The German artist Joseph Beuys who has been variously described as a sculptor, draughtsman, creator of action-performances, political leader and teacher has been in the news of late.
The art collector and dealer Anthony d’Offay has recently donated his impressive collection, valued at £125 m, of work by modern artists to the Tate Modern and the National Galleries of Scotland. It contains 725 works by the likes of Andy Warhol, Gilbert and George, Damien Hirst and no less than 136 works by Joseph Beuys.
He has been also cited as a great influence by the hugely influential Swiss architects Herzog and de Muren who were responsible for conversion of Giles Gilbert Scott’s iconic power station at Bankside into the Tate Modern Art Gallery but who will be in the news in the coming weeks as the Olympics take place in their amazing “birds nest” stadium in Beijing. So who is this inspirational German sculptor and performance artist?
Joseph Beuys was born May 12, 1921, in Krefeld, Germany. During his school years in Kleve, Beuys was exposed to the work of Achilles Moortgat, whose studio he often visited, and was inspired by the sculptures of Wilhelm Lehmbruck. Beuys began to study medicine in 1940, but his studies were interrupted when he joined the army and served as a fighter pilot. During a mission in 1943, he was badly injured when his plane crashed in a desolate region of south Russia. This experience would resonate in all of his later work and in particular he would later claim as inspiration that his life was saved by Tartars who found him burnt and suffering from hypothermia and covered his body in fat and wrapped him in tarpaulin and animal skins to save his life. Beuys claimed the tactile and sensory qualities of these materials resonated with him thereafter and they appear continuously both in his “sculptures” and in his performance art.
After the war, he took up the study of art. In 1947, he registered at the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where he studied under Joseph Enseling and Ewald Mataré. After Beuys graduated in 1951, the brothers Franz Joseph and Hans van der Grinten began to collect his work. Eventually becoming his most important patrons, they organized his first solo show at their house in Kranenburg in 1953. Beuys was appointed professor of monumental sculpture at the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1961. The year after, he began to associate with Fluxus artists, principally Nam June Paik and George Maciunas, and later he met Minimalist artist Robert Morris. He helped to organize the Festum Fluxorum Fluxus at the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1963, and he participated for the first time in Documenta in Kassel in 1964.
In 1967, Beuys founded the German Student Party, one of the numerous political groups that he organized during the next decade. In 1972, he was dismissed from the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf amid great controversy for admitting to his class over 50 students who previously had been rejected. The following year, he founded the Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research. He increasingly became involved in political activities and in 1976 ran for the German Bundestag. In 1978, he was made a member of the Akademie der Kunst, Berlin. The 1970s were also marked by numerous exhibitions throughout Europe and the United States. Beuys represented Germany at the Venice Biennale in 1976 and 1980. A retrospective of his work was held at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1979. He was made a member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Stockholm, in 1980. During the inauguration of the 1982 Documentain Kassel, Beuys planted the first of 7,000 oak trees; in other cities, he repeated this tree-planting action several times in the following years. On January 23, 1986, Beuys died in Düsseldorf, aged 64.
So far so good and indeed so worthy you may think. However some caveats arise when discussing Joseph Beuys, his motivation and output. For one thing the story about his being shot down and rescued by Tatars turns out to be fabricated. That is to say it never happened so it follows that his “artworks” based on tarpaulin, tar, fat, ropes, sledges and animal hides don’t resonate with anything. Most likely in the desperate times after the war in a destroyed Germany heaving with penniless refugees he found art as a way of expiating his own war experience and of making a living by playing on the guilt of Germans about the war and the undoubted suffering of soldiers on the eastern front and the huge suffering of the displaced civilian German populations from the Sudetenland, Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia. Needless to say his aficionados and no doubt his dealers were wholly unfazed by these revelations; No doubt it added to the irony of his output and proved that if you believed it was art it is art and if you produced objects people believed were art then, ipso facto, you were an artist! Q.E.D.
He developed what he called “His expanded concept of Art” which can be summed up as you don’t need to be an artist to create art and your output doesn’t need to meet the conventional concept of art. So his performances utilised the palate of objects from his experience (which never happened) amongst the Tatars and usually consisted of smearing, wrapping, cleaning, and unwrapping sometimes with the addition of a disjointed commentary and dead squirrels. This, we were meant to feel, was an ironic observation on human angst, suffering and mortality and if it was disjointed and haphazard it reflected life / death and the imperfection of human life. So his “sculptors” tend to consist of mannequins smeared in fat, wrapped in rope and tarpaulin and perched on chairs or laid prone on the floor on (you guessed it) tarpaulin. He has also done blocks of fat, fat wrapped in tarred paper, tarred rope in bundles, etc; etc; yawn, yawn! To symbolise the retreat from the east in the snow he tied 31 sledges with ropes to a VW minibus and each sledge contains fat wrapped in tarpaulin and rope. How ironic I hear you say!
When I met Joseph Beuys in 1974 he was going through his Black board phase. His doodles on chalkboards with ludicrous titles were the antithesis of conventional art as they were impermanent, one dimensional and monochrome.
I met him at a reception at the Hugh Lane Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin
in 1974 when Beuys lectured in England and Ireland with his touring exhibition of drawings entitled, “The Secret Block for a Secret Person in Ireland”. These he had collected over the years as evidence of the most crucial points in the development of his “expanded concept of art”. The Blackboards were executed in conjunction with a lecture he gave at the Hugh Lane Gallery at this time. The chalk drawings and words represent what the artist was trying to offer as a cure for the political crisis in Ireland as well as for people’s private problems. Well I was there and heard his lecture and saw his 13 blackboards which were to point the way towards peace in Ireland. The lecture was hard going, you just didn’t know whether to laugh or cry but it was a picture of clarity compared to the gibberish doodled on the chalkboards. But this 6’ 4” tall charismatic ex-Stuka pilot had done it again. As in post war Germany he pretended that his “art” could offer an answer to conflict and he went on an extended jolly sponsored by arts councils and galleries in England and Ireland. The Hugh Lane Gallery has three of the chalk boards in their permanent collection to this day – I shudder to think what they paid for them!
At the reception afterwards I had an extended conversation with Joseph Beuys even if I did bite my tongue somewhat in company. Indeed things flowed so well at the end I asked him would he be prepared to give a talk at the college where I was Secretary of the Student’s Union at our first Student Festival which was happening that week and he agreed. I was delighted with my coup, particularly as I hadn’t mentioned that the college authorities only paid a fee of £50. My happiness was short lived as soon afterwards his agent came up to me and told me I would need to sign a contract in the morning and his fee was £1,500 to give a lecture. I pleaded poverty without mentioning the risible fee paid by the college but he wouldn’t come down as he said if he did so Joseph Beuys would devalue his “brand”. So the Student Festival went ahead without the Stuka Pilot’s contribution and the only history made was my organising the Boomtown Rats first concert.
I suppose a little history is better than none!
So despite my misgivings Joseph Beuys has been influential. Without him we wouldn’t have displays of pickled sharks and heads of frozen blood as artists brands are built by media savvy agents and dealers who are skilled in plugging into public subsidy and private vanity where rich patrons validate their self esteem by conspicuous consumption of impenetrable “artworks” which show they are cleverer than the lumpen proletariat who just “don’t get it.”
Many years later I made the unfortunate mistake of paying £9.50 to see the four finalists for the Turner Prize at the Tate. A Derry performance artist, Willie Doherty, had an entry which consisted of a dark room which you entered. On screens on either end was a video shot of the same scene on the Craigavon Bridge in Derry of a man running towards the camera and on the other screen of the same man running away from the camera. This was meant to speak to me of the trauma and dislocation caused by the troubles in Ireland. Oh yeah? I’m sorry Willie; I wasn’t impressed as many years before I had met the daddy of pretend artists, Joseph Beuys.
As for the old Stuka Pilot himself, I sure when he went for his last dive you could not hear the screeching of the bomber above his raucous laughter that he had got away with it for so long and judging by the value of his “work” he still does!