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The Thing Itself

I Am a Friend of Franz--or, to Reclaim The Museum You Start With The Art

Mitro Hood
Franz West. "The Ego and The Id." 2008. Installation At BMA. Private Collection. @Franz West.
Mitro Hood
Franz West. "2625." 1991-1999. Installation At BMA. Hort Family Collection. @Franz West.
Mitro Hood
Franz West. "Lemure Heads," 1992. Installation At BMA. Private Collection, New York, Courtesy Of David Zwirner. &Copy;Franz West.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 12/3/2008

Franz West, To Build a House You Start With the Roof: Work, 1972-2008

Through Jan. 4, 2009, at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"I don't get it," she said, exiting the closet. "What am I supposed to be doing?"

I have heard this question asked a variety of ways while working* weekend gallery hours at the Baltimore Museum of Art's major retrospective Franz West, To Build a House You Start With the Roof: Work, 1972-2008, Oct. 12. I--and 23 others, ranging from college undergraduates to recent art-school graduates to BMA members and docents--had trained and educated myself to respond to this very question. And during my first shift during regular hours, it expectedly arrived when an pair of older women entered the show and encountered West's "Mirror in the Cabinet With Adaptives" interactive installation, which invites museumgoers to take an adaptive and go into the cabinet.

They did just that, taking up one of the various roughly club-shaped Adaptives and disappearing around the bend of the small enclosure; inside, the walls are covered with issues of the Baltimore Examiner dated Oct. 9--the day before the show was unveiled to reviewing press--with a full-size mirror on one wall. The women entered the structure and almost as promptly exited, returning the Adaptive and asking me the above question.

I offered my best professional smile. "Well, Franz West entered his young adulthood in late 1960s and early 1970s Vienna that witnessed the emergence of Actionism," I said. "This brief movement radically incorporated the body into performance art, using it as both material and canvas. And Viennese artists such as Günter Brus, Otto Mühl, and Hermann Nitsch mounted extremely politicized public spectacle, staging happenings that involved extreme activities with naked bodies, cutting flesh, bodily fluids, and other transgressive acts as a response to their time, a time period when Europe witnessed radicalization across its arts and politics."

One of my many faults is speaking obnoxiously fast, and even though my brain is telling my mouth to slow down, I know I'm also trying to shoehorn everything into 90 seconds of information overload.

"Franz West, though, isn't as outwardly reactionary, and his response to his times was something more subtle and subdued," I continued. "He first started making his Adaptives in the early 1970s, and they were tactile, awkward props to be worn, picked up, handled, and otherwise played with. A purpose is never intentionally stated by the Adaptive itself, and it's up to the user to decide how, or if, it should be used."

I proceed to demonstrate. Four Adaptives (an English neologism for its German neologism, Passstücke) are displayed, each roughly a meter in length and built along a metal rod. Amorphously shaped white resin, plaster, and epoxy covers the rod in places. For one, the layers take the form of an elongated morass, making it resemble a primitive scepter. On another, the resin takes the form of an oblong rhomboid cube, making it look like a stick with a giant marshmallow about to be roasted. And another--my favorite--looks like a rebar rod has been shoved into a hornet's nest the size of a frozen turkey.

I pick this last one up and consider what I could do with it. I cradle the large bulbous part and rock it like a baby. I place the handle part on the ground and spin it around like it's a giant lollipop. I walk around demonstrating how it's a really unpractical cane were I to sprain my ankle and have to walk to safety. I throw a leg over it and show how it could be galloped around like a toy pony. And then I toss it over my shoulder like I'm heading to the mighty Mississippi to run away from home and see where the river takes me.

I'm doing all of this in the BMA while outfitted in my default preppy gas-station attendant attire capped with a BMA-issued neon lime-green and hot pink vinyl vest. Affixed to it is a button that identifies me as a Friend of Franz and promises ask me anything.

These two women were my first genuine encounter with members of the public, and I wanted it to be special. I tried to do a good job. Everything I told them was accurate. And I tried to make sure I remembered various nonverbal communications from my training to make sure I was creating an open encounter for interaction should they chose to engage.

But I'm fairly confident I totally failed. I'm sure I spoke too fast. I probably came on way too strong so early in the show, in the second gallery of a five-gallery exhibition. And I'm fairly certain the very sight of a 38-year-old man cradling a piece of art like a frozen-turkey baby wasn't what they had in mind when they decided to go to the BMA on a Saturday afternoon. I don't know for certain, but it's what I suspect--because as soon as there was an appropriate pause in my spiel, the woman who asked me what she was supposed to do with the Adaptive smiled, nodded a thank you, and then they continued on their way.

What follows isn't a review of the Franz West exhibition. City Paper has already run one, and I'm so close to the work at this point that I'm profoundly biased. And what follows, hopefully, isn't yet another Alt-Weekly Writer Leaves Desk first-person narrative. The germinating seed of this piece started in late summer when the BMA announced that it was going to try something new for the upcoming Franz West exhibition, a then-unnamed interpreter/guide program to augment its usual docent and audio tours. I was invited to sit in on the training sessions, four two-hour discussions and presentations over the four weeks leading up to the opening.

During those sessions I realized that by becoming a Friend of Franz--as we were eventually named--I would not only get a peek behind the scenes of how the BMA organizes and installs its large exhibitions, but would also get a rare chance to spend large chunks of time with art works and, ideally, talking about them with visitors. What this program has provided me with is an opportunity to participate directly in how people navigate the museum, to observe and be a part of what an art viewer takes away from the art experience. And that idea--the overall museum experience--is one of those elusive qualities with which all museums must constantly define, refine, and maintain.

It's an all-encompassing idea that the training program's very structure emphasized. Over the four weeks, we spoke with a large swath of the BMA's back offices--Preston Bautista, the public programs director and Friends point person; Karen Nielsen, the director of exhibition design and installation; Fred Venhuizen, director of security; and Amanda Mechling, director of visitor services. And the exhibition's curator, Darsie Alexander (the BMA's former senior curator of contemporary art, now chief curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis), delivered a lively and informing lecture about West and his works, providing an appropriately heady overview to just how big and provocative West's work is.

"Hearing Darsie speak that first day was very, very helpful," says Emily Hunter, a fellow Friend of Franz and the co-founder and editor of the Baltimore-based arts magazine Locus. "Without having that--if I just did the readings and if I just looked at the work, without having her speak about it, I wouldn't have felt as confident as I do now with it. I mean, I studied art and art history, I come from that background, and you don't have to like it, you just have to be able to see something in it. But I think I really like it."

Here, Hunter hits on one of the keys to being a Friend of Franz: Not being totally sold on the work is OK. We weren't being trained to be Franz West advocates, although we were given the background information and critical overviews to be able to have that discussion. We were being trained to be casual sounding boards, people who have formed some opinions about the work and the show, but opinions not set in stone. Our job is not to lecture people and tell them what to think, but to be there should visitors want to chat about something. Sometimes the work doesn't immediately pull you into its orbit, and we're there to talk with people about whether or not making that journey is worth it.

It was the challenging nature of West's work that prompted the BMA's education department to suggest an interactive component earlier this year, a program that the Guggenheim Museum started in 2006 and which the New Museum used for its Unmonumental debut in its arresting new Lower East Side home. "We met with the education department and considered what the exhibition was, the content, all of that, and it had warranted this sort of interpretive component," Bautista says by phone. "I've seen it in action, at the Guggenheim and at the New Museum. They were having a really, really difficult show, but they had these people who were doing basically what you're doing at the Franz West exhibition."

Ted Loos wrote about the Guggenheim's program for The New York Times, an article that the BMA forwarded to the Friends prior to the first meeting. In it, Loos quotes one of the guides mentioning one of those horrible truths about the rift between art and public: That some people are really angry at contemporary art, taking a decidedly antagonistic stance toward the means, materials, and attitudes of art being made right now.

Franz West is an artist for whom a casual encounter may be misleading. A well-regarded sculptor in Europe known for his sly and monumental public works, West isn't as renown in America, and the immediately whimsical nature of some of his work--which includes nonobjective sculpture made from mundane, ephemeral materials such as papier-mâché and cardboard, collages that use newspaper advertisements and cardboard, recycled materials and even ideas from his own previous output, and sometime flat-out goofy and silly visual puns, linguistic games, and even absurdist color schemes--can invite immediate eye rolls. Some of the work is designed to be touched and handled and sat upon, art that doesn't fulfill its mission until it is acted upon by the viewer. Other works are so delicate and fragile they can't be touched at all, which made their very installation a precarious endeavor. And what can be touched and what can't be isn't immediately communicated by the work itself. Sometimes West resorts to almost crude visual puns with his imagery; elsewhere, he references art history and contemporary philosophical thought in dense ideas.

There's a curious combination of social tension, quotidian irreverence, and intellectual cunning running throughout his works, but you might not locate those elements if you don't take a considered look at it. I've had people tell me they don't need to see more of the show based entirely on driving by the large, hotly colored pieces currently installed outside the BMA itself, as dismissive a judgment as discounting a book by what you read on a random page.

Pouring over the works in the package of press materials the BMA gave us Friends, I suspected the work might be a hard sell. It was suspicion born out in parts of the training's discussions and role-playing exercises, where we talked about how best to respond to visitors dismissive of the work and direct challenges to defend what makes some of this work art. I mention these moments not to imply that the training was trying to prepare us for the worst, only because, well, people can be really angry at contemporary art.

I'm not sneering at the proverbial rubes and philistines. If you look at art, you know what I'm talking about: Sometimes otherwise perfectly sane and reasonable people become reactionary when dealing with art, even overeducated people who are voracious readers, fans of esoteric movies, or champions of experimental theater. Maybe it's the perceived elitism that surrounds the so-called art market, but contemporary visual art sometimes seems to occupy an intellectual bubble entirely separate from the bubbles that encompass movies, literature, and even popular music, even though visual art just as directly responds to the now.

What I've discovered over the 10 hours I have spent working the BMA galleries and through talking to other Friends, however, isn't that at all. While some responses to the show have started off unfavorable or "indifferently negative" as one Friend put it, for the most part museumgoers are open to exploring where the work may take them, and that sometimes involves interesting and surprising discussions for Friends.

"This man came in yesterday and pointed at a work and said, 'That's a piece of effing cardboard,'" Hunter recounts. "And I said, 'Yes, there's a lot of works that use cardboard and papier-mâché in the show.' And he said something like, 'Well, I guess everybody's got a different thing,' and walked away.

"But then he came back to it and said, 'But that's not archival,'" she continues. "And we started talking about how much of the work is going to degrade and isn't archival, and by the end he looked at me and said, 'That's a really challenging piece for the viewer.' I love to see how people can turn around completely in the gallery. They may come in a little on edge about it, and maybe even be a little bit antagonistic about it, like, What the hell is this doing in a museum? But as they talk, they sort of hear themselves working it out and by the end they'll have a totally different take on it."

Journalists and marketers like to repeat that sociologists have determined the average time museumgoers spend looking at a work of art as a period that runs anywhere from 5 to 30 seconds. It's a factoid so profligate that I can't even verify where it started, but it's an idea that corresponds to the museum experience as a solitary, somber stroll through galleries, spending a few moments regarding a work, and then moving on.

Some people do just want to be left alone with the work when visiting this exhibition--you develop a feel for who does and doesn't want to be engaged in the galleries purely with body language--but many, if not most, visitors are eager to talk about the work, whether they like it or not.

"There was a lady who came through and scoffed, 'This is terrible'--like every nightmare that we heard about in training," says Haniya Ghazaleh, a 20-year-old MICA junior from Texas. "I think she was looking at the bathing cap at that point, and I said, 'Why don't you try it on?' and she was, like, 'No. I can't appreciate that.' She did go through the entire exhibit, which I give her the thumbs up for, but she just thought it was awful. I really love the people who are so open-minded that they come in without knowing about the show at all, and I guess it's more me talking when people do come in like that, but I try to get them to talk about it and tell me what they're feeling and reacting to, and most of the time they'll be, 'Oh, I don't know how I feel yet.'"

These undefined moments are so key to navigating this show in particular and museums in general. Far too often, visual art is presented with the attitude that because it's on the pristine wall of a museum's hallowed galleries it is something to be regarded with passive reverence and awe. And while I've come across works in museums and galleries that take my breath away on first encounter, looking at visual art is as much about thinking as it is about instantaneous appreciation--and sometimes the thinking part is more important than the aesthetic surface.

"I sometimes just ask people if they see anything they like, or anything they don't like, and when I ask people if they see anything they don't like, I think that gives them the OK to feel that they might not like it and they do open up a bit," says Annika Blomberg, a 23-year-old MICA graduate and Friend of Franz. "Lately, I've really been paying attention to the Adaptives, just to give somebody a way in--that this is really where it starts for [West]. That he still does these, that if you really want to get it, to start feeling more connected with--even if you don't get a lot out of the experience of the Adaptives--the idea that he still has them is really important to me."

For Blomberg, interacting with the Adaptives has provided an entryway into West's works that she relates to creatively. "Being an art student, you encounter lots of moments like that, where I've got this problem and I really want to solve it--the problem of communicating a very specific thing to you, and it's a visual thing," she says. "It's not really something you can say, so you do all these really weird things to figure out the best way to approach it. And, for me, I feel like I can understand his positions better just by playing with the Adaptives."

Almost all the Friends and museumgoers I've chatted with can share a similar experience, a moment where some seemingly mundane moment leads to some other consideration about the work and the ideas of the man who created it. "I think what Franz West has made me think about more than anything else is that he's an existentialist, based on his time period and where he's lived," says Richard Wilson, a Friend of Franz and philosophy lecturer at UMBC. "And what that means is that we don't worry about what happens in the next life, what we think about is what's in front of us, and maybe if we thought about it in a different way, maybe we would change how we live. And the fact is that there's a sophisticated audience that wants to engage with those ideas."

That sophisticated audience may not employ terms such as "Marxist analysis" or refer to Herbert Marcuse in their discussions, but that doesn't mean they're not actively going through similar thought processes. One weekend, I ended up spending a good deal of time with a couple and a woman who had gone through the West exhibition in the reverse order of how it is laid out. We ended up having a sustained conversation in the first two galleries of the show, where they jokingly played with the Adaptives and then we sat down on the mammoth "The Ego and the Id" sculpture in the very first gallery and talked about the show itself. One woman confessed that while she liked the giant metal thing we were sitting on, she didn't like the show itself. She ascribed it to West's textures and his papier-mâché, which she didn't like. She didn't like how she could see something just beneath the surface of some of his works but couldn't make it out. "I just want to take one of those clubs," she said, pointing to the Adaptives in the adjoining gallery, "and smash the thing to see what's underneath."

She laughed and joked about me reporting her to the guards for threatening the art, but I pointed out that she was, in fact, appropriately engaging his art. West is a remarkably generous artist, seducing the eye with his visceral whimsy and immediately encouraging you to peel back the layers of ideas that he packs into his vocabulary. And this woman, although she didn't like the work, was quite literally trying to find a way into his more challenging sculptures by way of his Adaptives, the pieces you make your own. She was doing exactly what he's inviting people to do.

"What he's asking us to do is to let it have as many meanings as it has," Wilson says of West's art. "There's things where he takes certain philosophical views and challenges us to understand it. And that's part of what is the optimism in him--he's engaging you with his creative process to engage the creative process in you.

"He's taking the world that's right in front of you and showing you something about it--that's the thing itself," he continues, referring both to one of West's more lyrically touching sculptures, "The Thing Itself," and the very idea of knowledge in cognitive ontology. "I mean, for Kant, the thing itself is never really knowable, and that West is trying to record it, that's he trying to create something to give people something to consider that? I think this is what happens when you talk with people about it--it opens the possibility for them to clarify what they think about it. For me, this whole process has been a learning experience about how you go through a museum."

"People are so excited about it and clearly, they've been hungering for an opportunity to talk to somebody about [West's work]," says Doreen Bolger, the director of the BMA, about the Friends of Franz program. "And you forget that, because we focus so much on wall labels and audio tours and videos--and all those things are important and we're committed to them--but this is a reminder that the human touch is always appreciated and always results in something bigger than the sum of the parts."

For Bolger, the Friends program compliments what she feels is a core dilemma facing culture in general, and museums in particular right now. "I think that one of the biggest issues about the 21st-century in everything is access, and how to make things accessible to people financially and intellectually," she says. "And in a lot of ways this exhibition fits into that--the fact is that there are human beings standing in those galleries helping people enjoy that show makes it accessible to everyone and comfortable to everyone in a way that could never have happened without the Friends of Franz."

That access was one of the primary motivating ideas that facilitated the rise of public American art museums in the mid- to late 19th-century. American art museums are not that old--the oldest, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn., was founded in 1842, the BMA itself in 1914--and they were started with strong educational missions to reach a general public.

"Americans were much more interested in improvement through education in the 19th century than they have been in the late 20th century, and the idea of museums as being not just for rich people but for workers and for people who were sort of on the upward trajectory," says Richard Brettell, the Margaret McDermott Distinguished Chair, Art and Aesthetics at the University of Texas at Dallas. Previously, Brettell served as the Searle Curator of European Painting at the Art Institute of Chicago and the director of the Dallas Museum of Art, and has closely worked with museums since. In 1998, he started UTD's Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Museums for the serious study of museums, what he calls "most important institution for the preservation and study of art for the past two and a half centuries."

"The [art] museums in Detroit, Chicago, and Minneapolis decided not to use the 'm' word, but invented a new word, 'institute,' because they thought of museums as part of their larger educational missions," Brettell continues by phone. "And that's a whole fascinating and completely American phenomenon, of art as general human knowledge with a library--the libraries of the Met and Boston and the Art Institute [of Chicago] are as important as any art library at any university and they're open to the public. So it's not just a place to display art, but a place of knowledge about art."

For a variety of reasons--particularly museums' changing funding models and organizational planning--some museums have strayed from that accessible educational mission.

"I think what education now means is something like edu-tainment and audience enhancement," Brettell says. "So you have all these sort of things that are based on--what do you call those things?--focus groups, so people tell you what they want from a museum and then the museum does what they tell you rather than the museum presenting the works of the art of the past and being an institution of authority. I mean, we unfortunately live in the age of what's called strategic planning. What that means is that administrators gather people together, including the marketing department, the PR department, the education department, the fund-raising department, and, ancillary, the curators, to decide on a strategic plan for exhibitions. And the ideas are put into order as much in terms of their fundability and in terms of projected audience attendance as much as they are in terms of some intellectual point."

For Bolger, the BMA's commitment to an exhibition such as the Franz West retrospective is built into the museum's operational fabric. "Going back to Claribel and Etta Cone, in Claribel's will she said, 'We'll leave you the Cone Collection if Baltimore embraces modern art,'" Bolger says. "It was a challenge. And ever since we started with that, we keep on doing it. We take on really difficult, really challenging shows that are not, maybe, going to attract huge numbers of people. It's not a sure bet like Impressionism or Matisse or Picasso, it's risky."

The changing economic climate may force museums to reevaluate their missions soon. While barely more than a year ago critic Jerry Saltz publicly wondered if money was ruining art in a New York magazine piece, as early as this past spring art-market watchers predicted an inevitable art-market crash, a speculation that recent listless New York auction house sales suggests is being born out. And while museums aren't implicitly tied into the proverbial art market, it's difficult not to wonder if the recent reports of the 30 percent drop in prices fetched by contemporary, modern, and Impressionist art works are an indication of what private funders are willing to spend right now.

"I think, maybe, the economic crisis will actually help museums, because if they have to pare back to when they were the most inventive--American museums were incredibly inventive until the mid-'80s, because they had small staffs," Brettell says. "So I'm looking forward to the coming economic crisis and the firing of whole wings of people in the museum so the museum gets back to guards and curators and art movers and scholars, so that the staffs are one-third of their current size and they're focused on protecting, moving, studying, and presenting works of art, not the marketing of them and the creation of membership and young dating-service programs."

In other words, it's the art, stupid--that has always been why we go to museums. It's an obvious point, but one that sometimes gets lost in ornery discussions about what museums are and aren't, or should and shouldn't be doing: People respond to art, not the condescending publicity we sometimes put around it.

Even I finally realized that after flaming out so spectacularly during my first engagement. Later that same day, a young couple and their young son entered the galleries, about 20 minutes before the BMA was set to close at 6 p.m. I've discovered that the galleries thin out pretty quickly after 5:30, so aside from two other Friends and the guards, they practically had the galleries to themselves. We chatted very briefly when they first entered, as the young boy was quite intrigued by the Adaptives, but they told him to put it back so they could get through before the museum closed.

But they came back through in a few minutes, and asked me if was really OK to touch the Adaptives. I handed one to the man as I replied that they were made explicitly for that purpose. He felt its weight in his hands, turned it around a bit, just looking at it, all the while telling me that his son kept asking him if he could use it for this or pretend it was that as they were walking through the other galleries, and then politely returned the Adaptive to me.

"Really . . . ? " I offered, passing it back. "Let him show me."

* Note: Friends of Franz are paid $12 per hour for their time. Since I entered the program with the intention of writing about it, the BMA permitted me to work in the galleries without compensation..

Sound Off!, artists respond to Franz West, takes place Dec. 5 at 7 p.m. at the BMA. For more information visit artbma.org.

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