Attempt to Be a Sculpture: Franz Erhard Walther

by Hans Ulrich Obrist


At the time of the exhibition at the Drawing Room in London entitled Franz Erhard Walther: DRAWINGS – Frame / Line / Action / Drawn Novel, Hans Ulrich Obrist conversed with the German artist known for his radical reformulation of the relationship between art and action, done by transforming the body, space and time into materials of an original practice that powerfully engages the viewer in the guise of an artistic medium. The interview traces back through Walther’s career, starting with his outline drawings and inflated paper cushions, passing through the Work Demonstrations and the exhibition First Work Set (1963-69) at MoMA, all the way to his activities of architectural design.


HANS ULRICH OBRIST: I’m so happy to be doing this interview in the midst of your wonderful retrospective exhibition. In the spirit of taking a chronological look back, let’s start at the beginning: How did art come to you, and how did you come to art?

FRANZ ERHARD WALTHER: When I was very young, perhaps eight years old, everybody told me that I drew well—not like a child would, but like a grown-up. I was very proud of that. At 13 or 14, I thought I should become an artist. It was not my idea, but rather it was suggested to me. But of course, as a condition to study, one was expected to draw narratively, to depict things one sees, in the conventional sense. I was not satisfied with this. I started to experiment. First, I took portraits of my surroundings, and made outlines of them, with the idea that the spectator would fill in the subject using their imagination, thus taking part in the creation of the work. I’m often asked how I came to this idea, and I don’t know. Maybe because I could draw so well already, I lost interest in it. Then in 1957, I entered the School of Applied Art, at Offenbach, a town near Frankfurt, and there I discovered a lot of things, separate from what we were supposed to learn. In my lettering class, I found that I was fascinated by constructing letters. Not in the sense of calligraphy, but constructing letters, which I related to architecture. I thought about travel posters advertising London, Italy, Spain. I wondered if I could lift the images away and just retain the word, “Italy,” and still provoke an imagination of Italy. So I chose, carefully, the color yellow to evoke the land of the sun, lemons. And gray, to refer to the historical buildings. I trusted in the imagination of the spectator that the colors, the proportion of the paper, and the letters would provoke the imagination of Italy. Again, they would take part in the creation of the work.

HUO: You were something like 18 years old at that time. And I know that somehow within the word works you discovered action. How did that happen?

FEW: Well, when I did this word work, my professor said, “You are such a gifted man. Why don’t you do something with your talent? Having just one word in the center of a sheet like this—any billboard painter could do it.” To describe what I was doing as an undertaking of art was, at that time, very strange. Even the Concrete poets, the Futurists, the Dadaists, their work still had pictorial qualities, or qualities of composition. Then I went to II. documenta in 1959, and for the first time I saw the contemporary work of Jackson Pollock. I loved the openness of his work concept: no composition, just rhythm and action. And then at the end of the day, I climbed up the stairs—it was a hot summer day, I’ll never forget it—and saw three medium-size works in which the artist had simply perforated the canvas. All existing ideas regarding how to describe the artwork failed. They failed. I thought, “Hm, this is what young artists are doing today. This artist must be about 35.” Then I read: “Lucio Fontana, born 1899.” He was 60 years old! I thought, this can’t be possible! I was really puzzled, I tell you. For the first time, the idea of a painting, a picture as an entity, was broken up. The sentence “This is a painting” didn’t function anymore. What was it? It was not sculpture, not painting, not drawing.

HUO: What would you call the beginning of your catalogue raisonné? Do you consider the word works your first “real” works? It’s interesting to ask this question here, in the midst of a physical history of your work.

FEW: Well, of course at the art academy I made drawings. Most of them are lost, but some of the outline drawings have survived. Some of my early drawings were published, but I don’t count them as part of my work. I made some 15 photographs in my studio in 1958 in which I posed with elements for the camera. I called this series Attempt to Be a Sculpture. The idea was that the sculpture would exist for a short time, and would persist only in the photograph. Can you imagine doing this at the age of 19, in a small town, without any knowledge of contemporary art or art history? It was even before I’d seen documenta. How did I come to it? I really cannot explain. Perhaps because I was thinking about becoming an artist, I was also thinking about sculptural things. But sculpture was so heavy, so slow, and I didn’t like this slowness, this heaviness.

HUO: You mentioned before that in the word works, there was already action. The year 1963 was very important for you, with the idea of sculpture going into action. And I know you don’t call it “performance” per se, but rather working in a performative way.

FEW: I had been making these paper pillow shapes. I would glue large sheets of paper together with paste around the edges and leave the center empty. Then poke in a straw while the glue was still wet, and blow it up. It was a funny idea to use air as a material. It hadn’t been used before, I thought, in art history. I wanted to leave art history, and that required the discovery of new materials. So, when the pillow is stacked on the floor, what is it? A sculpture? When I put it on the wall, that changes its meaning. It now represents picture, image. So, two states. One thing that felt wrong was the gluing. It reminded me of collage. I had to get rid of this technique, this remembrance of collage. And then by chance I found in a tailor shop this kind of pillow shape they used to iron sleeves in a suit. It was, for me, Eureka! All of the sudden I realized, that’s it: sewing.

HUO: So that was it?

FEW: I have to say, I’m glad I didn’t know that Claes Oldenburg was doing it at the same time. I would have hesitated, had I known.

HUO: Today, we don’t understand how sewing was really taboo. I read that Joseph Beuys was very skeptical.

FEW: He said, “Franz is becoming a tailor, ha ha.” Craftsmanship was never to be used in art, in his estimation. But I used it for the sake of stepping out of art history.

HUO: I want to come back to this distinction between “performance” and “the performative.” I think it’s very interesting that you made this point very early on, very insistently.

FEW: It is a question of status. A work on the table, on a plinth, on the floor, whatever, can be addressed as a kind of sculpture. But when you take it into your hands, you change its status. You turn yourself into a pedestal, into a plinth, by holding the piece. Then, putting it back turns it into a traditional sculpture again. That brought me to the idea of working with the body. I developed works to be used, to be acted with. Not as performances, but as Work Demonstrations. I did a large-scale show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that lasted from the end of 1969 until March of 1970, and within the show I was doing a kind of demonstration to show how the works functioned. But I always made a distinction between work-action, or work-in-action, versus demonstrating the use of a work. This acting with pieces happened in real space. It was not imagined space, or projected space, or allegoric space. That was important. I had to define space in acting. I also had to think about what the material is. To be an artist, I have to have material. So I started to think about whether it’s plausible to say that when you act with your own body, your body becomes a kind of material. The space you are acting in and with also becomes a material. Also the time you are working in and with becomes a material.

HUO: It was also in 1963 that you increasingly encouraged people to engage with your work very directly. And also you did work with frames. Marcel Duchamp said that the person who looks at a work does half the work, and that’s definitely true here.

FEW: This idea of having a frame started with the outline drawings. First on paper, then with these material processes, the air enclosures. Then it entered real space. The original idea was to have a frame with nothing in it. It asked the spectator to project his or her idea, image, object, whatever. So, a projection field. Through the decades, it’s a main theme for me, working with a frame, and the idea of projection, filling the frame by imagination. Your magnum opus, where it all seems to come together, all these years of experimentation, is the Werksatz, or First Work Set (1963–69). It’s actually 58 different works. That’s what you showed at MoMA. I had to make definitions of what I thought in relation to history. How do you make something real? How do you make it concrete? If it just exists in time, there ’s a start and an end. Many serious people told me, “These are not matters for the so-called fine arts. It’s a matter of theater or music to try to activate real time. In art, you must transform it into allegory, illustration, symbolism.” I persisted in thinking that it was also possible to do this in the fine arts, in sculpture. But how to show experience to people? I decided: through a large corpus of so-called Work Drawings. I tried to formulate all these experiences, ideas, projections.

HUO: It’s interesting that you made the Work Drawings after you made the works. Usually the drawing comes before the work.

FEW: Some of them are more conceptual, like a score to follow. But it’s not very interesting, I thought, to have a score to follow, to interpret. It’s more interesting, I thought, to formulate the experience, the idea’s projections. The Work Drawings look so simple, but I had to invent the form. The form didn’t exist before. What could I rely on? I couldn’t rely on Art Informel, or Abstract Expressionism, or the formula of Fontana, or Yves Klein. It sounds funny, but I had to fight for this type of drawing. Because artist friends, for instance Joseph Kosuth, would say, “With your sculptural work, you are so far ahead. With your drawings, you are so far behind. So classical, so traditional, so European.

HUO: Tell us about your move to New York. You decided to go into exile.

FEW: I was a realist. There were three or four galleries showing contemporary art in Germany, and I saw that I had no chance with them. It was the time of Pop Art, but I didn’t go to New York for that. Rather, I wanted to meet Barnett Newman, because he stood for wideness, grandness, greatness, openness. Did you meet him? Well, when I had my show at MoMA, he came to the reception, and Jennifer Licht, the curator, introduced me to him. To my surprise, he asked me specific questions about my work; he had seen it and thought about it. Then he invited me to visit his studio. I was really touched, I can tell you. Unbelievable.

HUO: Then you did this legendary book, which was actually not only your first book, but the first book Walther and Kasper König ever published. It was actually my first exposure to your work. Books are so important, partly because that they travel to the most unlikely places. Much farther than exhibitions. I’m also interested in the book as a medium because artists give so much time, passion, and energy to them. They are as important as very big installations.

FEW: Kasper König had an idea to do a catalogue showing my pieces as they were in action, as information. I thought, ah, that’s too conventional. The work drawings were too conventional, too classical. So I transferred them into typography, like news in magazines and newspapers. And I added empty sheets for readers to formulate their own ideas and drawings. This book, within a short time, made my work known. It came out at the first art fair in Cologne in 1968. Kasper made sure everybody important had the book in their hand.

HUO: One of the things you point out very regularly in interviews is the distinction between the Handlungsform and the Lagerform. Could you explain that?

FEW: Lagerform means storage situation, and Handlungsform means action situation. When you see something on a pedestal, on a plinth, on a table, as I was saying before, you can address it as a traditional work, as a sculpture, even if it looks strange. But when you act with it, if it’s meant to be acted with, this alters its status. It is related to my idea of “storage situation” versus “action situation.” Storage situation means the work is packed away, but even this necessarily still has a form and a shape. When exhibiting a storage situation, I count on spectators developing ideas of acting with the pieces by looking at them.

HUO: The Wall Formations were another very important invention for you.

FEW: A Wall Formation asks you to incorporate your body. When you look at it, you address it as a sculptural painting, or a pictorial sculpture. And it’s a fragment because there is a spot where you should incorporate your body. But when you step into it, what is it then? You complete the work with your body, yet it’s still a fragment because you can’t see it anymore. It becomes a matter of imagination.

HUO: In one interview you talk about Caspar David Friedrich and the idea of seeing figures from the back, and how that helps one really get immersed in the pictorial space.

FEW: With Friedrich, there’s no central perspective, just projection space, this large painting with a small figure in front. You are, as a spectator, expected to project yourself into the tiny figure. Friedrich actually had a large impact on Mark Rothko. The idea of openness, no composition, no relation of space; because there’s no real foreground, you’re immediately in the painting. Also I am fascinated by the late work of Paul Cézanne in which the paintings are not finished. You see a part of the canvas, and imagine the process. As a spectator, you complete it by imagination.

HUO: This idea of immersion brings us to architecture. One is completely physically immersed in a building. It’s an aspect of your work that is little known. How did you come to design the Ritter Kunsthalle in Klagenfurt?

FEW: I have to say, I never wanted to realize actual architecture. I was forced to. So I did my best. The best architecture is not realized.

HUO: There are many differences between the world of art and that of architecture. One difference is that we hardly know anything about the unrealized projects of artists, but we know a lot about the unrealized projects of architects. Even very well known architects who actually build quite a lot tell me that maybe 80 or 90 percent of their work is unrealized. I was very lucky to spend so much time in your structure in Klagenfurt, which later got destroyed. What have been your other architectural projects?

FEW: About 10 years later, I was persuaded to do an ensemble of architecture, including a park and residences, and it worked out. But then I decided, that’s it.

HUO: Where is this?

FEW: It’s in Northern Germany, in a small town called Meppen.

HUO: Have you had any art projects that were too big to be realized, or too small to be realized, or maybe forgotten projects, or utopic projects, or censored projects, or public commissions you didn’t win, or partially realized projects?

FEW: I just follow my development of the work. In 1969 I stopped making work for a time because all of the pieces that could be made were made. I didn’t want to make varieties. But then I came to another concept, and that has kept on, until today. Of course, I’ve had many ideas that were not interesting enough to execute. Maybe if I had realized them, it would have turned out to be interesting. I don’t know. There are piles of drawings, of ideas, that I could do. But my lifetime is just too short to realize them all. So I leave them as concepts.


Originally published on Mousse 43 (April–May 2014)

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