Franz West

This preview of Franz West’s “Where is my Eight?” at the Hepworth Wakefield appeared in Mousse:

“What is sculpture?” Austrian artist Erwin Wurm ponders in an interview. “Sculpture is to add volume, to take volume away, and you can also say that when you gain or lose weight.” His own sculptures and installations, which often look as if they had been subjected to a brutal fattening-up regime or diet, warrant the analogy. Take the bloated Fat House (2003), for instance, and its counterpoint, Narrow House – a mere sliver of a place that visitors could walk straight through at the 2011 Venice Biennale.

Conceived jointly with MUMOK in Vienna, where it opened not long after Franz West passed away in 2012, and adapted to its new context – the Chipperfield-designed public gallery named after Barbara Hepworth who grew up in Wakefield – this exhibition also playfully invokes the “before and after” images familiar from weight- loss commercials. Pared down from Lost Weight (2004), a gouache depicting a woman who proudly holds up a pair of trousers matching the ones she herself is wearing, only several sizes larger, the show’s title was chosen by the artist, who worked closely with MUMOK’s curator Eva Badura-Triska on the exhibition in its previous guise.

The largest show to date at The Hepworth Wakefield, which was unveiled in 2011, will take over seven of the ten display rooms, spilling out onto the gallery grounds with a single Lemuren Head (2001) piece – from a series of outdoor sculptures originally designed as headstones for a bridge in Vienna – placed like a sentinel opposite the entrance, next to a watermill overlooking the River Calder. The exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield differs from the one at MUMOK in the selection of works on display, a substantial number of which comes from private collections and galleries; in the emphasis placed on West’s “combination” pieces, which bring together works in a variety of media, some by artists other than West; and, above all, in the parallels that it draws between the plaster and papier mâché sculptures of the Viennese artist, his so-called adaptives especially, and the plaster casts made in her studio by the presiding deity of the place, Barbara Hepworth.

Black-and-white archive photographs of the two artists at work in their respective studios set the scene for this encounter, framed as a conversation between Hepworth and West. “Conversations” was the title of a 1974 solo show of Hepworth’s works at the Marlborough Gallery in New York, the year when Francis Ford Coppola’s Palme d’Or-winning film The Conversation was released. The earliest of West’s Passstücke – initially translated as “fitting pieces” or “adaptables”, before the artist hit upon the more congenial “adaptives” – go back to that year. The poet Richard Preissnitz, who was a friend of West, coined the term to designate the sculptural oddities fashioned out of plaster and papier mâché, designed to be handled and put to other, more or less imaginative uses, yet forcing the body to “adapt” to them rather than the other way around. Unlike her large-scale, polished bronze-cast pieces, somewhat forbidding in their smooth finish, Hepworth’s void plaster models have the lightness, portable and rough-and-ready quality of some of the adaptives.

For Hepworth, “sculpture is perceived, above all, by the sense of touch which is our earliest sensation”. The tactile dimension of her sculptures, if anything, comes to the fore through contact with West’s body of work. In the archive photographs, Hepworth appears to be as it were interacting with the large-scale plasters in her studio. If the works of both artists appeal to the visual and the haptic senses, in West’s case they were made to be held as well as beheld. Whereas most artworks are intended for contemplation alone, they actively encourage physical interaction. West used to repair himself any of the objects that were damaged in the process. The posthumous nature of the exhibition does mean that several adaptives and combination pieces that visitors would previously have been able to interact with will now be off bounds in an effort to preserve the works. But by no means all. From the twelve divans of the 1993/1995 Ordinary language to NYCNAC (2008), an artwork you can hold and even put on your head, should you feel the urge, adaptives and installation pieces that can withstand handling will be spread across the gallery rooms. Touch them while you can.

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