When Dia Art Foundation curator Yasmil Raymond unpacked a crate containing 1. Werksatz (First Work Set), 1963–69, by German conceptual artist Franz Erhard Walther, she was surprised to discover that four of its 58 components were incomplete. It seemed no one had opened the crate since 1978, the year Dia acquired the work.
Eager to exhibit all 58 of the fabric objects, which Walther calls “instruments,” Raymond personally went to Germany to entreat the artist to put on the finishing touches. Created in an edition of ten, the work is composed of such materials as cotton, plywood, and foam. The whole set is now displayed, each piece intact, in the show “Franz Erhard Walther: Work as Action,” on view at Dia:Beacon in New York’s Hudson Valley through February 13, 2012. But the story isn’t over.
Walther’s work is never truly complete until participants interact with it—both in body and mind. The artist challenges viewers to debunk the magical or precious aura of art and to meet the objects on their own terms. Back in 1969, the Museum of Modern Art in New York showed 1. Werksatz as part of its “Spaces” exhibition. Attendees (along with Walther himself) would step into, pick up, unfold, or otherwise create a group encounter with “various elements” of the work. Clearly visible through MoMA’s street-facing picture window, such goings-on stopped pedestrians in their tracks. Still, unlike some of his fellow students at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf—Sigmar Polke, Blinky Palermo, and Gerhard Richter—Walther, now 73, remains largely unknown in this country.
At Dia:Beacon, museumgoers are given a brochure that suggests how to activate the pieces. (Guards are also on hand to help with directions and, perhaps, to untangle people from the works.) Among the props, there’s a piece of foam-filled green fabric folded into a rectangle. When opened, it looks like a soft oversize purse, big enough to crawl inside. Another work consists of some 20 feet of thick gray cotton gathered into a square. When two participants stick their heads inside, it creates a narrow fabric tunnel between them, like a really long mask.
Then there’s a massively padded vest that, when donned, “makes you look like you put on 400 pounds,” says Raymond. “The immediate reaction from most people is that they laugh,” she adds. “When I wore the vest, contrary to humor, I felt really vulnerable.” But then again, Raymond points out, “Every single prop pushes the question: Who is the person activating it?”