Interview: Franz West

Painted sculpture has a very long history, but your sculptures don’t have much to do with that, in my view: they are more like three-dimensional paintings.

Oh well, if you paint the same thing onto a two-dimensional surface, it’s nothing. Early sculpture was always painted, Gothic or Baroque or whatever you like … everything was always painted. I don’t think you can say they are pictures. Normally with sculptures it is a matter of certain parts just being emphasised with paint. In a human representation, the cheeks are painted pink, not green. In my case the paint application is more or less independent of the place where it is applied, so to that extent it is not painted in the traditional sense. It is my own way of using paint.

The reason I see your sculptures as three-dimensional paintings is that the painting process and the result have all the attributes of painting about them. For example, you turn the sculpture again and again while you paint and you have a flat surface and the advantage that something is also going on at the same time on the other side.

While I am working I never remember exactly what has already happened and every time I forget what I should have remembered. It comes back to me only when I have already done it, when I have repeated myself. Right now I have a problem, so this is a good moment to have a conversation because it’s a moment of crisis. All the works have just been taken away and in my studio it looks rather depressing and bleak. When something has just been finished it looks lively, and I am glad to be here. Now it is gloomy, because everything has gone. It’s an unpleasant procedure, but on the other hand it is also lucky. It used to be that everything remained left over, nothing went. That is even worse, when everything goes on hanging around after you have finished it.

The fluctuations are getting faster and faster. You make the work and have no chance to look at it properly any more. I never get around to looking at all.

I like looking at other things, by other artists. Not my own things. Looking at my own things is like being a pig … they eat pork, I think. That is like an artist taking pleasure in his own work. One shouldn’t do that, you need someone else to do it. By now I have a large number of things by other people standing around at home. You look at your own things to correct them. I have become an artist but actually I wanted to be an art dealer. But that didn’t work out because in Vienna, and certainly in Austria, there was too little need for it. One would have to deal mainly with antiques, and that didn’t interest me. Dealing with contemporary art had limits, and I didn’t know how to get into that business. Now I might be able to do it; in the course of the years I have learned how to do that, how to satisfy cultural needs.

I am interested in your approach to painting and especially your collages. Did you use photos in your early collages from the seventies because they were already there, an archive of the world, or was that a criticism of the consumer society, because most of the pictures are from the media?

A lot of elements come together in the collages. For one thing, that was the time when the first photographic self-portraits of artists were being made. There was [Klaus] Rinke, [Arnulf] Rainer … who photographed themselves in various poses, and, on the other hand, Richard Hamilton. The collages he made back then remain in everyone’s memory. And besides, I also wanted to paint sometime but this shadowing and representative painting was a terrible pain. If you don’t feel the need for that, for learning that, if one doesn’t want to have the act of learning, you can get around it very well with collages. And so, at first I took printed advertisements out of weekly magazines like Spiegel . There were full-page advertisements that were really stupid; in particular the adverts of the early seventies were aimed at the level of special needs pupils or mentally retarded people. On the other hand, however, that is the popular culture that affects most people, the majority of people it is made for … what "dumbing down" is imposed on them. It was quite original to manipulate that.

Were those proposals for improvement, in other words, criticism?

Yes, like criticism that then turns into something ridiculous.

And you thought it was best to take the material that already existed?

Yes, as advertising is in fact used. It meets the sensual needs of a majority of the population. They are representative pictures, the ones that are used in advertising, pictures that are generally gladly looked at. As an artist one is somehow an outsider and doesn’t have the same needs or wishes as other people. You can’t understand it: how can they want that, how can they want to live like that? Unfortunately, however, at the same this achieves a certain melodrama, as if one knew how things should be.

At first you only marked a few spots and in the later collages you painted more and more.

Oh well, because things change …

Or did painting give you more and more pleasure?

Yes, more and more. That is also the change the years bring, that one was interested in something at first and simply took up the closest, most convenient paints, just anything that was there. Why that is blue and that is red – that made no difference to me – simply, as they say, from a gut feeling. But from a non-aesthetic gut, more like a pig’s gut. As time goes on you refine your opinions, the aesthetic ideas, it all becomes more sophisticated, what one accepts – or less sophisticated. You get more precise and get closer and closer to the whole thing, gradually see it more clearly, and then there are these big nihilistic waves, where everything is stupid and everything unnecessary …

But you have to make decisions all the same. How does that work in with the choice of colours?

I do that from the gut. You don’t think with your gut, everything is already clear there. There you live as if before making decisions. You select before you have decided.

I often come to your studio and when you are painting your sculptures I have the impression that there are in fact a few rules you follow. If possible, not to concentrate, in other words to find processes where one is unconcentrated, where you disturb yourself or let yourself be disturbed. No composition, because the objects are constantly being turned as you paint so that an overview is impossible. While the moment of concentration, the growth of a composition is central for many artists, in your case it is rather the opposite.

For me it works like this: the less concentrated the better. I can do almost nothing if I want to do it with my will … and that has taken me years. When I imagine a form or a colour on a sculpture, and then realise it, the whole thing turns out badly. I have to have some paint on my brush and then paint somewhere with the brush, and then something comes out of it. In other words, turning ideas into reality, one to one, doesn’t work for me.

Of course that means that the ideas must already be there inside you.

Well, they are in the object. I suppose that sounds a bit mystical …

That’s why I always thought that the objects are an ideal surface for your painting, because the expression has already taken place, it is already laid out. Furthermore the paint drips and traces run into each other because of the turning, so that the important elements of chance happen as a matter of course.

I think one can sometimes find in Heidegger that the object itself does the talking. It is well-known that the Greek sculptors said they were like an extension of the tool that was working on the material. In other words, in their opinion nothing comes about by will. I think it is a bit like that in my case too. One is, so to speak, the handmaid of the requirements. If the finished sculpture demands this thing and that, if red should be there, blue there, running paint there, one is only a handmaid for the finished sculpture. It was nicely finished in advance and now demands completion. That sounds childish and stupid, but it is real. Perhaps it is childish and stupid, all this, from some point of view of intelligence. But what do those intelligent guardians look like? So unappetising that I don’t want to bother any more with their statements, they have tortured me long enough.

Even so, I have the impression that the form comes more easily to you than the colour, the paint, the painting?

I no longer get around to the shapes. I now have more assistants than work, and so one of them makes the shapes, another paints them and then everything is taken apart again a hundred times and the colours changed completely. That is quite nerve-racking. The sculptures need to be painted for technical reasons, because paper maché oxidises if it is left in the air too long. Then I have them painted in some colours. Sometimes I can go on working with them quite well, or else it is terrible and one makes something else with it. That is a motif in itself. But the shapes that come out are always more or less the same shapes, I’m afraid.

Constantly interrupting yourself, constantly cutting off your own words–which, of course, adds to the acceleration of art, of the art business, because permanent renewal is desired, where uncertainty is the only certainty–all this applies strongly to you. Also because you are constantly becoming more varied in your work.

That is the way things have turned out. Really, now everything is made by assistants, like the sculptures. Mrs. Anne paints over them, the videos are made by somebody, the metal things are made by somebody and then I have to make something out of what they make.

But isn’t that irritating for the assistants, who, after all, are almost all artists?

Yes, quite true. You have to bother with sentimentalities, but then you have to stay cool.

And do you think that the thought processes in philosophy or literature are different from those in the visual arts? Paul Klee always liked to talk of artistic thinking. Is there such a thing as visual communication? I’m asking because you especially like to read philosophical texts but hardly any art or colour theory, I think.

That’s something quite different. That’s what you need at night for auto-correction. Not at all in order to learn something but in order to get your thoughts together. In the evening one is so distracted and is still living the remains of the day, which one has collected as the day has gone by. It brings one out of order or into order, depending on which is more orderly. And that is an important point, perhaps correcting, changing or confirming the overall attitude that one has. That is an important part, it is everyday life, involving yourself Kommuwith philosophy. It corresponds again to one’s outward manner, while art is really just an inner process, even though it is then externalised … Something comes in, is an input, while art is an output, and in between is, so to speak, the unique thing, the individual person, and that is what one corrects with the input. You can say that taste, per se, comes from gutart. The gut has something to do with taste and that is constantly being disturbed or corrected or narrowed down or broken up. The demands one makes on oneself as a human being are very high. I think that philosophy understands itself as the highest output of Homo sapiens. Naive artists think it is art, naive philosophers think it is philosophy, but both are very high cultural efforts. If you interest yourself only in one of them and don’t take any notice of the other, you wither away, you are, perhaps, a piano virtuoso, which is just alright …

I have noticed that for some artists it is more natural to read philosophical texts than art theory.

Theory formation is a kind of over-achieving. If you go in that direction, I think, you can’t do anything anymore. It is like destruction. Where it is analysed with precision it is destroyed; it’s like dissection.

Now I want to know something quite different. I’m interested in the discrepancy between studio and exhibition. Recently I was in New York and was surprised yet again how uniform the galleries seem in architectural terms. The same doors, completely neutral, sharp edges, clear cubes. Even with very strong works there is still a certain emptiness. Do you experience exhibitions, in comparison to the state of the studio, as not quite successful?

In an ideal case it does really work. In an ideal case the work is strong enough that this so-called neutrality is no longer noticeable. In the studio, on the other hand, it is too dirty.

How did the idea come about that you would use the works of other artists for your exhibitions? Is that a visual communication to which one gives depth, a different tension that one wants to achieve?

For me now it is like recovering a time of youth that I never had. There was this idea that one could make an exhibition with a few friends. You are always very isolated when you are working, and you want company – the other, so that your own self makes sense. And this communication doesn’t have to be verbal, but rather we are back at the visual. Your own thing simply becomes too much, it has to be taken in doses. I have managed to achieve a few solo exhibitions where there was nothing from other artists. If an exhibition is good, it is as good as if it were an exhibition with others. In that case one replaces them. Together it adds up to something real. After all, the world consists of a range of elements. I really like that.

The fact that your works are getting bigger and bigger recently–does that have something to do with bigger commissions?

The rooms are getting bigger. If you make a small sculpture for outdoors, it really looks puny. For example, I made a very big work for Toulouse, and when you come to the main square you find forty candelabra. Each of them is a metre higher than the huge sculpture. We then put that somewhere else.

Do you approach your sculptures in a different way, depending on whether they are for outdoors or indoors?

No. I never deal with the "outdoors". I just make models and see whether they work.

But in the open people are forced to see the work. That is an involuntary process of democratisation, perhaps an enforced happiness. I once had a long conversation with Daniel Buren about that. He said that when you work outdoors the aesthetic element, beauty, has to play a role because one is obliged to think of the people who have to see the work every day even though they don’t want to see it.

Yes, but I make it especially for the people who don’t want to see it. Outdoor sculptures are really hard to digest sometimes, and sometimes they are a kind of harassment, but the people harass me, too. Why shouldn’t I harass them? And when you are harassed by some kind of car chassis, architecture, trams, seats in trams, clothes, everything, then it doesn’t matter, everyone ignores all that. I have often been furious about architecture, but when you have been walking past it for ten years you stop looking at it, it becomes familiar and cosy. For example that new library at Karlsplatz with eagles on its corners. Now it is a familiar sight. You start casting loving glances at it, in fact I have really started to like those eagles. Then I know where I am, I am at home. [ laughs ]

Translated by Nelson Wattie

Franz West was born in 1947 in Vienna and died in 2012 . Represented by Galerie Meyer Kainer , Vienna; Bärbel Grässlin , Frankfurt; Galerie Hussenot , Paris; Galerie Eva Presenhuber , Zurich; Gagosian Gallery , London & NYC

Andreas Reiter Raabe is an artist and lives in Vienna.