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

Franz West, Sisyphos IX (2002)

Franz West is known for his interactive, body-extending “Adaptives” sculptures, and his show now near the end of its run at LACMA is somewhat dominated by them, but perhaps the defining work of the Viennese artist’s first full U.S. survey is for eyes only. In multiple visits (which this show warrants), I keep coming back to Sisyphos IX from 2002, a hulk of foam and papier-mâché slathered in blue and splattered in pink/red paint with a size and form suggestive of the boulder Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to forever roll up a hill, only to have it roll down again, and then start over. Lumpy and clumsy yet lovely, and both still and agitated in presence, it’s signature West, working in the moment to try to make something that can handle the weight of myth and history, including the history of postwar art — from Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel to Arte Povera and Actionism — from which West takes his cues. And at about 6 feet in height, with a few bits of steel pipe at its base implying feet, it also becomes a figure, which, while it isn’t meant to be touched like its Adaptives kin, nonetheless has a bodily presence that engages you like another person in the room. It also suggests a big bashed head that, as you move around it, seems to yield faces that emerge and then disappear just as clouds offer shape-shifting physiognomy. From one view, the work offers a Janus-like double profile, with a solemn, long-nosed face on the left and a tense, opened-mouth visage on the right. Add to all those suggestions of head and body, and all that baggage, the pie-fight/splatter-film campiness and violence of the paintwork, and the profoundly ridiculous other implication of the little pipes at the bottom, which though welded in place to serve the actual function of keeping this thing from tipping also suggest idiotically round wedges that would sooner roll away themselves than throw a wrench in the machinations of Sisyphus’ damnation. Sisyphos IX, and more than a few seemingly dumb, blunt and bumbling works in this brilliant exhibition, speak eloquently of a worldview and art attitude — formed amid bombed-to-bits, guilt-plagued and cold war–strained Europe, and marinated in the art that came of that place and time — that knows plenty about angst, and equally as much about absurdity and humor.

LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Mon., Tues. & Thurs., noon-8 p.m.; Fri., noon-9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-8 p.m., through June 7. (323) 857-6000 or www.lacma.org.


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