After Joseph Beuys died in January 1986, my then-partner and now-husband, John Hudak, and I organized a mail art show in Philadelphia to honor his passing. It seemed the appropriate thing to do. The prevailing ethos of mail art, which grew out of the Fluxus movement, is that anyone can do it: you send something to someone through the mail, and hopefully you’ll get something back. Mail art shows typically include all comers, in contexts as quotidian as someone’s living room, and as iconoclastic as a highway underpass. As an original Fluxus alumnus, Beuys—a German fighter pilot who rose, phoenix-like, from the destruction of World War II to become art’s 20th century shaman—would have approved.
We began to receive all sorts of things in the mail: homage pieces, and less legible works that mirrored Beuys’ singular opacity. We were moved by the sorrow and loss expressed in some of the contributions, and impressed by the exotic stamps from the many countries they represented. Some things, like scary Japanese pornography, were a little embarrassing. Our mailman was mystified.
During the hot summer of ’86, the daily mail harvest slowed to a trickle, and John and I prepared to exhibit Homage to Beuys. We were also getting ready to move to California—a necessary transition, rather than a coming-of-age tradition. Sadly, in saying farewell to Beuys, we were also saying farewell to our West Philly milieu of aspiring artists and musicians who had accepted me, a graduate student, as a misanthropic representative of the academy (though playing the accordion helped). Trying to make it any way we could, we held performances in impromptu spaces, formed co-op galleries and had cash-and-carry shows. There was no place for us in the conservative art world of 1980s Philadelphia.
Our venue for the Beuys homage was an abandoned three-story Victorian row house not far from our marginally less derelict neighborhood. The mildewed plaster hanging from the lath was picturesque, and the creaky floorboards safe enough (the staircase to the upper floors was iffy). The most wondrous thing of all was the six-inch deep carpet of flocculent plaster dust, undisturbed for years. When you walked through it, it stirred, like a liquid, making small particulate clouds.
We taped the things that had made their way to us to the crumbling walls in no particular order. For ambience, John played some static-y sounds on a hand-held tape recorder. But we also strove to make the event a bona fide gallery opening, offering wine and hors d’oeuvres. The crowd grew, and shared our revelatory feeling—we were homesteaders, pioneers, explorers, letting art happen in what looked and felt like an installation on the moon. All was copacetic until the police came.
Apparently a resident down the block had called the 18th precinct to complain about a different party, a drunken barbecue in full swing. Philly’s Finest noticed the suspect stream of people filing into the condemned building and assumed that this was the trouble. They burst in as if expecting to find people huddled in a corner shooting up, rather than a decorous crowd eating phyllo triangles and staring at funny bits on the wall. Their confusion was immediate; that we were having an art show, incomprehensible. Looking stunned, they advanced uncertainly, clearly in new and foreign territory. Being the refreshments master, I invited them to partake (they refused). One of them, who looked longingly at the hors d’oeuvres, was equally taken with the Japanese pornography, which he examined carefully before loudly proclaiming, “That’s not art!” Pointing to my accordion, on which I had planned to play taps for Joseph Beuys, a more sympathetic officer asked, “Can you play that thing? A polka maybe?” I obliged, but the guy in charge wheeled around and shouted, “Shut that thing or we’ll smash it!”
Things got ugly fast. People had begun to slip out the minute the fuzz showed up, and soon it was just us diehards. We were going with the flow, until the most outspoken of us couldn’t resist saying something about the cops having nothing better to do. Of course, that decided it. “You’re all arrested,” the head guy declared. We were led out of the house with our hands up and loaded into two waiting paddy wagons, taking special delight in being sex-segregated—men in one, women in the other—definitely making for a better story. Aided by champagne and what ever else we had indulged in, we girls rejoiced in the bad-assness of it all, and sang our driver several spirited rounds of “Amazing Grace.” It was the perfect ending; it was a pure Dada moment.
Awareness of the intrusiveness of this exercise of power, and of our vulnerable powerlessness came more slowly. We were detained, standing, for hours in a precinct from another era while a policeman tapped out our summons (the charges were breaking and entering, and disturbance of the peace) on a manual typewriter. Within a week, we were front-page news, complete with a photo of a smiling John with the little tape recorder that disturbed the peace. The cops weren’t looking too good—the whole thing went down near the residential block that was leveled when the police torched the MOVE compound with an “incendiary device” just one year prior. People were intrigued by the youngsters who turned an abandoned house into a gallery; becoming something of a cause célèbre, we were ceremonially branded “The Beuys Ten,” and eventually received a Mayoral Pardon from His Honor, Oliver St. Clair Franklin.
Beuys’s personal mythology was integral to the art he made—art as wrapped around his constructed identity as the fat and the felt with which he said the Tatars kept him warm after his bomber fell out of the sky and left him in the Crimean snow. Our send-off celebration resulted in a story of our own, a myth we couldn’t possibly have made up. The curtailed freedom of that defiant moment recapitulates the polarized responses that Beuys elicited, and elicits still. It stays with me, and I feel it whenever I encounter art in unexpected places.
ADELE TUTTER, M.D., Ph.D. is a practicing psychoanalyst and professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. She is the author of Dream House: An Intimate Portrait of the Philip Johnson Glass House (forthcoming from the University of Virginia Press) and coeditor of Grief and its Transcendence: Creativity, Memory, and Identity (Routledge). She is currently working on a second monograph, Mourning and Metamorphosis: Poussin's Ovidian Vision.