Joseph Beuys: art is not there to be understood, otherwise we wouldn't

Joseph Beuys: art is not there to be understood, otherwise we wouldn’t need it

17 March 2018 Posted by Artists, Joseph Beuys 0 thoughts on “Joseph Beuys: art is not there to be understood, otherwise we wouldn’t need it”

Enigmatic provocative and iconic with his inseparable felted hat, Joseph Beuys represents an enigmatic, provocative and charismatic character of the postwar art. Passed away too early in 1986, he left an evident legacy for everyone who would relate himself to the contemporary arts.

Jospeh Beuys was born in 1921 in Germany where his education does not envisage an artistic carrier. He studies medicine, becomes a member of the Hitler Youth and joined up the Luftwaffe as a volunteer on the verge of the Second World War.

Exactly a war mission appears to be the significant change of his life: on 1943 his aeroplane got shoot down in Crimea. Beuys would likely be dead if it wasn’t for a a group of Tatars who found him. He was almost frozen but likely they decided to take care of him and spread his own animal fat and wrap him up in felt to gain some heat.
Such a dramatic experience marks the starting point of his new life and his art. Got prisoned by the British in 1944, he gets released just at the end of the conflict. Then, he enrols at the Sculptor Academy of Dusseldorf, where he gets a diploma and managed to teach munumental sculptor. In the same years, along with George Maciunas, Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell and Charlotte Moormann takes part into the first happenings of the Fluxus group in Copenaghen, London and Wiesbaden. Also, he organises hilmself the Festum Fluxorum Fluxus at the Academy where he teaches.

Fluxus 1964

Fluxus demonstratio (Concert for submarine sandwiches) at the Kurhaus Scheveningen (Netherlands), Nov. 13th 1964. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen (ANEFO) – Source: GaHetNa (Nationaal Archief NL)

It’s years in which the artistic production is focused on fostering the audience’s critical consciousness by sculptures creation and installations. As it happens in Homogeneous infiltration for grand piano of 1966 where the musical instrument symbolizes the european culture. It is actually wrapped up in a felted layer to suggest the impossibility of noises to be reproduced as in the language or culture crisis. Likewise, it embodies the preserving function of the raw material (also pointed out by the cross on the object side) that can turn the silence into inner meditation and let reach the absolute.  The following video an overview of Beuys’ works.

In 1964 he launched the current of “actions“, which are a foundamental part of his poetics. Together with the acceptance of Rudolf Steiner anthroposophy, the study of Goethe, Schiller and Novalis philosophy, the writings of Leonardo da Vinci and Rosacroces, these represent the foundation of his vision of art. As such it expects pedagogy to rebuild the human development entirely, the endless research of the armony between man and nature and the image of  “Schaman of art”.

Politic commitment

Concerning activism, the artist has never put himself aside. Over the years, he has been the founder or co-founder of the German Students  Party  (1967), the Organization for Direct Democracy by Referendum (1971), the Free International University for creativity and interdisciplpinary research (1974, along with Heinrich Böll, after being fired from the Academy of Düsseldorf for organizing a demonstration against the limited number) and eventually the Green Party.

Pacifist, ecologist and totally against nuclear weapons, Beuys clearly deals with subjects he cares of in some of his works such as the song and the musical video,  Sonne statt Reagan! (Sun instead of Reagan, 1982). Where he personally put himself against the military politics of the President of USA. 

Italy and Beuys

The Belpaese has represented for Beuys a land of election. Together with Andy Warhol, who Beuys was a fan of  and a friend too, he took part in the artists group of the Modern Art Agency of Lucio Amelio. The latter brought to Naples the best of the international contemporary art in the 70’s.

In Naples, indeed, Beuys had his first italian exhibition in which the famous picture We are the revolution was born. Furthermore, the artist  was among the first ones to respond Amelio’s call in 1981. The closest artists were called to produce an artowork, whose main subject was an earthquake such as the one that destroyed the Campania region the year before. So, the Earthquake in a Building is given birth, an artistic installation made out of old worktables found in areas hit by the earthquake. Beyus added glass and ceramic elements so as to symbolize frailty and unstable balance.

Beuys Terremoto di Palazzo

Earthquake in a Building, 1981 – Royal Palace of Caserta. Source: Wikipedia

Beuys had his favourite studio in Bolognano, small village of the Abbruzzo region where he got invited by the barony Durini and his wife Lucrezia De Domizio, and spent the last 5 days of his life. In 1984 he received the honorary citizenship and over the years he run several activities.  Among these, the Foundation of the Institute for Renaissance of the Agriculture (1976), the creation of the Paradise Plantation with the housing of 7000 plants to restore biodiversity (1982) and Olivestone (1984) the work composed by five sandstone tubs used ever since 1500 for settling olive oil. Each tub was filled up with a calcareus parallelepiped stone that would leave a few millimeters free along the boundary so as to host the oil, let it drizzle into it and make a thin top layer on the surface.

In 1980 he had a meeting – debate with Alberto Burri at the Rocca Paolina in Perugia. The works produced by Beuys for the occasion  (a number of blackboards) are hosted at the permanent exhibition in the Palazzo della Penna of Perugia, while the Burri’s black sculpture is still exhibited at the Burri Rocca Paolina.

His last work was set in december 195 at the museo di Capodimonte in Napoli, with the title Palazzo regale and it can be considered his spiritual will. It is composed of seven rectangular big brass plates convered by a golden layer hung on the walls and two showcases shielding actions remaining, memories, clothes and personal belongings. For the artist: “The palace we first conquered and then made it worth living is the man’s head, our head”.
He died the next year on genuary 23rd 1986 in Düsseldorf, after an heart attack.

The actions

1965 is the year of Beuys’ first individual exhibition hosted at a gallery of Düsseldorf,where he puts in place one of the most popular performances. In How to explain paintings to a dead hare, the artist’s head is covered by honey and golden foils while he is holding a dead hare in the arms. He shows his paintings hung on the walls and apparently he describes them to it, whispering in its ears and making it touch with the paws. His performance is visible just through the doors and the window of the gallery because the artist is phisically enclosed in the exhibition space. 
The simbology of the action is quite complex, and complies with the difficulty to convey art, taking different elements. The following video will show some moments taken from the performance.

The general meaning is that there is no way to explain art to a dead hare. But, ironically, even the hare has better intuitive abilities than some other human beings with blunt rationality. Therefore, for Beuys, immagination, insipiration and desire are all tools to get to know and understand the world.

Another popular performance is called I Like America and America Likes me and it took place in 1974 at the René Block Gallery of New York. Beuys landed to the United States by airplan, but as he was against the Vietnam war, he refused to touch the soil. That is why he made them bring him to the gallery wrapped in a felted blanket on a ambulance. In New York, he shared a room purposely fenced with a coyote. The following video shows a few moments taken from his performance.  
The interaction between the man and the animal is pointed out by daily actions and rituals.

Beuys, wrapped into a felted blanket, makes a triangle jingle through a cane in his hand and every now and then he looks at the coyote (who has a caution watch)  or throws his gloves at it.

The animal, gains familiarity with the man more and more, it smells him and interacts with him. At the end of the three days, Beuys manages to hug it before leaving wrapped again in felt on the ambulance to reach the airport. As explained by the artist, later, this means of travel is due to the fact that: “I wanted to isolate, isolate myself, not see anything of America other than the coyote“.

The nature

In 1982 Beuys got invited  at the seventh edition of Documenta in Kassel where he created the work , 7000 oaks. That was not a traditional sculpture, but a long term project made of a huge triangle comprising  7000 basalt stones, then placed in front of the Museo Federiciano in the german town.  The earning from the sale of each stone was used to buy a oak that has been planted in Kassel.

Beuys Kassel

The installation of basalt stones in front of the museum. Source: Wikipedia

It took years to complete the action (that officially finished in 1987 only), due to the opposition of the conservatory party, the christian democratics, along with the audience. They indeed did not appreciate the basalt stones, and so put pink colored ones on top. Eventually, the project was also impeded by bad luck:  a biker lost his life in a cruent accident for crushing against the blocks.
Anyway, the artistic and ecologic action arised with the stated aim of significantly upsetting the vital space of the town. Despite all the problems encountered, it has gained extra value in the eyes of the citizenship, that could appreciate over the years a green area against the cement expansion. It has also become a major part within the urban landscape of Kassel.

The growth of the oaks wood imagined by Beuys will take about 300 years to be completed, but, through the collective ritual of planting trees, the artist had the merit of evoking the most deep meaning of the relationship between man and nature.
He made for Bolaffi the cover L’Udito, edited in the collection of art multiples dedicated to senses.

The highlighted picture belongs to Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, source: Wikipedia

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