Austrian artist Franz West, best known for his towering plaster, papier-mâché, and aluminum sculptures, has died in Vienna following a long illness. He was 65. In a joint statement, the Franz West Foundation, Gagosian Gallery, Galerie Meyer Kainer, and Galerie Eva Presenhuber said, “The world has lost a great artist who changed the way people look at art and themselves. His great sense of originality and his generosity with other artists, writers, and musicians will be missed by us all.”
West’s paintings, sculptures, collages, and installations have been shown across the globe, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Fondation Beyeler in Basel. Last year, he won the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale, among the highest honors bestowed on visual artists. Though West was shown more widely in Europe than the United States, the Baltimore Museum of Art mounted a retrospective of his work in 2008 that traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
West began working as an artist around the age of 30, after years spent studying linguistics. He attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna in the mid-1960s, a time when Actionism dominated the local scene. West’s early work is often seen as a reaction against that movement, in which artists behaved radically in public and undertook super-human tests of physical endurance. West struck out on his own, creating sculptures, paintings, and collages that — while equally ecstatic and sexually charged — were not transient.
As critic Michael Brenson wrote in a review of West’s 1989 exhibition at P.S.1, “Despite his esthetic of clumsiness and his continuing dialogue with the great Austrian father figure, Sigmund Freud, he is not one of the confessional, blood-and-guts, let-it-all-hang-out screamers of whom there seem to be no end in contemporary Austrian and West German art. If Mr. West's work has the touchy-feely intimacy of a weekend encounter group, it also has the macabre geniality of a medieval Passion play and the detachment of a dandy. The tone is elusive.”
In the early 1970s, West began his most elusive series yet: a group of small, portable sculptures called “Adaptives.” West considered them complete artworks only when the viewer picked them up and carried them around. “West's adaptives are situated somewhere between the poles of body and psyche,” wrote art historian Zdenek Felix. “Through use by the public, they could definitely become objects for behavioral research. This would comply with the intentions of the artist who is much more interested in the handling of his 'objects' than their formal completion.”
Later on, West began to create art on a larger scale: He pursued monumental sculpture, installation art, and furniture design. By filling cold gallery spaces with specially-made chairs and couches, he transformed them into communal sitting rooms. “It doesn’t matter what the art looks like but how it’s used,” he once said. West’s interest in activating and involving the viewer in his work was an inspiration to the so-called “relational aesthetics” artists that followed.
West “charmed, influenced and inspired his contemporaries, students and followers and all those who encountered him,” his dealers and foundation said in their statement. “His sculptural sensibility culminated in the physical engagement of the onlooker with his sculpture making him become part of the work.”
West is survived by his wife, Georgian artist Tamuna Sirbiladze.