Vienna’s Summer of Discontent

A tribute to great pioneers of Austrian Art: Domening, Pichler, and West

Top Stories | Simon Rees | September 2012

The late Franz West in 2009 with a typical work: vivid, humourous, and inviting interpretation (Photo: Markus Rössle)

By mid-summer, 2012 had already been a fateful year for Viennese culture, unlike any since the devastating flu-season of 1918 that rent the heart of the Viennese Secession. That year claimed artist Gustav Klimt, architect Otto Wagner, and artist/designer Koloman Moser all within a few months – signalling the end of an era.

Within just six weeks, this summer we have lost architect Günther Domening (15 June), artist/architect Walter Pichler (16 July), and artist Franz West (25 July), all still working at the height of their powers. Meanwhile, pioneering gallerist Grita Insam succumbed to a long-term illness on 4 June. These have been dark days for visual art and architecture in the city.

Domenig, Pichler, and West all created boundary-crossing work, invaluable to the development of post-modernism in architecture and art in Austria. At the same time, they remained allergic to the term "post-modern" and should probably be better referred to using the term coined by French critic Nicolas Bourriaud, "alter-modern" (an after-modernity imbued with humour and personality).

Theirs was an alterity of form, politics, and spirit.

Domenig was an early deconstructionist, whose work predates the experimentation of the internationally-renowned Frank O. Gehry. Pichler and West both moved between disciplines and often worked with furniture. Pichler’s Galaxy Chair, for example, made for Swoboda, is an internationally-acknowledged design classic. West’s African-fabric-covered lounges are as functional as they are decorative.

And while Pichler’s political commitment to portraying the brutality of his experience under the Nazis, often in the unforgiving coldness of concrete, has made him the more respected figure, West’s irreverence at the expense of contemporary art’s institutional obduracy has made him the best-loved and most popular contemporary artist of his generation. Who can resist an artist happy to be caught snoozing on a reclining sculpture in the middle of a Kunsthalle installation?

To many, contemporary art takes itself too seriously, suffering from what one might call a humour deficit – something that Franz West was pleased to dispel. He became an adept of contemporary art’s tone-y language – especially its psychoanalytical registers – and formal rigors, and bent them to what The New York Times described as a "friendly iconoclasm in which form and function were pitted against each other, and the notion of an artwork as an autonomous object was frequently undermined."

One such technique of subversion was making collages out of ready-made paintings that he would buy at flea markets or antique sellers – drawing, pasting, and over-painting humorous portraits or pictograms onto their picture-planes to make Franz Wests. Occasionally, when inspiration gripped him and he didn’t have any "ready-mades" at hand, he would use works from his personal collection by artists he admired. Many pieces, such as the lounges, are subversively functional, as they are both sculptures and installations (especially the ones integrating furniture) to be sat on, and not just looked at.

This impetus and utility made West a contributor to two of contemporary art’s dominant tendencies: an interactivity formally described as "relational-aesthetics", and bricolage, after the French second-hand shop, a ransacking and melding of different sources and styles.

In recent years, West has become best known for his large-scale candy-coloured public sculptures (pale pink and mint green were favourite shades) inspired by the shapes of the Würstel (sausages) traditional to kiosks in Vienna. Cast in aluminium, their surfaces, pitted and dappled like the papier mâché works from the 1980s and 1990s they are based on, rejected the high finish along with the high tone of the majority of such sculptures.

West’s rejection of art world expectations – think about it, a big green sausage! – and the playfulness of his forms and ideas endeared him to audiences, specialists, and generalists alike. And for that reason, unless others of today’s over-trained and over-thought artists can shuffle off their super-egos, his loss will be felt for years to come.


Günther Domening (1934–2012)

Walter Pichler (1936–2012)

Franz West (1947–2012)

Simon Rees is a curator at the Museum für Angewandte Kunst. 

Other articles from this issue