Monday, May 10th, 2010

Revolution in Felt and Fat: Joseph Beuys’s New York comeback

Joseph Beuys: Make the Secrets Productive at Pace

March 5 to April 10, 2010
534 West 25th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 929 7000

installation photo of the exhibition under review. © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
installation photo of the exhibition under review. artworks by Joseph Beuys, © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

It has been decades since Joseph Beuys was the subject of a major New York exhibition, including the Guggenheim’s retrospective in 1979. Considering this lack of recent coverage, one cannot help but wonder why this effort has now been made by a gallery rather than by a museum. After all, the impact of Beuys’ oeuvre on contemporary art could not be more evident and many of the currently celebrated talents, such as Urs Fischer or Thomas Hirschhorn, openly owe a great deal to their predecessor.

Though by no means a retrospective, this exhibition still manages to provide an excellent introduction. In that respect, it is targeted especially at those fairly new to Beuys. Besides incorporating twelve rare sculptures that date from the 1950s to the mid-1980s, the exhibition primarily focuses on contextualization. As Beuys’ oeuvre entails sculptures that relate to the artist’s staged happenings called Aktionen, thorough documentation of the latter is in fact a much-appreciated feature here. Over ninety black and white photographs by Ute Klophaus – who was one of only a selected few allowed to capture these legendary events – are on display and succeed in telling a vivid story in frozen frames. In addition, four Aktionen can be watched in full length on film in a separate screening room, which showcases rare footage and interviews, and also functions as a true study center.

In life, Beuys was a force and even in death, his work seems to remain inseparable from the shamanistic persona he created. His medium of expression and his message might have differed from that of a Jim Morrison, yet Beuys did and still does enjoy somewhat of a rock star status. He was mysterious, nurtured a touch of darkness, and was constantly courted by followers, many of whom were art students. Beuys’ teaching were a large part of the draw and one of his key beliefs is embodied in a mixed media work from 1977 entitled “Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler (Make the Secrets Productive),” which fuses text and sculptural elements. Beuys was convinced that everyone was an artist and that everyone possessed the ability to access their unconscious mind and deepest secrets to create powerful works of art. But this particular work spells it out more specifically in Beuys’ own handwriting, proclaiming the art of creation as the most potent vehicle for both social evolution and cultural revolution.

Joseph Beuys, Tisch mit Aggregat, 1958/1985.  Bronze, electrical cable,  edition of 4, installation dimensions variable. © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Joseph Beuys, Tisch mit Aggregat, 1958/1985. Bronze, electrical cable, edition of 4, installation dimensions variable. © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

It was not until 1962 when Beuys encountered the Fluxus movement that he began to engage in performance art. Until 1986, the year he died, he staged seventy happenings. In the exhibition, the films and photographs of the Aktionen expose Beuys’ confidence in himself as a teacher and crucial political activist, whose mission it was to educate and enlighten his audience. Performance art offered him the tool to engage with the audience directly, and yet it also allowed him to stand apart from the masses. Within this structure, he was as concerned with the moment as he was focused on the future. On of his most famous works, created for Documenta VII in 1982 (he was invited to five Documentas during his lifetime), reveals Beuys’ consideration of time as a significant factor. For Documenta VII, he had arranged a large arrow made of basalt stones that pointed to an oak tree he had planted. He then requested that the stones should not be removed unless an oak tree was put in their place, leading to the planting of 7000 oak trees in Kassel. Despite addressing ecological concerns, “7000 Oaks” was also a monumental social sculpture, which while created by Beuys, was realized by many people for the people, in order to be enjoyed in everyone’s daily lives and for generations to come.

Ultimately, the capturing, preservation, and recycling of life energy might have been Beuys’ strongest concern and along these lines the sculpture “Tisch mit Aggregat,” 1958/1985, serves as an interesting metaphor. The energy source here is depicted literally as a large battery that is sitting on a table. Rather than being presented on a silver platter it is placed on a table that brings to mind everyday activities, family gatherings or the rituals of breakfast, lunch and dinner. Just like food, energy is offered for consumption. But rather than spending and losing energy, two long electric cables that connect the battery with two bronze balls on the ground, assure that it is stored. The balls are energy depots, anchored to the ground through gravity. But what are they really? One cannot shake the impression of cannon balls or some kind of explosive devices. Thinking of Beuys’ teachings, they might signify exactly that: if enough of life’s creative energy, which comes from all people, is accumulated and concentrated, it will explode the status quo and give way to the cultural revolution.