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Franz West

Abstract sculptor driven by the need for public interaction with his work

The Austrian artist Franz West, who has died aged 65 after a long illness, was profoundly impressed as a teenager by a trip to Rome, where public sculptures and fountains are social settings and not just precious artefacts divorced from everyday reality. He later related this interactive quality to the public's participation in his own work, which he described as like "sitting in the art. Like a goal of sitting in the clouds, sitting in the art consuming life."

West's striking, tactile creations range from idiosyncratic furniture to turd-like or phallic sculptures and collages reminiscent of pop art. They are not exactly Berninis. Nor is the breaching of boundaries between art and everyday life a new idea. Yet through his versatility and sheer brio, he breathed vitality into the cliches of modern art, and was undoubtedly a generous and influential figure in contemporary European culture.

Lovers of the film noir The Third Man can easily picture the decadent, post-second world war Vienna that was West's birthplace. He himself spoke vividly about the bombed streets and menacing atmosphere, in which his father dealt in coal and his mother ran a dental surgery across the hall from the family apartment.

A sense of cultural extremes dominated West's artistic experiences as early as his teens, when his older contemporaries were seeking to break free from Vienna's illustrious heritage. Above all, he felt an appalled fascination for the work of the Actionists, the group of artists who from the early 60s attacked bourgeois sensibilities by smashing furniture or even, in one performance which West attended, a dead lamb.

The nihilism was infectious, and, after briefly studying civil engineering in 1966, West went through a period of profound disillusionment. He took plenty of drugs and wandered across Europe and the Middle East before returning to Vienna in his mid-20s. As a student at the city's Academy of Fine Arts, he was taught from 1977 by Bruno Gironcoli, whose overblown sculptures of domestic objects influenced West in the development of his own distinctive idiom.

West's signature works, the Adaptives, are strangely shaped pieces of plaster, small enough to be handled or even worn, like props in a play that has yet to be written. As West himself put it: "In picking up one of the Adaptives, there is a moment of not knowing what to do next, a moment of not knowing what to do with the audience. You make unplanned actions and gestures with the audience looking at you … the gestures become a little bit like art."

West once declared that "it doesn't matter what the art looks like but how it is used". This principle dominated his career, from the intimacy of his early Adaptives to the grandeur of his final outdoor sculptures. It inspired his rich textures, inviting physical contact as well as determining the contexts in which the works were shown. At first glance, the furniture that he began to produce in the 1980s can seem sharp and uncomfortable, although it is broadly in accord with his informal, "grunge" aesthetic. Yet even the most unwelcoming sofa might become a pleasant, sociable place from which to experience a gallery exhibition, creating the mood of conviviality that was essential to West's approach.

Furniture was not just a viewing point, however. It could also play a more central role. In the late 1990s, for example, a work called 2625 consisted of two steel and white resin chairs, placed on a low plinth and separated by a white cube hanging from the ceiling. Anyone who sat inside the installation would be obtuse indeed if they did not feel the transformative effect of their participation, even if from outside it might all appear a trifle austere.

West's interior design, which ranged from brightly hued upholstery to slick, angular lamps, was a vital part of his output, but he remained above all an abstract sculptor. As well as making luridly coloured, aluminium structures with expressive surfaces and open compositions, he produced more monumental, organic forms out of papier mache spattered with paint. In isolation his pieces would seem graceless and anti-aesthetic, but together they were able to animate great public spaces, creating a weird harmony out of bold visual contrasts.

Such works can also have a metaphorical significance. In West's Sisyphos IV (2002), a metre-wide agglomeration of papier mache and foam is fastened to the ground by steel piping, making it even more immobile than the rock that the mythical Sisyphus was condemned to push uphill for all eternity. Futility is acknowledged for what it is, a universal human experience.

West's international renown culminated towards the end of his life in major exhibitions, including highly successful shows with the Gagosian Gallery, a retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2008 and an appearance at the Liverpool Biennial of 2010. His greatest honour was the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement, conferred at the Venice Biennale of 2011.  Most spectacularly, in the previous year he was awarded an outdoor installation, Room in Rome, in the Italian capital's Piazza di Pietra – West's most direct homage to the city where the public sculptures had so powerfully motivated him at the beginning of his career.

West is survived by his second wife, the Georgian painter Tamuna Sirbiladze; their daughter, Emily, and son, Lazaré; and his sister, Anne.

• Franz West, artist, born 16 February 1947; died 26 July 2012 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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