An Existential Survival Kit

First Work Set (1963–69)

First Work Set (1963–69)

This past Friday, the Museum of Modern Art presented a demonstration of First Work Set (1963–69) by Franz Erhard Walther. The piece is a collection of canvas bundles, suggestive of army tents or boat rigging, complete with an over sized life vest. The bundles are labeled with simple directives or descriptions such as “for two people,” or  “standard object.”  But as I looked carefully, I noticed that one is labeled “to forget” and another, more ominously, “to understand brutality.” What knowledge could be wrapped up in that deceptively simple package?

This is early “relational” art, in the best sense of the word. Franz was among the artists in the sixties who pioneered our current trend for art that examines the space between individuals or art that is “activated” by an interaction with the viewer. For some of the elements, the rules of engagement are clearly determined by the piece’s shape—such as the cloth covered masonite that hung from the neck of two intimately connected strangers (an early forebear of Liz Nurenberg’s wearable sculptures for two), or the long strip with a forearm shaped pocket—but some of the canvas shapes are more ambiguous, requiring invention from the viewer/audience.

The need for invention, and the viewer interactions that arose out of the demonstration exemplified why this kind of work is important–it jostles the brain, makes people feel a little silly, and presents very simple suggestions for seeing the world differently.

Though not technically a drawing ( a work on paper), this piece was in the Recent Acquisitions in Drawings exhibit because it is accompanied by a lengthy series of sketches. These pieces work symbiotically with the canvas objects, serving as a guide for use and a record of “the inner view” of the work–as Franz noted, “what happens within the person who experiences the piece, cannot be recorded by a camera.” The drawings were visually interesting and playful, giving an insight into Franz’s inner logic and mental meanderings.

For many artists the definition of drawing is less about the materials used and more about the intention: a drawing is an idea, an impetus in its most direct or basic form, or the process of seeing clearly. I have heard artist’s refer to a sound drawing, or been shown a drawing made of hair. By this definition, Franz’s canvas pieces were themselves drawings: activities for seeing clearly the elements of sculpture; actions that revealed their internal logic with no frills attached.

At the end of the two hour demonstration I approached the artist and asked him about the brutality bundle. He gave me an enigmatic smile but brushed my question aside saying that it “marked a moment in time” but really had nothing to do with the piece. I felt deflated, but not totally surprised–what sort of explanation or intimate revelation was I imagining I would receive during the rushed, post-performance hub-bub?

Since the performance, I find myself inventing canvas-bound scenarios which could potentially reveal the meaning of human cruelty, the mechanics of love or how to forget unwanted pain. And I try to imagine the circumstances of the brutality bundle’s creation. Did Franz experience brutality personally or was he at a safely contemplative distance? Is the sculpture dangerous? Or is the brutality totally abstracted? The art continues unfolding in my head, though the objects themselves are back somewhere in MoMA’s vast vaults.

This circling of thoughts, this potential for poetry, and possibility for answers that will always be just out of reach– that in itself is a survival kit.

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