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ART REVIEW : MOCA's City Sofas: A Site for Sitting : Austrian artist Franz West lines up rows of comfy couches for 'Test' to explore the sense of place in an austere sculpture plaza.

March 15, 1994|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

The 28 sofas lined up in four diagonal rows of seven on the outdoor sculpture plaza of the Museum of Contemporary Art constitute a simple but vibrant gesture.

*

"Test," as the new, brightly colored installation by noted Austrian artist Franz West is appropriately titled, means to evaluate the prospects for an authentically public sense of place.

At a time when the very concept of a lively, open and disputatious public world has severely atrophied, the installation also wants to establish a benchmark or criterion for public-ness. With flying colors, "Test" passes.

Those colors range from shocking pink, yellow and purple to lively polka dots and multicolored African prints. Sewn into slipcovers and bolsters, the fabrics were chosen by West's collaborator, Gilbert Bretterbauer, during forays into downtown L.A.'s booming garment district. They decorate sturdy, high-back sofas constructed from welded rebar and steel mesh.

The "Test" sofas are related to an earlier installation titled "Auditorium," which garnered considerable attention at the most recent installment of the international art extravaganza Documenta, mounted in the German city of Kassel in the summer of 1992. There, in a courtyard off the city's main plaza, a slew of West's steel sofas--this time upholstered with rugs--became an inevitable gathering spot for the show's throngs of visitors.

The 47-year-old artist is not yet well-known outside Europe. Last year, he showed sculptures of plaster, papier-mache and gauze in a group show at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, a solo show at Burnett Miller Gallery and in New York at David Zwirner Gallery. At MOCA, "Test" is West's first site-specific museum installation in the United States.

A merger of materials familiar from heavy-duty urban construction sites and domestic living rooms suggests the playfully disconcerting nature of the sofa installation. Conventions that divide industrial and domestic, outdoors and indoors, public and private slyly intermingle.

The sculpture plaza, which is surrounded by office and apartment towers, a hotel and two wings of the museum, is a formally austere urban space. The formality of the site is acknowledged in the sofas' structural design, whose durable simplicity recalls that of an ordinary park bench. West has arranged the sofas in a linear, side-by-side configuration of two double rows. They run diagonally across the plaza, quietly animating the passageway.

But these are cushy sofas after all, not park benches. Their upholstered pads are made of foam rubber, they're long enough to lounge around on and they even have pillows. Comfortable, the sofas endow this public place with a startlingly casual informality quite alien to the decorum of such locales.

People gather, hang around, loll, chat, eavesdrop. The sculpture plaza is transformed into a cozy urban back yard.

The plaza seating isn't exactly European in bearing, although a consideration for enhancing the sociality of public places is typical of cities based on a modern European model. (It definitely isn't American in tone.) West pointedly inserts a domestic motif into a public place, in the process giving an edge to what we mean by private .

Private suggests that something is personal, secret or withheld from public view. Often, it also means something is determined by commercial values. In the United States, where the town square has been definitively replaced by the shopping mall, the dream of a free and open public world has been constrained by relentless privatization.

Slip-covered construction materials wittily imply an effort to humanize our shared urban environment. But West's installation goes deeper than simple surface conceits. He's purposefully fashioned sofas for a convivial public living room, in which any and all are recognized as members of a communal family.

The location of "Test" on a museum sculpture court is not essential to its artistic success. It would be as physically comfy, conceptually invigorating and just plain sportive in any of the dreary malls or public plazas that are today routinely built. But the museum site is also unusually resonant.

A museum, after all, is a public institution that collects art, while West's is public art that collects people. His deft reversal illuminates an enlightened role for a cultural venue--especially these days, when the concept of a functioning public world seems increasingly bereft.

* Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., (213) 626-6222, through July 10.

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