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>> Joseph Beuys and his students
>> Vik Muniz: Art in the Favelas
>> Ayse Erkmen's Interventions
>> German Pop Art: Thomas Bayrle

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“To be a teacher is my greatest work of art”
Joseph Beuys and his students at the Kunstmuseum Ahlen

Epigones? Thanks, but no thanks! As a professor at the Dusseldorf Art Academy, Joseph Beuys left an indelible mark on an entire generation of artists. But he always encouraged his students to find their own way. Now, the exhibition "To be a teacher is my greatest work of art" presents 150 works by Beuys and his most notable students from the Deutsche Bank Collection. Achim Drucks introduces the show at the Kunstmuseum Ahlen.

Joseph Beuys, Für Blinky, n.d, © VG Bild – Kunst, Bonn 2008.,
Deutsche Bank Collection

Joseph Beuys humbly washes his students’ feet as atonal music plays in the studio; a young man dribbles mealworms over himself while students talk about their works. Hans Emmerling’s film Joseph Beuys and His Class not only documents the teachings and actions at the Dusseldorf Art Academy; the 1971 production also carries us back to an era of upheaval that was greatly influenced by Beuys’ artistic and political actions. "Govern yourselves" is printed on the flyer he and Johannes Stüttgen are handing out in front of a Kaufhof department store. The professor in his trademark hat and his student with his face painted in chalky white animatedly discuss political change with passers-by. After all, Dare more democracy" is the motto of the socialist-liberal democratic coalition led by Willy Brandt, who beginning in 1969 sets about reforming the Federal Republic of Germany. In the wave of the students’ movement and the APO, the "extra-parliamentary opposition," art leaves his ivory tower and arrives in the shopping district.

Peter Angermann,
untitled (Joseph Beuys), from "Tapeten", 1983,
Deutsche Bank Collection

This fascinating documentary can be seen in the exhibition To be a teacher is my greatest work of art at the Kunstmuseum Ahlen, which includes 150 works on paper from the Deutsche Bank Collection. Curator Friedhelm Hütte, Director of Deutsche Bank Art, juxtaposes the show’s many Beuys works with works by his most important students. Drawings, photographs, and prints by Walter Dahn, Felix Droese, Jörg Immendorff, Anselm Kiefer, Imi Knoebel, Blinky Palermo, and Katharina Sieverding testify to Beuys’ personal and artistic influence as well as to the mutual influences arising out of the intense dialogue between the professor and his students.

Imi Knoebel, untitled, 1968/72, © VG Bild – Kunst, Bonn 2008,
Deutsche Bank Collection

Sometimes a newspaper report was enough to prompt aspiring artists to come to Dusseldorf. For instance Beuys got hit in one action, and then, with a bloodied nose, he held out a crucifix to the audience. The photograph of this artist messiah who could even spontaneously incorporate physical attacks into his actions was printed in many newspapers. "In spite of his age, he was open, rebellious, and questioned things that others of his generation swallowed without a word. That was why the newspaper article impressed us so much. We needed someone who was searching, just like we were. We were looking for extremes," as Imi Knoebel explained in an interview. In 1965, Knoebel and his friend Rainer (Imi) Giese dropped out of the Werkkunstschule in Darmstadt to go to Dusseldorf. For them, Beuys’ person was far more important than his actual work.

Blinky Palermo, untitled, from "Wandzeichnungen", 1968, © VG Bild – Kunst, Bonn 2008,
Deutsche Bank Collection

Although the work they were doing was heavily influenced by Russian Constructivism and diametrically opposed to his own, Beuys admitted the two into his class. "Beuys couldn’t make much of our stuff. But he could allow people to do completely different things." He even made one of his three classrooms available to them, where Blinky Palermo was initially still working. A master student of Beuys’, his series of designs for wall drawings, simple straight lines in geometric arrangements, are also on show in Ahlen. The two Imis also investigated abstraction in their photographic series; in one of these, Knoebel recorded his projections, reduced forms of light that he shone onto building facades at night. In Giese’s work, luminous digits merge to form lines.

Joseph Beuys, Mädchen (Rücken), 1957, © VG Bild – Kunst, Bonn 2008,
Deutsche Bank Collection

There were worlds separating the cool formal experiments of these three minimalists and Beuys’ biomorphic pictorial vocabulary, but this didn’t present a problem to the professor. On the contrary: it was Beuys’ self-proclaimed goal to help his students find their own individual way. "I never bothered to force anything on people in terms of what my idea of art was or is. Instead, I’ve always looked for the possibilities that each individual has," he explained in 1984. When the professor for sculpture began teaching in 1961, the emphasis was still on conventional approaches like drawing from the model and sculpting from wood, clay, and plaster. In the mid-sixties, parallel to the crystallization of his "plastic theory," he gradually supplanted the traditional forms of teaching with discourse and discussion. In group sessions, students talked about artistic and social issues. In his own work, a broadening of the idea of what art could be led Beuys to work with new materials, such as fat, felt, and found objects and to develop his concept of the "social sculpture," which he implemented in his interaction with his students. The point was not to produce material works of art, but to work together to create a social utopia in which each person would be free to develop his or her own creativity.

Joseph Beuys, Filzplastik-Bronzeplastik, 1964, © VG Bild – Kunst, Bonn 2008,
Deutsche Bank Collection

Art’s meaning for society as Beuys stressed it again and again is also reflected in the birth of the Deutsche Bank Collection in the late 1970s. Beuys’ famous formula "Art = Capital" also applies here, but not in the sense that the art is regarded as a decorative investment for the upper floors of the board. As the motto "Art at the Workplace" expresses, the collection’s founders were committed to enabling people to have a direct encounter with contemporary positions outside the established institutions, such as museums or galleries. Art is cultural capital that should benefit all staff members, visitors, and the public. Beuys’ great significance for the collection is also manifested in the top floor of one of the twin towers in Frankfurt, which is dedicated to the artist. The main focus of interest is his drawings, a medium of key importance both for Beuys and for the collection. Beuys regarded drawing as "an extension of thought" that directly reflects the creative process.

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