Think pink: Franz West at The Hepworth Wakefield
By Eleanor Mills
Published 17 June 2014
The multiple meanings of West’s witty sculptures are unravelled at The Hepworth Wakefield this summer.
The first thing you see on entering The Hepworth is a large, phallic steel object called Sitzwust (2000) poking neon-pink fun at you. The shape of this work might make viewers feel awkward, kids want to play around it and others want to sit on it. It could be a worm or something much ruder, and the title is a made-up word. Sitzwust exemplifies what the late Austrian artist Franz West wanted people to take from his art: anything they want.
West’s sculpture was borne out of his reaction to the Viennese Actionism of the 1960s, which saw performance artists carry out transgressive acts such as physically harming themselves and others. West responded by making gentle, brightly-coloured sculpture that people could interact with, rather than be repulsed by. He believed that no work was complete until a viewer interpreted it, so in the 1970s he developed the series of ‘Adaptives’: portable, white papier-mâché objects made to be used, whether performed with, stood on, posed next to, balanced or imitated, just like West’s friends did back in the '70s. Visitors can pick up and play with the four Adaptives on show at the Hepworth.
West’s art was influenced by Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), in particular his theories about the meaninglessness of language. This inspiration is particularly noticeable in Stonehenge (2011) where the title deliberately contradicts the material used – the work is actually made from papier-mâché cast in steel. It also provides a seat for the viewer to look at it from, but if the viewer sits down they can’t see the whole piece – and they have in fact completed the work by sitting on it. West was, after all, a master of wit. And I forgot to say; the sculpture is a lurid baby pink.
Pink recurs in West’s work. The exhibition's curator (and friend of West) Eva Badura-Triska explains that this may have been because West’s mother was a dentist, but he also liked the colour pink because of its Freudian associations, and mostly "because he wanted to offend nature to create a dialogue, so the uglier the colour, the more sublime a work becomes." West never thought himself to be a good colourist, but seeing his clever use of pink and splashes of interesting acidic tones across lumpy works like Parrhesia (2010, see image at top), it’s obvious he was extremely sensitive to the subtleties of colour and tone.
West’s alluring colours certainly draw the eyes, but it's a honey trap to engage the viewer in a dialogue with the work. "All problems of philosophy are problems of language," Wittgenstein once stated in 1921, and by making these conversation pieces, West has tapped into this idea acutely.
Franz West: Where is my Eight? is at Hepworth Wakefield until 14 September 2014.