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All in the Present Must Be Transformed
Nancy Spector on Matthew Barney and Joseph Beuys at the Deutsche Guggenheim

On the occasion of the exhibition "All in the Present Must Be Transformed: Matthew Barney and Joseph Beuys," at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin Oliver Koerner von Gustorf spoke with curator Nancy Spector about two heroes of contemporary art, utopian dreams, and risky combinations.

Matthew Barney, CREMASTER 3, 2002,
Photo Chris Winget,
Courtesy Gladstone Gallery;
©2002 Matthew Barney

A daring endeavor: for the first time, an exhibition is juxtaposing works by Matthew Barney and Joseph Beuys. All in the Present Must Be Transformed: Matthew Barney and Joseph Beuys reveals a surprising array of common denominators between the German shaman, renewer, and healer and Post-Modernism’s mysterious faun from the USA, such as their mutual interest in metamorphosis, theatrical presentation, and ambiguous performance. Following its premiere at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, the exhibition will be on show at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection during the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007. The project was organized by Nancy Spector, Curator of Contemporary Art and Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Joseph Beuys, 1979,
Photo Mary Donlon,
©The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Oliver Koerner von Gustorf: How did you originally come up with the idea of combining Matthew Barney’s and Joseph Beuys’ works?

Nancy Spector: The idea for the exhibition occurred to me while installing Matthew’s exhibition of The Cremaster Cycle at the Guggenheim in 2003. We discussed the fact that Joseph Beuys had been the subject of an exhibition 24 years earlier in which he similarly created an overall narrative that encapsulated his entire project to date. The show was not just an arrangement of objects, but rather a mise en scène that articulated the mythology that was his life story. Matthew was extremely interested in that history, and we even looked for an installation plan and other material in our archives. We didn’t speak specifically about Beuys’ work at that time as much as register the coincidence that Matthew was also making a show that operated as a Gesamtkunstwerk in a way that wove the entire Cremaster Cycle together. And then, separately, I have been having an ongoing conversation over the past three years with Mark Taylor, professor of theology at Williams College, who has written on points of contact between Barney and Beuys; and he’s contributed an abridged version of his ideas to our catalogue.

Matthew Barney, Chrysler Imperial, 2002 (Detail),
Photo David Heald,
©Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

How did you start preparing for the show in Berlin?

I first asked Matthew if he would be willing to do this, because it would have been impossible without his participation. I wish I could have also asked for Beuys’ permission. It’s a very sensitive and risky thing to do, you know, juxtaposing two artists’ work, when only one of them can speak to the situation. This project is about shared concerns and similar sensibilities, but it also reveals essential and meaningful differences. By reading Barney and Beuys together, one can, I hope, learn something new about both artists.

How did you go about selecting the works?

The exhibition is premised largely on work in the Guggenheim’s permanent collection, as both artists are represented in depth, with really excellent examples by each including Matthew’s Chrysler Imperial , 2002, and Beuys’ Terremoto, 1981, which give evidence to how both artists distilled their elaborate narrative constructs into their sculpture. In addition to a selection of works on paper and vitrines by each artist, also drawn from the collection, there will be some key loans to illustrate the more performative element of their respective oeuvres. We are borrowing Matthew’s seminal video installation FIELD DRESSING (orifill) , 1989-90, which reveals the essential relationship between action and object in his art. We will also exhibit Beuys’ Felt Angles from one of his performances of Eurasian Staff (1967) in proximity to archival footage of the action.

Joseph Beuys, Terremoto, 1981,
Photo David Heald,
© Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York;
©2006 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

There was the opportunity to do the show at the Deutsche Guggenheim, but one can imagine it happening earlier. Why do you think the time is right for this exhibition?

I don’t really know how one judges whether a time is right or not. We had the opportunity to make this show happen this year in a relatively brief amount of time. Since I know Matthew’s work well, there was a kind of practicality built into the project, and working with our collection allows us a certain amount of flexibility and freedom. But to say that now is the time for showing Barney and Beuys together, as opposed to any other time, would be an overstatement. Having said that, however, Matthew’s work is continuing to evolve at an amazing pace. He just exhibited the remarkable Drawing Restraint 9 in Japan, Korea, and San Francisco. Everyone was wondering what he was going to do after The Cremaster Cycle, and I think that’s been answered.
There’s a lot of new interest in his work, whereas with Beuys, I believe, the interest has perhaps waned a bit. Maybe his work is ripe for rediscovery. As an American curator, I have tried to be sensitive to the fact that doing a show in Germany about Joseph Beuys is a complicated endeavor. Add an American artist to the mix and you are further complicating things. I have, therefore, approached the material with great caution. I understand that the younger generation in Germany is not particularly interested in Beuys’ work, and that probably results from of a number of things.

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