100 Years Later, German Artist Joseph Beuys Remains A Contentious Visionary

Joseph Beuys, 1975. Photo by Caroline Tisdall. Image courtesy of Department of Art History, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf.
Joseph Beuys with students at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, 1967/68. Photo by Ute Klophaus © BPK, Stiftung Museum Schloss Moyland and Ute Klophau. Image courtesy of Beuys 2021.
Joseph Beuys at the Festival of New Art at the at the RWTH Aachen, 20 July, 1964. Photo by Heinrich Riebesehl © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn (2020). Image courtesy of Ludwig Forum Aachen.
Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys at Warhol’s exhibition opening “Indians Portraits Torsos” on 18 May, 1979 at the Galerie Hans Mayer. Photo by Werner Raeune. Image courtesy of Galerie Hans Mayer.
Joseph Beuys, Portrait , 1947. Photo by Anne Gossens © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn (2020). Image courtesy of Museum Kurhaus Kleve.
Joseph Beuys, Capri-Batterie, 1985. Photo by Reni Hansen© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn (2020). Image courtesy of  Kunstmuseum Bonn.
Joseph Beuys, Wohl 1969. Photo by Klaus Eschen © Slub Dresden, Deutsche Fotothek and Klaus Eschen. Image courtesy of Beuys 2021.
Joseph Beuys working on intuition boxes outside Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, 1970s. Photo by Nino Barbieri ©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn (2020). Image courtesy of Kunstmuseum Villa Zanders.
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Art Gate

On the occasion of iconic modern artist Joseph Beuys’ centenary anniversary, we look at his utopian idealism, contentious art and personal history as a prelude to his timeless artistic insights on society and the world around us.

TEXT: Reena Devi
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

2021 marks one hundred years since the birth of 20th century German artist Joseph Beuys (1921–1986), widely considered the most important artist of his time, alongside the likes of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol.

 

Joseph Beuys, 1975. Photo by Caroline Tisdall. Image courtesy of Department of Art History, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf.

 

In commemoration of the artist’s legacy this year, there will be exhibitions and publications launching across Europe and across the world, as part of Beuys 2021 spearheaded by North Rhine-Westphalia state government in Germany. This programme includes three exhibitions which opened last month—Belvedere 21’s “Joseph Beuys. Think. Act. Convey” in Vienna; Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen’s “Everyone Is an Artist” in Düsseldorf; and “Joseph Beuys: The Space Curator” at the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart.

While Europe’s recent surge of COVID-19 cases and its ensuing lockdown measures might affect the overall accessibility of these shows, there still remains much to be discussed about the artist, given his contentious art and life. Beuys, who was born in 1921 and died of heart failure while working in his studio in 1986, grew up in Kleve, a small German city near the Dutch border, and spent his career in nearby city, Düsseldorf, where he played a vital role in turning the place into a “hothouse of postwar German art.”

 

Joseph Beuys with students at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, 1967/68. Photo by Ute Klophaus © BPK, Stiftung Museum Schloss Moyland and Ute Klophau. Image courtesy of Beuys 2021.

 

Joseph Beuys at the Festival of New Art at the at the RWTH Aachen, 20 July, 1964. Photo by Heinrich Riebesehl © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn (2020). Image courtesy of Ludwig Forum Aachen.

 

Beuys is mostly known for essentially overhauling the notion of art as a physical work to be placed on a museum wall or a pedestal through vast installations and sculptures using the most inane or ordinary materials, as well as live performances dubbed as “actions” lasting a few hours or longer.

His most famous action, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, at his first gallery solo show in Düsseldorf in 1965, saw the artist locking himself inside the gallery, talking about paintings to a dead hare, with the public bearing witness through the windows. There was also the 1979 installation Basic Room Wet Laundry, where Beuys “reflected on a visit to a Baroque palace by displaying wet laundry, galvanised iron gutters, soap and a bucket.”

In a famous 1969 interview with Artforum, Beuys openly talked about the intrinsic nature of his art and how it could not be understood “primarily by thinking”.

“It is clear that people cannot understand my art by intellectual processes alone, because no art can be experienced in this way. I say to experience, because this is not equivalent to thinking: it’s a great deal more complex; it involves being moved subconsciously. Either they say, ‘yes, I’m interested,’ or they react angrily and destroy my work and curse it. In any event I feel I am successful, because people have been affected by my art. I touch people, and this is important,” he said.

 

Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys at Warhol’s exhibition opening “Indians Portraits Torsos” on 18 May, 1979 at the Galerie Hans Mayer. Photo by Werner Raeune. Image courtesy of Galerie Hans Mayer.

 

In a rather prescient and timeless observation of modern thinking, Beuys described how current mindsets have become “so positivist that people only appreciate what can be controlled by reason, what can be used, what furthers your career. The need for questions that go beyond that has pretty much died out of our culture. Because most people think in materialistic terms, they cannot understand my work.”

He added, “This is why I feel it’s necessary to present something more than mere objects. By doing that people may begin to understand man is not only a rational being.”

 

Joseph Beuys, Portrait , 1947. Photo by Anne Gossens © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn (2020). Image courtesy of Museum Kurhaus Kleve.
Joseph Beuys, Capri-Batterie, 1985. Photo by Reni Hansen© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn (2020). Image courtesy of  Kunstmuseum Bonn.

 

Besides, who better to understand the aspects of human nature that go against logic and rationale than someone like Beuys with his hazy and contentious history mired in political ties, artistic connections and wartime experiences, all of which inadvertently underlie his creative explorations of “war, fascism, nationhood, trauma and repair”.

Most efforts to put together a coherent biography on Beuys tends to be difficult due to contradictory accounts filled with myth-making and revisionist takes over the years. The fact is Beuys “freely admitted he had been a member of the Hitler Youth, shortly before it became compulsory,” as well as fighting on the Russia front and becoming a British Prisoner of War when World War II finally ended.

But the most oft-repeated climax of his war record, being rescued by Tartar tribesmen during a plane crash who saved him from freezing to death by wrapping him in “insulating layers of felt and fat,” has pretty much been “conclusively disproved”. Inevitably, this raises doubts about his testimonies of “small, mitigating acts of resistance” during the war such as saving a copy of Carl Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae from a Nazi book-burning rally in his school courtyard.

 

Joseph Beuys, Wohl 1969. Photo by Klaus Eschen © Slub Dresden, Deutsche Fotothek and Klaus Eschen. Image courtesy of Beuys 2021.

 

Be it “bombastic self-creation” typical of creatives or a purposeful avoidance of his role as a soldier for the Nazi government, Beuys seemed to understand that the stories we tell about ourselves are often times more powerful and influential than the actual truths of our life experiences. He quite possibly believed in the narrative more than the lived encounters. While spending the ’50s grappling with serious depression, he began to turn to materials previously unused for artistic creation such as felt and fat for his work.

In the years since, Beuys created pieces of works, known as the multiples—pieces produced multiple times—most famously, Felt Suit (Filzanzug) (1970). Possibly a metaphorical insulation from the world around us, Beuys even wore a version of this suit in his performance Action the Dead Mouse / Isolation Unit (1970).

 

Joseph Beuys working on intuition boxes outside Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, 1970s. Photo by Nino Barbieri ©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn (2020). Image courtesy of Kunstmuseum Villa Zanders.

 

Another famous physical work was a non-descript plain empty wooden box known as Intuition box (1968), which the artist intended as a prompt for its owner to fill with new ideas in a bid to encourage people to thinking creatively and internalise artistic expression. In order to “democratise art, he created some 12,000 Intuition boxes.”

These ideas became the pillars of Beuys’s work and his social and political contributions for the rest of his life, even in the most antithetical institutions and collaborations. From working together with Warhol to abolishing entrance requirements and curriculums in favor of individually directed study while teaching at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art in the ’60s, to protesting selective admission in the ’70s, to co-founding Germany’s Green Party in 1980, and his entry in documenta 7 (1982) which involved planting 7,000 trees in Kassel as a long-term project.

His hopefulness remained unflappable, to the point that art historian Benjamin Buchloh called him out for “simple‑minded utopian drivel lacking elementary political and educational practicality.”

Ultimately, Beuys found a way to transmute his problematic history and personal myth-making into prescient and timeless observations of society and the world around him.

 

 

 
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