For the JC March 1 2019
Franz West is the Austrian artist with whom we are least familiar — and perhaps the least comfortable. His art, huge ungainly installations, often destined to squat outside or to be climbed over by joyously squealing children, has a Marmite effect. So much of West’s output is deliberately designed to resemble bodily appendages or emissions. He’s a little hard to love, to be honest. It’s said that he’d destroy any of his work that someone called beautiful.
West’s awkward, difficult and memorable work is being celebrated in a major posthumous retrospective at Tate Modern, the largest display of his work ever staged in Britain. Conceived in conjunction with the Pompidou Centre in Paris, there are almost 200 examples of West’s work — abstract sculptures, furniture, collages — in this show, which runs until June 2. Some of his sculptures are built around bottles of alcohol that he’d drunk .“I was drinking quite heavily at the time but I didn’t want to throw away the empty bottles,” West said. “Because their form reminded me of their contents … I had poured it into myself and it was now my own.”
Behind the artworks on display are the stories of two Jewish men, the artist Franz West himself and the exhibition’s curator, Mark Godfrey, the Tate’s senior curator in international art for Europe and the Americas.
West was born in Vienna in 1947, though his birth name was Franz Zokan. He was the product of an unlikely marriage between a Serbian coal merchant, Ferdinand Zokan, and a bourgeois Jewish woman, Emilie West.
Emilie was a dentist who survived the war in Yugoslavia. She ran her dental practice out of an apartment in central Vienna and had a number of patients who were involved in the creative arts. Franz formally changed his name to his mother’s surname in 1980.
The young Franz may well have been spoilt by his mother — she is said to have taken him on trips to Italy to view art — because he was certainly the baby of the family. His older sister Anne had been born in 1935, while his half-brother, Otto Kobalek, to whom he became very close, was 17 years older than him.
The Tate catalogue describes West’s education as “chaotic”. He attended “Sixteen different establishments, including a school for struggling youngsters at Bad Aussee, directed by a former SS officer”.
Not much is known about West’s early life or how he expressed his Jewish identity, not necessarily the easiest thing to do in post-war Austria, where the order of the day was denial of the Holocaust and Austria’s role in oppressing Jews.
But Sylvia Liska. who is deeply involved in the present-day Viennese art world, says that West was “eager to point out his Jewish roots, but he did not reach out to the [formal] Jewish community”. Liska says West “flirted with the idea of Israel and would have loved to have a show there”.
In fact, he did more than flirt. By the time he was 20, in 1967, he had already begun experimenting with hard drugs. He had travelled to Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iran and Iraq in 1963, a six-month tour during which one of his close friends died. In 1967, a report in the Kronen Zeitung, a Viennese newspaper, shows West as one of three friends arrested for drugs possession, before he could carry out another visit to the Middle East to procure more drugs.
Instead West served a brief stint in prison and — perhaps at the instigation of his family — was “twice admitted to hospital, probably to detox”.
Who knows, then, what led to a visit to Israel with his family, first to Jerusalem and then to a kibbutz? It could have been a consolation prize from his doting mother, in the wake of all the drug scandal, but there were certainly narcotics, hard and soft, freely available in Israel to those, like West, who were prepared to seek them out.
Aside from her fondness for showing the young Franz art in Italy, his mother had another important element for the would-be artist — her relation, Paul Wengraf, who had opened an art gallery in Old Bond Street, in London. West first visited Wengraf, described as his step-uncle, in 1963. The gallery specialised in African art and antiques, and he is thought to have drawn inspiration in later life from the way in which the African masks and statues were displayed on pedestals and plinths.
In late 60s and early 70s Vienna he was, apparently, just another hanger-on in cafe society, once again in prison for drug offences. But something happened to West after his father’s death in 1971. His friend Wanda Wessely noted that he changed his behaviour and way of dressing, “as if he was deciding to go seriously into art. He wants to become an artist, rich and famous”.
In 1974 West made the first of the papier-mâché sculptures for which he eventually became famous. He told friends: “I used to live at my mother’s place. She was a dentist and her assistant used to be a stage designer. She showed me how to work with papier-mâché.”
According to Mark Godfrey, the curator of the Tate’s show: “In the 1990s, West found a whole host of objects to serve as the pedestals and stands for Legitimate Sculptures. Pedestals could be made from old school desks, TV sets, suitcases, wardrobes, trolleys and IKEA-type plywood drawers… any old piece of furniture found in a skip near the studio could be repurposed as a base”.
Perhaps the most striking example of this repurposing is what Mark Godfrey says is his favourite piece in the show, West’s first outdoor sculpture, Eo Ipso. It is a long, twisted piece made from West’s mother’s old washing machine, and painted, says Godfrey, a “dirty green, reminiscent of hospital corridors.”
Godfrey says he didn’t even know Franz West was Jewish when he first began to look at his work for the Tate show. What he did observe was “a spirit of rudeness and verve, often mocking 19th century Viennese art traditions”. He says West was both an insider and an outsider in Austria, a secular Jew who found his place in the art world, where the politics of the far right — including antisemitism — did not touch him.
Mark Godfrey himself is London-born, to a father originally from Leeds and a mother from South Africa. He was regularly taken to galleries by his father, and made aware of a tradition of collecting Judaica by his mother.
He joined the Habonim-Dror youth movement and went to work for Habonim in Israel in 1992. After reading art history at University College London, Godfrey went on to a PhD on “Abstraction and the Holocaust”, looking at the work of north American artists of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. “I analysed the work of Barnett Newman, Morris Louis and the architect Louis Kahn, to see how they addressed the Holocaust in an abstract way, without using direct images”.
Franz West, who died in 2012, could scarcely be more different from Newman, Louis, and Kahn, not least because he was a different generation of post-Holocaust artists. But Godfrey likes and admires him, describing him as “hugely influential.
“He tore up all the rule books about what art could be. He had a riotous lifestyle but his works were philosophical — and also fun.”
The Tate Modern Franz West retrospective runs until June 2 2019.