JOSEPH BEUYS: We Are the Revolutionby Valery Oisteanu
Mary Boone Gallery
January 9 – February 6, 2010
Solo exhibitions of Joseph Beuys (1921–1986) are rare, and the focus of curator Pamela Kort for the current show at Mary Boone is on the artist’s iconic “multiples” and “editions,” augmented by a few original masterpieces—altogether more than 175 works that create a partial political and ironic-philosophical time capsule.
Upon entering the gallery, Chelsea regulars can be forgiven if they are a bit confused by the industrial objects encased in a dozen vertical glass cases and four flat library-style vitrines, arranged as a pseudo-mechanical curio museum. But those accustomed to the “noise of Beuys” are familiar with the fact that he was a student of biology and mathematics before turning to art, and many of his exhibits in the past used similar displays. Here we have an antic Agfa box-camera, glued inside a black box next to an edition of photo-prints; two rectangular iron plates (called “Magnetic Postcards + Magnetic Shavings,” 1975) in cardboard boxes; folding accordion-books stamped with red or black crosses; a rolled-up newspaper inside a tall glass pasta jar—all carrying a social narrative.
Beuys marries his so-called “survivor materials”—a simple shovel, a gray felt suit, a sled equipped with a flashlight, a felt blanket and a slab of fat—to a symbolism borne from his well-known WWII experience, retold in a YouTube video, in which Tartars used fat and felt blankets to save him from hypothermia after he crashed his plane on the Crimean front (although new research suggests his rescuers actually were part of a German recovery patrol). And his “Green Violin,” a pop-surrealist object that migrated from Dada, toy trains, and empty food cans connected by a string, are basically reworked and assisted readymades. Duchamp’s century-old spirit is alive and well.
In fact, in a live appearance on German television in 1964, Beuys dramatically inscribed a large placard with the statement “The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overrated.” Duchamp’s readymades had signaled the obsolescence not only of traditional works of art, but perhaps even of the notion of art itself. For Beuys, the readymade became part of a larger effort to reinvest artistic activity with metaphorical, ritual, political, and even spiritual significance. Beuys’s artistic relationship with Duchamp’s legacy is often unacknowledged, but for the cognoscenti, the former’s works are a visual challenge—art for the mind, iconic multiples that make one smile, including “Capri-Battery” (1985), a yellow lightbulb in a black socket plugged into a real lemon.
A sculpture in leathery metal hanging on the wall (“Backrest for a Fine-Limbed Person,” 1972), is also in a Duchampian vein, while other works can be compared to Warhol, Robert Morris, or Bruce Nauman, although the artist himself, when asked, negated any parallel.
It is rumored that, starting in 1965, Beuys created more than 600 prints and multiples and countless lists and displays of found objects and organic materials. He also mass-produced ephemera related to his performances, intending to publish them in editions with print runs of as many as 10,000 or 20,000 copies. This from an artist who devised the formula Art = Kapital as the main financial formula of the art world’s conspicuous consumption.
On the right wall, a black-and-white print of Beuys being escorted out of the Kunstakademie at Dusseldorf University by dozens of policemen after he was dismissed as an art teacher is accompanied by a handwritten note: “Demokratie ist lustig” (“Democracy is funny”). Following the dismissal, he and Nobel Prizewinner Heinrich Böll founded the Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research, where Beuys began teaching socially and politically oriented art challenging the authority of the state. Later, the official who dismissed Beuys became the president of Germany—Johannes Rau. Democracy is funny!
Beuys was a political artist to the core; he expanded the concept of art at the juncture of real life, and almost singlehandedly created a political opposition to the autocratic German federal authority for four decades. Joseph Beuys tries to solve the “questions of the future culture” and “to transgress the borders of a restrictive civilization of a repressive centralism.”
The present show is not very easy to view or understand, but once enmeshed in Beuys’s nets of subliminal messages and avant-garde symbolism, like many of his students, we become part of the Revolution/Evolution.