A misshapen snowball or a discarded gobstopper. Four more pink balls kebabbed on a pink stick, reaching for the sky in dumb emulation of Brancusi’s Endless Column – or, just as plausibly, an item from the sex shop anal play section. Don’t point that thing at me. One green and one yellow thing, another white thing on its own, and a deeper pink thing whose writhing musculature is tying itself in a knot. They all stand about outside Tate Modern looking like a cartoon of public sculpture. “No head-scratching necessary,” a sign should say.
These friendly, disarming objects provide an introduction to the Franz West retrospective, which takes us from dirty drawings rife with sexual encounters (including urination and cartoonish humiliations and jokes about Viennese Actionism) to room after room of sculptures, posters, installations and collaborative works made with his friends and accomplices.
West comes across as a fictional artist in a comic novel. Were he a purely literary invention, you would likely dismiss him as too excessive to be real: a parodic caricature, an “elegant tramp”, something of a dandy, a prodigious drinker and (for a few years) a drug addict, something of an intellectual, an “artist” who sat in cafes and bars making inept ballpoint drawings, often sexual in content. The young West was the kind of guy you might learn to steer clear of in those bars in Vienna from which he hadn’t already been ejected or banned. Oh God, here comes Franz!
He could be a bore and an obsessive, on Schubert, on Wittgenstein, on Freud, on Lacan, and who knows what else. His tirades – against the actionists and the Wiener Gruppe of experimental writers, and against Martin Kippenberger (whom he thought of as insincere and a bit of a fraud, even though the two had more in common than either might admit) – led acquaintances to frequently tell him to piss off. There were punch-ups and there was blood.
Adrift and unknown as an artist in an equally unbelievable yet peculiarly overheated Viennese cultural milieu, West desperately wanted to be famous and to prove himself as an artist. The romantic desire for fame is as good a drive as any other for a young artist on the make. The bawdiness, even baseness and obscenity of his early drawings were no impediment.
All this tells us that artists don’t have to be reasonable or moderate, although a certain wearying male stereotype is confirmed, not least by the essays, testimonials and reminiscences of his friends, former collaborators, dealers and admirers in the catalogue. This all makes for a fascinating show, and West deserves not a novel (unless it had been by his fellow Austrian Thomas Bernhard) but a decent biography.
The artist, who died in 2012, really did have something. Despite – and also because of – his temperament, he made the kind of art he did. His work was a kind of behaviour. The heavy emphasis on the artist’s life is inevitable given the degree to which personal relationships and collaborations, a sort of reactive creativity to situations, was at the heart of his work. West did not believe in art’s autonomy.
But the work has to get by without him. From the 1970s onward, he often worked with poor materials: papiermache, lumps of polystyrene, old flip-flops, cardboard tubes, a pile of hats, even his own childhood bed and his mother’s old washing machine, which he disassembled and remade into a kind of love-seat, painted in a nacreous industrial green.
He embalmed objects – including a radio - in plaster and layers of papiermache, often using a mulch of old telephone directories. Sometimes things remained recognisable, but mostly not. His old bed became a kind of freestanding prow, covered in layers of foil. Often he used objects as an armature – an old golf club, a bent bit of rebar, to make what became known as Passstücke or Adaptives, sculptures to be danced with, hung from the shoulder or slung around the waist.
Some may still be handled, in the privacy of what look like changing rooms or hospital-curtained alcoves in the gallery. I guess you could strip naked in there and really commune with them. Little videos demonstrate their use. Some are like gone-wrong works by Giacometti. The shapes are always great, and they really invite physical banter.
A further group of sculptures are called Labstücke, or refreshment sculptures. These are built up around beer and whisky bottles, whose necks protrude from their coagulated masses. “I was drinking quite heavily at the time but I didn’t want to throw away the empty bottles,” West said. “Because their form reminded me of their contents … I had poured it into myself and it was now my own.” West had become the shell of the contents, and emancipated the original container by sublimating it into art, he explained.
The sculptures themselves sometimes lean against the wall, like drunks, or stand on a number of plinths devised for the exhibition by West’s friend Sarah Lucas. She has created walls and bases of breezeblock, surmounted by plain MDF plinths. One sculpture, Deutscher Humor (German Humour), has a broom stuck into an orifice in its lumpen form. Austrians clearly think German jokes are no laughing matter.
Another deliciously misshapen sculpture reminds me of some voracious ugly fish, a camouflaged hunter in a coral reef. Others wed the mineral and the organic. If boulders wore makeup, they’d look like this. How witty and delightful and disarming these are. Much more than one-liners, West’s smaller sculptures live out a phrase he found in a newspaper essay on Etruscan art: “Where clumsiness becomes elegance.”
West had a real feel for shape, for the eccentric and the lumpen. He was less certain about his abilities with colour, and got friends like the painters Albert Oehlen and Herbert Brandl to collaborate. West never forgot sculpture’s relationship to the human body, and thought of the chair as both a sculptural form and the original Passstücke. He went on to make wonky seats and basic sofas, welded from rebar and covered in rolled-up and draped Persian carpets. Row upon row of these fill one space, like a cinema, where you can watch a video he made focusing on toilet bowls and urinals of various designs. You start to think of them as further examples of utilitarian sculpture and a morphology of bodily extensions. Which, of course, they are.
This show is filled with jokes, visual slapstick, alarming twists and absurd confrontations. West invited visitors to insert bits of rubbish into the mouths of one terrific group of heads, so as to give the sculptures bad breath. His collaborations – with the group Gelitin, with Mike Kelley, with Sarah Lucas and others – did not end with his death. His lively and perhaps troubled spirit and approach is echoed in all sorts of ways by all kinds of artists. I could easily imagine him in concert with Phyllida Barlow. He was an exemplary artist. However troubled he was. Around every corner, in room after room, his art sings and laughs and surprises – and has me rocking on my toes.
• Franz West is at Tate Modern from 20 February until 2 June.