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July 26 2012

Franz West: generous sculptural jester

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.


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November 09 2011

Peter Duggan's Artoon – Marcel Duchamp

In this week's send-up of the art world, conceptual art goes down the pan, when Marcel Duchamp finds readymade inspiration for his infamous work Fountain



August 04 2011

It's rubbish all right. But is it art?

Hans Schabus's junkwork in Edinburgh may seem wacky, but has its roots in a time-honoured tradition favoured by Picasso

Hans Schabus is certain to turn heads – and noses – at the Edinburgh festival this year with his exhibition of refuse at the Collective Gallery. The Vienna-based artist has collected all the rubbish that he and his family created in a year, sorted it and bagged it and is displaying it in the heart of the city. Actually, to be fair, I should point out that he has also cleaned it.

Schabus seems to be making a point about the enormity of modern waste and its terrifying impact on the planet. Yet there is also an art history of rubbish (and don't forget, facetious remarks are welcome on this blog). The earliest rubbish-related works of art I know about are 18th-century engravings that use Rococo decoration and Hogarthian depictions of London life to advertise "nightsoil men" (that is, poo removers) in the days before sewers. The cards show men in wigs and elegant clothes discreetly carrying away sacks of excrement from Georgian townhouses in the middle of the night.

Human waste was problematic in premodern societies – but at least it was organic, and had its uses: it became fertiliser. When French soldiers were stranded outside Rome one winter in the 16th century, they lay on the city's dunghills to soak up warmth from the fermenting matter.

These days excrement is disposed of by proper sewerage; but inorganic waste, which does not decay, proliferates. And for at least a century, artists have been recycling it. Picasso was the first to stick pages of discarded newspapers, broken chair seats and bits of cloth to his paintings to invent the art of collage. A few years later, Marcel Duchamp asserted that a urinal was art. But actually it is Picasso, not Duchamp, who is the radical of rubbish. Duchamp liked clean, unused, readymade things; Picasso pioneered the artistic use of the secondhand, the old, the broken. His sculpture of a bull's head made from bits of an old bike finds a new use – and meaning – for junk.

Artists after the second world war picked up on Picasso's passion for trash. Arman started making his "poubelle" works in 1959, using actual refuse. His piece Condition of Woman (1960) in the Tate is a container full of waste on top of an antique pedestal. While Arman was brutally direct in his imagery of waste, American artists were more poetic. The old dolls that Joseph Cornell arranged in fairytale tableaux, and the junkshop items that Robert Rauschenberg incorporated in his Combines, conjure nostalgic, surreal meanings – they are more redemptive than Arman's bleak portrait of consumer society.

Today it is the example of Arman that seems more political, and more urgent. Hans Schabus's creations are clearly in the Arman tradition. Rubbish is part of the modern condition and it was artists who were the first to see it. But the poetry of rubbish seems a luxury now. The horror of waste has overwhelmed its beauty.


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June 16 2010

The Surreal House at the Barbican

This new show is 'a mysterious dwelling infused with subjectivity and desire' featuring artists such as Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti and René Magritte



April 04 2010

A plague of pissoirs is upon us! And there could be thousands more out there | Sam Leith

Just how many of these damn pissoirs – sorry, historic artworks – are there? Four more copies of Marcel Duchamp's famous readymade, Fountain, have been revealed to exist. The original 1917 Fountain, the urinal he laid on its back and signed "R Mutt 1917", was lost, probably chucked out with the rubbish, but Duchamp made, or authorised, some copies. Until recently, there were thought to be 15 knocking about: Duchamp anointed three urinals as art, in 1950, 1953 and 1963; then, in 1964, he made an edition of 12 replicas based on a photo of the original (presumably, by then, the urinal company was no longer making them).

But now another four have jumped out of the woodwork. Duchamp's collaborator on the 1964 replicas, Arturo Schwarz, has revealed – with brilliant vagueness – that "three or four" others were made at the time of the edition, but, as they were flawed, they weren't included and weren't signed. However, they do still exist. He said, airily, that he gave a couple away.

The killer point here is this: these are unsigned. So these "copies of the famous urinal" are copies in the sense that they're, er, urinals. Yet representatives of the artist's estate, not to mention droves of dealers and scholars, are deeply exercised by the matter. Duchamp's stepdaughter, Jacqueline Matisse Monnier, has been consulted, since she's head of the Association for the Protection and Conservation of the Works of Marcel Duchamp. (Could anyone have hoped for a more hilariously pompous-sounding organisation to have the task of guarding the legacy of a prankster?)

"Neither my mother nor I ever sanctioned the sale of unauthorised readymades," said Monnier. Unauthorised readymades? Hark at her – it's a pissoir! Meanwhile, of the unsigned urinals, a spokesman for Bonhams said: "I don't think any auction house would take the risk that this was by the artist. We might call it 'in the manner of' or 'attributed to' Marcel Duchamp." The risk! The idea, you mean, that a bog-standard porcelain urinal might turn out to be a bog-standard porcelain urinal? As opposed to one with MAGIC INVISIBLE ART DUST on it?

If Fountain was about anything, surely, it was about querying the authority of the artist: on the one hand, the artist's choice of the urinal makes it art; on the other, who is this R Mutt anyway? It was about undoing the fetish for the object, and about playing around with ideas of uniqueness. And now we have an art establishment not only obsessing about its provenance and authenticity, but actually fetishising the object.

It's all too much fun to be an accident. Here's my fantasy: Duchamp not only made this great art-philosophical joke, but also, anticipating the reverence with which it would come to be treated and the colossal value it would assume, he made a second, follow-up joke.

The first joke, the whole getting-a-pissoir-in-a-gallery thing, requires only one copy. Then that joke's made. But there's a point here, too, about scarcity. The economics of the art market depend on scarcity. You could, after all, make an infinite number of photographs or prints or casts of a sculpture, which would fatally devalue originals. So instead we have an artificially created scarcity: limited editions are released, moulds are used then broken. Fountain, as long as it remained scarce, could and would be treated with all the reverence it was intended to lampoon.

So what if Duchamp made provision to undermine that? What if somewhere in the catacombs below Paris, like some dada Phantom of the Opera, R Mutt set up a secret art factory? What if he bought up hundreds, no, thousands of urinals, and amassed teams of workers to sign each one R Mutt (or rather to sign some of them R Mutt)?

He could have made arrangements for these to trickle on to the market decades later. Some would have a convincing provenance; some would be a bit sketchier. But they'd show up hither and yon: in the cellar of a house where the artist once stayed; in a bank vault, under the name R Mutt; or bolted to the wall of a public toilet the artist frequented.

My fantasy is that Schwarz is a sleeper agent who has now been activated. He has launched the last great prank, a plague of pissoirs – and over the next few years, we'll find ourselves drowning in Duchamp urinals, causing their value to go through the floor.

I can dream. But, in any case, isn't this whole situation confirmation that, nearly a century on, Duchamp's still the daddy? That urinal on its back still makes trouble. It still confounds the art world. It still refuses to settle down and just be what collectors would like it to be. If Duchamp were alive right now, I think he'd be laughing his head off.


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