Sunday, 20 September 2009



JOSEPH BEUYS – a disappearing artist


Many people – among them most art-world insiders – think the Joseph Beuys was the most important artist of the second half of the 20th century. Beuys was many things – a shaman, a trickster, a charismatic social and political activist. He spearheaded the return to prominence of the German avant-garde,  post-World War II, and his impact on both the European and American art worlds continues to be felt today, nearly twenty years after his death in January 1986. In big surveys of contemporary art only two deceased artists continue to be presented as ‘current’. One is Beuys, and the other is his near-contemporary Andy Warhol, who died a year later, in February 1987.


For all of these reasons the big retrospective exhibition devoted to Beuys that has just opened at Tate Modern in London is an important occasion. Focusing on the late work, made at a time when the artist was most himself, separated from any art movement, it is the most ambitious survey to have been staged anywhere since the retrospective mounted at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1979.


There has, however, been no lack of Beuys exhibitions in recent years, including a number in Britain. There was one at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London in 1990, one at Tate Liverpool in 1993, one at the Royal Academy in 1999, and one at the Gagosian Gallery, London, in 2003. Numerous other posthumous shows have been staged in Germany, where largely collections of his work are now permanently on display. Clearly Beuys is still a hot ticket – a must-see if you want to immerse yourself in what contemporary artists are doing.


Art historians and social historians – in this case the frontier between the two professions is often blurred – find it easy both to explain and to justify this continuing high level of interest. Beuys’ career can be looked at in so many different ways. For it was he, more than any other artist of his period, who was responsible for the shift towards Conceptual Art. In particular, he emphasized the importance of performance work that involved the use of the artist’s own body.


He challenged the artistic hegemony of America, which had seemed unassailable since World War II. At the same time his success in Germany, from the 1960s onwards, confirmed the failure of the School of Paris, triumphant during the first four decades of the 20th century, to resurrect itself.


Above all, Beuys was an important factor in the creation of a new kind of German cultural identity, risen from the ashes of the Third Reich. One thing often forgotten by his non-German admirers is that Beuys’ entire career took place within the context of a divided Germany. When he spoke of his work as “social sculpture”, he meant particularly the shaping of a new German political and culktural identity.


Because of the existence of a rival Communist state, the German Democratic Republic, West German radicals could not be orthodox Marxists. Beuys evolved a new set of doctrines that drew on a range of non-Marxist sources. Some of his ideas were rooted in the teachings of Rudolph Steiner, some in those of Konrad Lorenz, the re-creator of the science of ethnology. Some came from the writings of German Romantics, such as Novalis, and other still from those of 16th century German alchemists. There were also a few lingering, ineradicable traces of Nazi ideology – most clearly visible in Beuys’ ideas about ‘heimat’. This, which is the German word for ‘home’, has wider implications – it hints at qualities of essential ‘German-ness’.


Taken together, these ingredients make up a heady brew.  Why, then, does the Tate Modern retrospective feel so flat?


To the casual visitor, it presents room after room of dun-colored installations, varied with a few more galleries in which there are large glass show-cases filled with odds and ends of rubbish, or with that seems to be a selection of battered looking everyday objects. One learns in due course, from the labeling and the catalogue,  that these installations and vitrines feature substances that had a particular significance for Beuys, such as felt and fat.


In all these presentations any kind of formal interest is more or less completely absent. What is on show at Tate Modern is essentially a series of relic – objects and collocations of objects sanctified by Beuys’ touch – in particular by the public Actions that were the most typical manifestations of his artistic personality. There are even example of the blackboards covered with diagrams that Beuys used during his didactic lecture/performances. These – smeared, scribbled and sometimes half-erased – are now presented as artworks in their own right.


At the very end of the long sequence of galleries that go to make up the show there is a room containing a free-standing installation entitled ‘Economic Values’. This was created in 1980 for an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent. It consists of a set of iron shelves filled with basic food items and tools from the GDR – still in existence at the time when the pie was made. On the walls of the same gallery are various 19th century academic paintings drawn from the collection of the Tate Gallery – the latter obviously selected for their apparent dreariness and lack of real imagination.


At the time when the piece was made, the implication must have been that the utilitarian attitudes of the German Communist state were as unimaginative and outmoded as the dead rfelics of 19th century bourgeois culture that surrounded them – Beuys stipulated that the 19th century art that formed part of the installation must always be drawn from the collection of the host museum, so that it would in erach case seem to be rebuking itself,


Today, when the GDR no longer exists, Beuys’ intervention seems at least as inert aesthetically at the 19th century artworks it co-opts – no more than a simplistic footnote to the history of a dead regime.


The general flatness and deadness of the whole retrospective – and I have described just one particularly pertinent example – raises important questions. One is about the built-in obsolescence of so much contemporary art – the way in which it rushes [and not simply physically, but also spiritually an emotionally] towards its own dissolution.


Ever since art began to commit itself to radical politics at the time of the French Revolution this has been a problem for artists. Can we, for example, read Jacques-Louis David’s ‘Marat Assassinated’ in the sense in which the artist intended it to be read – knowing what we do, both about the Revolutionary Terror and about Marat’s personal character?


I think how one reacts to Beuys depends very much both on what generation one belongs to, and on whether one had any personal contact with him. For example, I personally saw some of Beuys’ Actions, on that occasion made in collaboration with the composer Henning Christensen, organized by the Richard DeMarco Gallery in Edinburgh in 1970. I also saw and photographed Beuys when he presented his sex-and-a-half hour lecture/Action at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1972. Later that year, I saw him debating with all comers in his Office for Direct Democracy through Referendum, set up as part of Documenta V in Cassel. With vivid memories of these experiences, I have no doubt about his power to focus attention on himself, nor about his enormous personal charisma.


Yet now Beuys is dead, what actually is left? Tate Modern gives one the official answer – the dismal heaps of fading and decaying materials, without any inherent visual dynamic, that one now sees presented there. What Beuys improvised so casually has now been painstaking reconstructed by teams of experts, sometimes with recourse to the latest global positioning instruments. Despite this, as the exhibition catalogue ruefully records. “however  faithfully aspects of the artist’s earlier activities or stipulations are followed, placing a work in a new space introduces an unavoidable dimension of invention, however responsibly this is handled.” In other words, what you see is both Beuys and not-Beuys. Its fundamental authenticity is often questionable.


Authenticity lies as much in the fading memories of people like myself as it does in the physical reality of the show,


Beuys’ career prompts a perhaps unexpected comparison – to the life-story of Joan of Arc. Both were healers of wounds – wounds in a sense of national identity. Joan identified or re-identified what it was to be French. Beuys identified or re-identified what it was to be German . Both displayed shamanistic elements and both to some extent were tricksters and illusionists as well as genuine transformers of existing reality. Joan, as payments for her equipment and attendants in French royal accounts show, was a peasant and a woman who for a while became a man and a prince. Beuys was a marginal maker of performances, a kind of wandering mountebank, who achieved an almost comparable celebrity, and came to represent the soul of a new post-Hitlerian Germany. Operating in a late medieval context, Joan eventually became classified as a saint. Operating in a contemporary one, Beuys was put into the box marked ‘artist’.


There are of course important differences. Though he was controversial throughout his life, Beuys escaped Joan’s terrible end. And he left a huge and awkward accumulation of relics behind him, while the only certain physical vestige of Joan, after she was burned and her ashes were thrown in the Seine, is now a single black hair stuck in a wax seal she affixed to a charter relating to rights conferred on the town of Riom. In a certain sense this leaves Joan’s legend freer to resonate than that of her 20th century German equivalent.


This site was last updated 20-09-2009