this issue contains
>> Immaculate White: Art and Winter
>> True North: Isaac Julien
>> Frozen Sculptures: Marc Quinn
>> Felt and Fat: Joseph Beuys

>> archive


I like America and America likes me, Performance,
Galerie Rene Block, New York, May, 21-25, 1974

The idealistic and, at the same time, radical evocation of this creaturely unity was capable of taking on a diversity of forms, of which drawing was only one. Here, too, the boundaries between a variety of artistic expressions became blurred; everything was part of a system in which the borders between disciplines were constantly being crossed. During his performances and actions, for instance, Beuys frequently wrote on blackboards, all of which have since wound up in the museum as relics from the happenings – here, too, the proximity to the simple drawing on paper is evident. One of his most provocative and attention-getting performances was I like America and America likes me; the work consisted of the artist locking himself up for five days in May of 1974 in René Block’s New York exhibition space, each time spending several hours with a live (and rather curious) coyote while wrapped in a cloak of felt. Yet in Beuys’ case it was secondary whether the effort undertaken in a work was great or not. Basically, his conceptual cosmos, his "expanded concept of art", can be seen in every drawing.

Hirschdenkmal, 1949,
Deutsche Bank Collection

DDR-Tüte (Well Bought, Happily Bought), 1980
In keeping with Arte Povera, to which Beuys is generally ascribed, there was hardly any raw material that didn’t lend itself to creative use by the artist. Just as he implemented simple everyday things in his objects and sculptures – chairs, tables, discarded practical goods of every kind – his drawings and assemblages are likewise composed of a wide array of elements and individual parts that, to put it bluntly, others would simply regard as garbage. In the work Hirschdenkmal (Stag Monument) from the year 1949, for instance, two torn shreds of differently colored paper join to form an abstract composition, while words and lines of type in his graphic works guide the viewer’s associations, such as when Beuys takes a former East German fruit satchel and breathes new life into it (Well Bought, Happily Bought).

Sometimes it seems as though the paint had landed aimlessly onto the paper through a spontaneous gesture, as in the drawing Stag from 1960, in which only red and white spots can be seen. Then again, some of the drawings look like someone quickly jotted down a short note and then, for some unknown reason, glued a coffee filter next to it (Declaration, 1969). Yet even the least spectacular and seemingly most random of these works fit as precisely as tiles into the larger mosaic of Beuys’ artistic way of viewing the world, which the artist propagated with a virtually missionary zeal.

Hirsch, 1960,
Deutsche Bank Collection

In 1967, this view of the world led him into politics; that same year, he founded his first party, the DSP (German Students’ Party). Yet even this didn’t contradict Beuys’ artistic credo. The theme of “warmth” as an energy affecting both the single individual and larger human gatherings could easily be applied to overall social processes and developments. Three years later, Beuys again founded a body, the "Organization of Non-Voters, Free Referendum", which kept an office in Düsseldorf’s city center. In 1971, Beuys called the "Organization for Direct Democracy via Referendum" to life and set up an information office during his participation in the documenta 5 in Kassel.

Declaration, 1969,
Deutsche Bank Collection

The same year, while the so-called "Academy Fight" was going on, the students’ secretariat was occupied. The situation escalated and Beuys was fired without notice for disturbing the peace, whereupon his students organized hunger strikes, protest marches, and open-air lessons. In 1973, together with the painters Georg Meistermann and Willi Bongard as well as the graphic artist Klaus Staeck, Beuys initiated the "Association for Furthering a Free International Academy for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research Inc." In 1976, he became the leading candidate of the AUD, the "Action Society of Independent Germans" in North Rhine-Westphalia, out of which, among other things, the "Green" party was ultimately formed three years later.

And that’s a mere excerpt from the list of Beuys’ activities towards changing the social condition. Joseph Beuys’ most famous and frequently misunderstood quote, according to which "every person" is an "artist", should be understood in this context. Beuys wasn’t suggesting that everybody could paint and draw well if they only wanted to. He coined the phrase for the sole purpose of referring to the power of political change inherent in each and every individual.

Bergkönig, 1961,
Sammlung Deutsche Bank

For Beuys, all people possessing a corresponding awareness were components of the "Social Sculpture", in other words part of an emancipated, artistically creative society in which they were taking their fate into their own hands. "The only revolutionary power is the power of human creativity", Beuys once said, and: "My politics is a politics of liberation." To his mind, the "social organism" was a "living being" and its "evolutionary principle" was "warmth". "It all hinges on the warming characteristic of thought", the artist stated; "that is the new quality of the will".

Fielt Suit, 1970

By this point, of course, Beuys had already long since become his own private trademark. His working materials felt and fat are familiar to every schoolchild; they’ve been parodied in advertising, and they made headlines, even in the tabloid press, when unsuspecting cleaning women removed one of his "Fat Corners" in the Düsseldorf Art Academy following his death. Beuys also broke a number of other records, as well: there’s no other artist that’s been photographed as often or the photographs reproduced as frequently as his have been. Beuys became an icon for an entire generation: a star that succeeded in making himself the subject of his own art, in spite of his social commitment.

Translation: Andrea Scrima

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