Franz: “Do you think you could ever live in Vienna?”
Julie: “No. No, too many violins.”
Franz: “Ja, ja, too much violence.”
Franz nodded in understanding and continued, “But Vienna needs young artists.” And he invited me to stay.
I had been living in Paris (in love with a violin player) when Mary Heilmann’s impromptu invitation arrived to ‘hang out’ with her in Vienna for her exhibition at Galerie Meyer Kainer. She was travelling alone…’Would I join her?’ It took nearly 17 hours by train to get to the Austrian capital with a plan to stay for several days. Instead it became my home for almost 10 years…because I met Franz West, and Franz invited me. He was always inviting people to join, to eat, to show, to something.
Franz was a choreographer as much as he was any kind of great artist. And he was a great artist. He had this posse of people he was constantly keeping track of: picking up paper cones of tomatoes at the Naschtmarkt, meats at Meinl, bringing in fruits to the atelier, getting phones fixed: organizing. The first time Franz called me on the phone he wondered, “Do you eat lunch?” I thought it might be a trick dietary or leisure question (You lazy hungry artist!) but Franz was an eater, a planner, a reader, a conductor of the people around him. When he himself could not attend said lunch or event, he still orchestrated its line-up: He was still there. And that was just the eating part of the day. This doesn’t even begin to touch the actual art making, curating, family…
Franz had bad knees and a distinctive gate - a swagger. One could spot Franz a kilometer away weaving down the Kartnerstrasse with a book in his pocket, perhaps handing out some cash to the homeless guy who had least annoyed him that day. Because of course these guys knew his walk too (and where he lived!) and they knew he was good for a buck.
To say Franz was generous is perhaps beside the point. I don’t know that he ever thought himself as a “generous” person, as much as a person who was always giving: able to give. He gave back what he could as soon as he could afford to. As an artist Franz did not rise to the scene unscathed, he was not lifted, but rather hoisted (like some of his sculpture) into the art world’s eye. The man who did not drive, the music lover, creature of the night, storyteller, rock star philosopher, avoider of bourgeois middle grounds was one of the greatest livers of life around.
In New York a few years after we met a group of us went to Sammy’s Roumanian for Steak and Vodka served in blocks of ice. Near the end of the meal Franz and Lawrence Wiener ‘lit up’ and the kitchen staff and waiters swarmed in to stop them. These two titans of the art world had found a loophole in the new New York City non-cigarette smoking law. No cigarettes were involved. The most mundane activities became exceptional in the orbit Franz West.
After one of his knee surgeries he had a young physical therapist that worked with him regularly. A few weeks into his recovery I asked Franz how his therapy was going, “Ja, nicht so gut.” The young therapist had suddenly died. A sad story he shrugged, but what can we do? (I believe there was the twinkle of a survivor in his eye.)
What can we do Franz? (“Ja, geh, geh, geh…”) Thank you for inviting us to share your life. Thank you for inviting.