I only encountered German artist Joseph Beuys towards the end of his life in 1985. It was the opening of his exhibition Plight at London’s Antony D’Offay gallery. Outside it felt like the UK was at war. On one side, the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher, worked to disempower the Trade Union movement. On the battle-front, the striking National Union of Mineworkers, led by Arthur Scargill. It was unbearably stuffy and claustrophobic in the gallery, lined with rolls of dense felt. People remarked it was like being corralled underground. The material held our body heat and muffled voices, but we could spill out into the cool night air and cry out. Plight reminded us that elsewhere such freedoms were being taken away. Beuys, simultaneously aloof and impish, was taller than I had expected, literally the towering figure of contemporary art at the time. In the days before selfies, our standing with him was soon forgotten.
For Beuys transubstantiation was hope for humankind; mythologizing life and art was a part of this. Now is the centenary of his birth, May 12th, 2021. Reports justifiably ally Beuys with the growing group described as ‘the greatest artists of the 20th century.’ However, he is caught, trapped between being way ahead of his time and from a different era. In life he was a phoenix, inexhaustibly reanimating a severe range of materials and retelling arcane personal narratives, sage, shaman, and show-off. At the heart of his tales, his origin myth goes like this; he was a volunteer Luftwaffe radio operator, seconded as a rear gunner for Stuka dive-bombers in the Crimea. On March 16th, 1944, he was shot down. Miraculously he survived, and his battered and unconscious body was found and cared for by nomadic Tatar tribesmen. In Beuys words, “They covered my body in fat to help it regenerate warmth, and wrapped it in felt as an insulator to keep warmth in.” These materials, wool felt, and tallow, an animal fat with industrial applications, become talismans of renewal and nurture. As if they were primarily social forces, the two elements oppose and complement, a lubricant, capable of extending throughout a system and wadding, like something that is nothing, that can soak things up.
Mailability was important for Beuys and unconventional non-art substances were his clay. He also pursued his emancipatory project through imperative performances and lectures on direct democracy, and later in prescient Green politics. Among his other favoured emblems, pianos, batteries, blackboards, and vitrines were eloquent tools at the interception of technological and the elemental, resonance, reaction, and containment.
He avowed that “everyone is an artist” because, for Beuys, society was a sculpture that everyone could mould. As a lecturer at Düsseldorf Academy, he was inspirational and fearless until they dismissed him for stirring up trouble with his free admissions policy. His teaching doctrine espoused continuous discourse, never intending to close an argument. Today, as the art that gets broad exposure increasingly parallels the investment interests of corporate entrepreneurs, and performance art is increasingly found only at the margins of opening soirées, used to add colour for elite guests, the reality of Beuys’ achievements seems more magical than any myth he could have invented.
Here are six works that illustrate his audacity.
Lebenslauf/Werklauf (Life Course/Work Course) 1964
The work is intangible, a pseudo-autobiographical statement delivered as a speech at a performance in Aachen. The facts Beuys related were incorrect or misleading. He described his birth as the opening of a wound, his life as an exhibition. At the performance, a student assaulted Beuys and he is photographed with blood streaming from his nose. Typically a single scrap of highly charged documentary evidence, where physicality and essence are entwined, stand for a performance or a provocation.
Homogeneous Infiltration for Piano 1966
Drawing on the momentum of John Cage’s silent piano work, 4' 33" (1952), this performance, subtitled, “The greatest composer here is the thalidomide child,” anticipates intersections of art and activism. During the performance, a piano is enveloped in thick felt and marked with a red cross. A later iteration similarly wraps up a cello. While this action happened, Beuys discussed the thalidomide tragedy with the audience. Thalidomide was a drug given to pregnant women to combat morning sickness that caused deformity and infant death. Beuys conceived silencing as simultaneously conserving and muffling potential, containing sound that should be free to escape.
Titus Andronicus/Iphigenie 1969
Staged in Frankfurt, Andronicus/Iphigenie was a pioneering work in the then-nascent genre of performance art. A white horse shared the stage. Beuys evoked the legend of Iphigenia, the eldest daughter of Agamemnon, condemned to assuage his error in killing a sacred stag belonging to Artemis. Against this scenario of violence and revenge, Beuys presents possibilities of restoration and reconciliation. The interaction between Beuys and the horse anticipated his three-day performance from 1974, ‘I Love America and America Loves Me,’ where he stayed in a New York gallery with a coyote. The coyote acted as a representative of decimated indigenous populations.
Unschlitt (Underpass) 1977
Beuys produced this work simultaneously while promoting his Free International University and pumping two tons of honey around the Fridericianum at Documenta, the international contemporary art show staged in Kassel on a five-year cycle. It is a cast of a gap in the urban landscape of Munster, the void next to an underpass. Beuys produced this monumental cast of empty space in animal fat. The material will liquefy with just a modest temperature rise. The effect is to produce responsibility for conservation and maintenance while foregrounding inconspicuous and pointless vacancies in a seemingly well-ordered society.
7000 Oaks 1982
At Documenta, Beuys set out to ‘raise ecological consciousness -raise it increasingly.’
He deposited 7000 basalt markers outside the Fridericianum. 7000 oaks were to be planted beside the markers so that as the project advanced, the pile of stones diminished. His own words sum up the effect, ‘The planting of seven thousand oak trees is thus only a symbolic beginning. And such a symbolic beginning requires a marker… we shall never stop planting.’
Capri Battery 1985
Finally, Capri Battery evokes Beuys wit and mischief. To make yourself a performance icon, you have to be irresistible. It is a modest work; a yellow light bulb plugged through a bakelite fitting into a fresh lemon. The implication that the fruit directly provides power to the bulb is seductive. The work is habitually found in the vitrines Beuys fabricated reflecting museum conservation practices. Beuys used them to group together fugitive pieces and documents. These glazed boxes became stages where small works could dramatize their suggested interconnections.
One hundred years on, the Beuys’ legend mines a battered past, post-war and post-industrial, promises of a better world mired by recrimination and ideological disagreements, before the endless seductions of the new, fresh, and bright. It is easy for Beuys’ sonorous appeal to fade, his purpose commodified, and his earnestness rebranded. In the frenzy of professionalized creativity inflected by geopolitics, remember this was once the art that was seen, made, and discussed.