Public Art, by DAVID COHEN          
      A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, August 12, 2004
 


Franz West Recent Sculptures until August 31 (Broadway between 62 and 65th Streets & Doris C. Freedman Plaza, Fifth Avenue and 60th Street).

DAVID COHEN

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Franz West Ypsilon 2004
aluminum, installed at Lincoln Center, August 2004
photograph by Pamela Crimmins

When Franz West's supersized, enameled aluminum biomorphs in tutti-frutti colors went on display last year at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea, Robert Storr, writing in Art in America, thought they "were essentially auditioning for plazas." If this was the case, they landed a plum part: Courtesy of the Public Art Fund, seven of his jocular abstract forms line up to dance the can-can on the urban stage formed along the front lip of the plaza at Lincoln Center. Two more are at Doris C. Freedman Plaza (named, incidentally, for the founder of the Public Art Fund) at the southeast corner of Central Park.

Flanked by the State Theater and the Avery Fisher Hall, the Lincoln Center seven occupy a thin strip between the steps to Columbus Avenue and a forlorn string of Jersey blocks, where they are lined up with thoughtless regimentation. But unartful installation is dead on target: a nonchalancesense of the provisional is key to Mr. West's aesthetic;.

This "just happened to have dropped here" ethos is in studied contrast with the two-part bronze by Henry Moore, "Reclining Figure" (1965), positioned in a smaller plaza tucked back in Lincoln Center. The Moore presides with grand, timeless aloofness over a 1960s pool - which means, of course, that it is anything but timeless. Its ambitions - to be public sculpture that not only looks prehistoric but exudes a sense that it might outlive the modernist buildings and temporal activities going on around it - smacks of modernist idealism. Postmodern sculpture digs into the ribs of such hubris.

While Mr. West's colors are borrowed from pop culture, the form vocabulary is more highbrow - unless, that is, the games Mr. West plays are with, rather than in, abstraction. "Dorit" (2002), the tallest piece, which takes the center in the triangular pediment line-up at the Lincoln Center, is in a bubblegum pink and consists of a vertical stack of boulders (or are they globs of gum?) on a pole. The turd-like "Meeting Point 3" (2004), is in lemon yellow.

As befits works in such confectionary colors, Mr. West's like to eat their modernist cake and have it too. Abstract with a vaguely organic morphology, the work refers to artists like Brancusi, Arp, Noguchi, and Moore. But the artist's determinedly ephemeral, arbitrary feel for shape and his sloppy-joe looseness with materials always seem to be making a joke at the expense of the rhetoric of such artists. His peagreen "Laube" (2002), consisting of a pair of interlocking open forms, directly brings to mind Moore's "Hill Arches" (1973), made for a pool in front of the Karlskirche in Mr. West's native Vienna.

Franz West Double Ring 2004
photograph by Pamela Crimmins

The absurdist quality of Mr. West's work derives mostly from their process. They obviously start life as the sculptural equivalent of doodles, childlike plasticine sausage improvisations. And whatever form or sensation they come to resemble in the blown-up rendering, they retain the qualities of the pinched and the provisional. Even when they get big (some are the height of a family house), they are never monumental. Belligerently whimsical, as cuddly as beach toys, they are happy to seem - literally - inflated.

Bubble-popping has always been Mr. West's forte. When he was a student in Vienna in the 1960s the notorious Aktionismus was in its offal-flinging heyday. For a while, Mr. West even apprenticed himself to Hermann Nitsch, the master of this weirdo art cult. But then one day, at the end of a particularly gruelling session of Actionism at his art school, he stood up, thanked the performers, and said to fellow audience members, "I think these gentlemen have earned a round of applause." In similar fashion, his Lincoln Center bubblegum biomorphs are a kind of mocking footnote to Moore's woman as mountain.

That Mr. West's works are installed only temporarily in high-profile locales obviously liberates them to have a lot more fun than they could have if they were fixtures. A single piece must be at once august and unobtrusive. But while happy that his works be put to use as climbing frames and benches, Mr. West seems in no hurry to be taken for granted. His art is, therefore, as much performance as thing - a far cry from Moore's humanist icons or, for that matter, an artist like Richard Serra's bombastic confrontations.

Mr. West is at one and the same time a traditional provocateur and a modernist sculptor of the old school. He deflates the (to some) ponderous social democratic grandeur of Moore but gives us a dose of Moore's mix of empathy and enigma - or at least teases us with its possibility. One troubling thought: Knowing, as we do, that the Lincoln Center is almost embarrassed these days with the unabashedly modernist idealism of their campus, perhaps a bubblegum palette and floppy shapes might signal the postmodernizing they have in mind.

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