PRINT May 1986


CONTEMPORARY ART IS NOT traditionally shown in the Museo di Capodimonte. Its splendid, even imperial setting high above the city of Naples, as well as the opulence of its permanent exhibition halls, an environment of gilded sedan chairs and Rococo mirrors that houses a magnificent collection of Trecento and Late Renaissance paintings, is fitting for the last show—the death show, in effect—of Joseph Beuys. (This show, organized by Lucio Amelio, Beuys’ longtime dealer and friend in Naples, is the second contemporary-art exhibition to be held at the museum in recent times, both produced by the Fondazione Amelio.) Beuys was an artist whose conceptual reach extended into realms of political reality and royal fantasy, or parodies of same. He claimed and to an extent received mythological status in his own lifetime, offering himself as a figure for communal identification.

This, Beuys’ last exhibition, can be approached as a conscious emblem of his death. When an artist dies, there is always a temptation to see in the last work(s) a foreshadowing of the imminent death. Occasionally, as in the case of Mark Rothko, the claim seems vaguely true—but with few exceptions, a foreknowledge of one’s death is not usually made so explicit. Beuys, it seems, who had suffered for some time from both cancer and heart disease, did consciously intend this installation as a summing up and testament, and spoke of it so. He died of a heart attack in January, shortly after the installation was completed. Climbing the grand stairs of the Capodimonte, one walks unexpectedly into what is now his ceremonial tomb. Called Palazzo Regale (Royal palace), this installation extends beyond Beuys’ death the romanticization and royalization of the artist’s role that made him at once so charismatic and so controversial, creating ambiguities between fact and fiction in his work. It is like a testament, a passing on of his sense of the transcendent seriousness of the artist’s role, not to a specific recipient but to the world at large.

On the right wall of the ornate high-ceilinged room are four gilded copper rectangles, each about 6 by 3 feet, each displayed vertically in a gilded copper frame. On the back wall hangs another of these solemn golden panels, and on the left wall, two more. This is contemporary tomb gold. It speaks of death and eternity, as did the gold in King Tut’s tomb. In context, these human-sized panels are now like the false doors on Egyptian mastabas, through which the spirit of the dead, freed from the limitations of the body, could escape, while earthly robbers could not get in. Something oddly like that is happening here, where Beuys has submerged himself in the image of gold, in a final apotropaic gesture to keep off robbers from the domain of the artist.

In the midst of this grand and melancholy surround stand two large gilded vitrines, one more or less centered in the space, the other against the left wall near the rear of the gallery. In the latter, various familiar Beuysian items are arrayed in the shape of a disjointed figure: two rolls of fat tied with twine, a leather roll tied with twine, a slab of fat, a bronze cane centered in a roll of felt, a second bronze cane, a long bronze crutch with two big electrical clamps attached to it, a knapsack with some quasi electrical wiring, a wedge of felt. This vitrine seems to represent the artist’s past life, the old plane, as it were, of his existence. Its familiar iconography of survival—life-giving fat, life-warming felt, ingeniously made electrical batteries—reaches back in meaning to Beuys’ feelings of rebirth following his legendary plane crash in the Crimea in World War II. This story of the near-death experience would resonate through his work for the next forty years. From the escape sleds equipped with fat and felt and flashlights in The Pack, 1969; to the Bog Action of 1971, in which Beuys ran across and then sank into a peat bog of the type that has preserved bodies for millennia; to Coyote, 1974, in which he lived for one week with a coyote in a gallery, his work embodied the art of survival in the midst of raw nature. At the same time, Beuys, through his work, sought or demanded more than mere survival. Many pieces inquired after transcendence and rebirth. In the performance Titus/Iphigenie, 1969, while voices amplified by loudspeakers repeated “Death” and “Die,” a gleaming white stallion paced the rear of the stage as Beuys clashed brazen cymbals. Even then he seemed to be acting out a summons for doors to another world to open, the white stallion, as in the Book of Revelations, waiting to carry him through. Throughout his work there were suggestions of Socrates’ remark that philosophy is practicing death Here, in Palazzo Regale, the rehearsals have come to an end.

The central vitrine, the focal point of this installation, is an invocation of death, transcendence, and rebirth Coffinlike in shape and size, this golden vitrine holds the hareskin coat that Beuys often wore in his performance pieces. Like the rolls of fat and felt in many works, it signified warmth and the sustaining of life in the animal kingdom. Yet unlike the empty felt suits, the fur coat was never merely a prop; its frayed blue-silk lining testifies to its years of wear. Here, the coat, as much an emblem of Beuys himself as his crumpled hat, is laid out lengthwise on its back in the vitrine, like a corpse in a coffin, its life-sustaining function over, abandoned, no longer needed. Above the neck of the coat, where the wearer’s head would be, a cinder-black iron head lolls to one side, its mouth open as if screaming in a violent death Where the wearer’s right foot would be is a conch shell, a Paleolithic symbol of return ing to the source. Approximately where the wearer’s hands would be rest the cymbals that Beuys used in Titus/Iphigenie. The objects in this vitrine are like the traces—the relics—of a final performance in which the absent figure clashed the cymbals to announce its own demise or disappearance; then, amid the golden wall panels, resonating still to the silent clashing of the cymbals, the figure vanished, leaving behind its empty coat as it sank into the darkness of the bog.

Thomas McEvilley is a writer who lives in New York. He is a contributing editor of Artforum, and a professor at the Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston.