] At Art Basel Unlimited, ‘Test’—installed once more with new, bold covers by Bretterbauer—provides respite from the sensory overload of Art Basel, a meeting and starting point for debate and transformative encounters.

Franz West. Gelegentliches zu einer anderen Rezeption, Mönchengladbach, Germany, Städtisches Museum Abteiberg, 1995

Franz West. Gelegentliches zu einer anderen Rezeption, Mönchengladbach, Germany, Städtisches Museum Abteiberg, 1995

Rejecting traditional, passive modes of viewing art, West strove instead to devise works that encourage a viewer’s active participation. Summarizing his approach, West stated that ‘[I want] to be able to step into it, to sit on it, lie on it… this is the art of today, lying down on the bed looking up into space. It doesn’t matter what the art looks like but how it’s used.’[3] An invitation to sit back and ‘rest,’ West’s installation encourages audiences to actively contemplate how they experience art. The sensory experiences at the heart of West’s practice recall analogous works produced by a number of postwar artists whose artistic aims all center on altering viewers’ perceptions of their surroundings and themselves. Pipilotti Rist’s video installations frequently include furniture props to encourage her audience to relax and recline while immersing themselves in her hypnotic images and soundscapes. Like West, Rist’s use of furniture, including floor cushions and beds, allows viewers to become part of her work, while raising their awareness of their own bodies in relation to their surroundings. Rist shares West’s irreverent, playful approach to art and similarly pushes her audience to reflect on how they encounter art. Simultaneously object-based and performative, West’s exploration of observation as a multisensory experience also finds parallels in Dieter Roth’s assemblages. Roth’s large-scale installations invite audience participation and draw inspiration from everyday objects and materials. Both Rist and West have acknowledged parallels between their own practice and Roth’s work, with the viewer at the very center of all three practices.[4] Their works can be understood as parallel explorations of the post-war artist’s dilemma of maintaining or disavowing the avant-garde aim to integrate and unify art and everyday life, while challenging traditional understandings and restrictive delineations between media. Speaking of his furniture installations as a place to observe and reflect on art, West suggested works like ‘Test’ offer a revolutionary new experience for his audience: ‘Now you can integrate yourself into the art.’[5] Having created some of the first interactive sculptures of the 20th century, West continues to be recognized and celebrated as one of Europe’s most influential postwar artists. He fundamentally questioned how works of art shape a viewer’s understanding of their environment and themselves, radically transforming and pushing the boundaries of art. – Franz West’s work ‘Test’ is part of Hauser & Wirth’s presentation at Art Basel, from 13 – 16 June 2019.

[1] Christopher ‘MOCA’s City Sofas: A Site for Sitting’ Los Angeles Times, 15 March 1994.[2] Lynne Cooke, Franz West: Rest (New York: Dia Center for the Arts, 1994)[3] Iwona Blazwick, James Lingwood, and Adrea Schlieker, Possible Worlds. Sculpture from Europe (London/UK: Institute of Contemporary Art/ Serpentine Gallery, 1990), 83, 85.[4] Pipilotti Rist quoted in Massimiliano Gioni, Margot Norton (eds.), Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest (New York: Phaidon / New Museum, 2016), p. 63. Franz West quoted in Martin Gayford, ‘Franz West on Dieter Roth’s Strassenausblick (1987-1994),’ The Telegraph, 15 September 2001.[5] Franz West quoted in Robert Fleck, Bice Curiger, and Neal Benezra, Franz West (London: Phaidon, 1999), 64.