A Very Big Ego

The BMA takes on the complicated task of reassembling Franz West's sculpture for this weekend's opening of his first comprehensive U.S. exhibit

October 09, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,ed.gunts@baltsun.com

The next exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art won't open until Sunday, but it has already set one record.

The show contains the largest work of art ever installed inside the museum, a 20-foot-high aluminum sculpture titled The Ego and the Id. It came in 17 pieces that were bolted together and weighed 1 1/4 tons.

To complicate matters, the piece had to be shipped 4,400 miles from Vienna, Austria, where it was created. The overseas leg of the trip, from Bremen, Germany, to the port of Baltimore, lasted a month. After the sculpture arrived in Baltimore, it took nearly a dozen people another three weeks to assemble it on the museum's second level.

That only begins to hint at the difficulty of installing the exhibit, Franz West, To Build a House You Start With The Roof: Work 1972-2008.

Containing 117 works of art, it is the first comprehensive exhibit in the U.S. of the work of acclaimed European artist Franz West (pronounced Vest) of Vienna.

It's expected to bring national and international attention to Baltimore and the museum, which organized it. This month, for example, West's work is featured on the cover of the prestigious Artforum International magazine, with a cover story inside pegged to the show's opening. After the show ends in Baltimore on Jan. 4, it will travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The task of shipping and installing so many pieces from different lenders, directors say, makes the West show one of the most complicated exhibits ever mounted at the BMA.

"It has to rank among the most complex installations we've ever had," said Darsie Alexander, senior curator for Contemporary Art at the BMA and curator of the exhibit. "There were so many people involved. His crew. Our crew. Private lenders. And huge shipping issues."

"It's hard to install an exhibit without seeing the artist's work ahead of time, but after a while you get inside his mind," said Karen Nielsen, the museum's director of exhibition design and installation. "We're discovering the artist as we go along."

To tell West's story, the museum will display pieces created over a 36-year time span, including collages, sculptures and furniture.

The list of objects reads like a logistical nightmare to pull together. While many of the works came from the artist's studio in Vienna, others came from private collections in the U.S. and Europe - more than 70 locations in all.

The pieces range in size from small works on paper to large outdoor sculptures. Some were made with fragile materials, such as papier mache. They came by plane, boat and truck in 14 separate shipments. There were 20 overseas crates and 40 domestic crates.

Melanie Harwood and Mandy Bartram, the museum's senior registrar and associate registrar for loans and exhibitions, respectively, said the museum had to negotiate agreements with each lender before they could bring the works to Baltimore. The agreements cover subjects such as insurance and shipping.

"Getting works from so many locations and lenders was like herding cats," Harwood said. "We're sort of air-traffic controllers for art."

As complicated as it has been to pull off, this exhibit is consistent with the history and mission of the museum. A large part of the museum's role, Alexander said, is organizing exhibits that introduce audiences to significant contemporary artists. In recent years, the museum has mostly been presenting thematic exhibits. Franz West marks a return to the tradition of mounting a major show about one contemporary artist.

Alexander said she first began to notice West about 10 years ago and thought he would be a fitting subject for an exhibit.

Born in 1947, West lives and works in Vienna. He began his career in the mid-1960s when a local movement called Actionism was under way.

Starting with cheeky collages and small, portable sculptures called Adaptives, West went on to create works that are increasingly large in scale. Today he is known for giant outdoor installations that are environments unto themselves, often biomorphic or prosthetic in nature and imbued with a sly sense of humor.

"Franz is a very, very complex, very interesting person, who doesn't make one kind of art," Alexander said. "He makes many kinds of art. Nobody does work that looks like his. He has a totally unique vision."

Before she could proceed with plans for a Baltimore exhibit, Alexander had to clear several hurdles.

First, she had to determine that there had not been a comprehensive show of his work in the United States and that one wasn't in the planning stages elsewhere. Second, she had to find out whether the BMA would support her if she wanted to organize a show in Baltimore. Finally, she had to persuade the artist to cooperate with the museum on a show and an accompanying catalog.

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