Provocative, bulging shapes and skewed forms populated West’s art, provoking laughter and sometimes fear. But the Austrian artist, who died recently, hid seriousness in his mischief
Austrian artist Franz West, who died yesterday, was a sculptural jester, a provocateur, a maker of benign and threatening objects. Encounters with West’s art are often occasions for laughter, though it is a laugh tinged with horror and disbelief. He could deflate the pomposity of the city square or the elegance of a park with his giant pink phalluses and lime-green sausages. Sitting on dignified plinths, his skewed and lumpy sculptures, often garishly painted, had a kind of idiot elegance.
As a sculptor, West had a great touch and an inimitable feel for shapes. He was a master of the lump: the knobbly and inert, the gross and the gangling. His art had character – it stuck out, got in the way, but it was also sociable. There were sculptures to play with, to lounge about on, sculptures to place on a cafe table (to frighten fellow drinkers, or provoke a conversation), to wear and to carry. There were sculptures containing bottles of whisky. Trying to get a drink from one of these humongous, unwieldy objects made you look blotto.
West saw the business of looking at art, and making it, as a comedy of manners – though this disguised his absolute seriousness. “By nature I tend to be depressive, thus I always try to make something more euphoric, even if that fails,” he once said. The buffoonery and boorishness of masculinity was a recurring theme. But the big question was what art was for and what its social purpose might be: “If I wanted to make a Readymade today,” he said, thinking of Duchamp, “I would make a pissoir, but one you could really piss into, in a museum.”
West’s work could do you a mischief. His “adaptive sculptures” were intended to be handled and worn, like useless prosthetics or daft appendages. Playing with these bulging, knobby, spiky plaster and papier mache objects was like wrestling with a tuba. Mischievousness was a big part of what he did, though it hid a fiercely intelligent, well-read and perceptive mind. He had an iconoclastic sort of learnedness. His art could be absurd and touching, weird and threatening – sometimes all at once.
It was also welcoming. His sofas and chairs, with their lovely patterned fabric covers, are as practical as they are pleasing. He loved collaborating with other artists, and showing their works among his own. His influence – on artists as diverse as Rirkrit Tiravanija and Sarah Lucas – is more a matter of spirit than form. West’s was an art of great generosity and openness. And he made me laugh.