Joseph Beuys

long - term view

<p>Joseph Beuys, installation view of <i>Fond III/3</i>, 1979, and <i>Fond IV/4</i>, 1979. &copy; Estate of Joseph Beuys/<br />Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Photo: Nic Tenwiggenhorn.</p>

Joseph Beuys, installation view of Fond III/3, 1979, and Fond IV/4, 1979. © Estate of Joseph Beuys/
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Photo: Nic Tenwiggenhorn.

 
 
 

 

Introduction

In 1982, Dia facilitated the realization of Joseph Beuys's proposal for Documenta 7, 7000 Eichen (7,000 Oaks), a project that called for the planting of seven thousand trees, each paired with a columnar basalt marker, throughout the city of Kassel, Germany. Dia's association with Beuys, an artist known for his theory and practice of a "social sculpture" that was largely based in political involvement, environmental concerns, and performance, illustrates its willingness to help artists develop projects that are ephemeral and conceptual in nature.

The encyclopedic work, Arena—dove sarei arrivato se fossi stato intelligente! (Arena—where I would have got if I had been intelligent!) discloses the ambitious motivations of this highly influential German artist in 100 panels containing several hundred photographs taken over the span of his career up to 1972.1 Traces of ephemeral activities, the photographs include mul-tiple shots of some of Beuys's most important actions and concerts woven across a number of panels. A single found photograph, of the Roman amphitheater at Verona, speaks to his overriding conception of the work as dealing with the "arena" of life.

In assembling Arena . . . Beuys treated the prints in ways that draw attention to their status as reproductions. Many negatives were bleached, solarized, or otherwise manipulated; the roughness of their printing, reminiscent of an Arte Povera aesthetic, was enhanced by casually torn edges and perforations. In addition, most of the prints' surfaces were worked over, often with a layer of wax; in other cases, fat and Braunkreuz (an oil-based medium that was part of Beuys's signature vocabulary) were applied. Alongside the panels containing photographs, Beuys incorporated three panels made from colored glass—two in royal blue, one in golden yellow. For him, Caroline Tisdall contends, these monochrome panels were redolent of "blue sky for the cold clarity of the north . . . [and] the warm yellow of sulphur and southern sun."2 An oilcan and two piles of blocks of wax and fat interspersed with sheets of copper and iron serve as freestanding sculptural and material components.

Like many of Beuys's works, Arena . . . was developed and modified over several years. An early, untitled version was shown in Edinburgh in 1970, when Beuys performed the action Celtic (Kinloch Rannoch) Scottish Symphony. In the two years before its next exhibition—at Lucio Amelio's Modern Art Agency, Naples, in 1972, under the title Arena—dove sarei arrivato se fossi stato intelligente! Beuys completely reworked it, adding specially designed frames of heavy aluminum, as well as the sculptural stacks and oilcan. As finally realized, Arena . . . constitutes not so much an autobiographical statement as an allegorical portrait of Beuys's artistic persona. Favoring evocation over documentation, it functions as an artistic summa, drawing together images of Beuys's "actions" and collaborative performances, his sculptural objects and drawings.

The ideal configuration that Beuys imagined for Arena . . . was within a circular space containing all of the panels (as he outlined in a related, undated drawing that was the sketch for the announcement card). He nevertheless adjusted the presentation of the work according to the specifics of the site, variously condensing or expanding the layout as space permitted.

In its fifth and last installation, in his extensive retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1979, he displayed the work in a singularly succinct fashion. All 100 panels were grouped into three piles that were propped against a low wall. At the front of each pile was one of the colored glass panels, which took on the role of filters, only partially revealing the layers of images beneath. The oilcan and the stacks of wax, fat, and metal were positioned nearby. This presentation, the most condensed one possible, massed the elements into a block, or Fond—the collective term Beuys coined for batteries that send, store, and receive energy, recurrent presences in his work. By adapting the Fond form to Arena . . . he turned the piece into a work in potentia: dormant in this guise, it awaited other occasions for its unfolding, its enactment.

The dense, compact structure of the Fond was used constantly in installations, actions, and objects throughout Beuys's oeuvre. He cherished its self-contained structure for its implicit promise of transformation. An archaic English word for "fundament" or "basis," Fond indicates a source or repository—simple, massive, and elemental—from which other, more complex works might grow and vital energy might be dispersed.

In Brasilienfond (Brazilian Fond), Fond III/3, and Fond IV/4, all made in 1979, Beuys again left the configuration of the individual parts open, to be determined by the requirements of each new exhibition site and situation. Made of piles of felt and stacks of metal, these Fonds employ his distinctive material vocabulary. For Beuys, materials carried a symbolic resonance within his overall conception of social sculpture: like the fat in the stacks of Arena . . . , felt symbolized protective insulation, while metals implied transmission. And he favored copper for its conductive properties, iron for its rootedness to the earth. Drawing on the anthroposophical writings of Rudolf Steiner and on the Fluxus postulate that the interchange of energies is the principal form of communication through art, Beuys developed an idealistic vision in which the role of the artist is akin to that of a shaman and art is a means to a social utopia.

Aus Berlin: Neues vom Kojoten (From Berlin: News from the Coyote), 1979, is composed of rubble and plaster lathe from the former René Block Gallery in Berlin, plus elements from Beuys's first project in the United States, the action I like America and America likes Me, which took place in the New York branch of Block's gallery in the spring of 1974. For that performance Beuys traveled from Germany to Manhattan wrapped in felt, then spent a week in a room with a coyote, engaging it in a number of ritualistic encounters. Revered as a deity by Native Americans for its wiliness and its supposed ability to transform itself at will, this wild animal served for Beuys as a fitting New World counterpart to the hare and the stag, which, as subjects of Celtic mythology and European folklore, were key motifs in his pantheon—resonant vehicles through which to extend the range of the viewer's experience and understanding beyond the narrowly anthropomorphic.

The theatricality of I like America . . . also informs Aus Berlin. Conceived like a stage set, its almost barren "landscape" is lit by a projector and a series of miner's lamps elevated on sticks. A felt hat—a talismanic insignia of Beuys's—is juxtaposed with various other staples of the artist's visual language. A walking stick, a musician's triangle, and certain articles of apparel are accoutrements relating to the figure of the magus. Meticulously recorded, the original installation has been re-created here in a space whose dimensions replicate those of Ronald Feldman's gallery in New York, where it was first realized.

Considered collectively, this group of works can be seen as embodying the potent yet cryptic and open-ended nature of Beuys's thinking. Neither inert nor empty, material remnants, like relics, limn the course of the artist's life and work.



Notes

1. According to unpublished records in Dia's archive, Beuys may once have planned to continue to update Arena... by adding further photographs in new panels. In fact he never did. Nonetheless, the proposal reaffirms the open character that this work retained for him.

2. Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1979), p. 225.

Lynne Cooke

 
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