New York

Joseph Beuys

René Block Gallery

I missed or was spared the various events which Beuys’ visit to this country precipitated last winter, so possibly my conclusions have already been reached by everyone else. Either way, it seems that the performance piece Beuys swiftly and discreetly executed here last spring finally gives some indication of what all the noise has been about. The enormous reputation which his various exhibitions in this country failed to elucidate has in some measure been corroborated. Beuys is, at least, a very good performer.

Beuys’ last stay in this country was entirely performance. Once through Customs at J.F.K., he was wrapped in felt and brought to the gallery in an ambulance. All he saw of this country was seen from the gallery. Once there, he occupied the larger portion of the long narrow gallery space, divided by a high mesh fence. This area also contained a pile of hay, two large pieces of felt, 50 copies of the Wall Street Journal (fresh each day), and, most interesting of all, a live coyote. For about three days Beuys performed a continuous cycle of actions, a structure of events within which the coyote was the major variable, the unknown quantity. At the end, 6 o’clock one Saturday, Beuys returned to J.F.K. and then to Germany, in an exact reversal of his arrival.

The cycle of actions was simple and short, lasting about 45–60 minutes. When I first came in I saw the coyote and two piles of felt. One of them turned out to be Beuys, wrapped, and with a wooden cane sticking out of the top. After a while, Beuys threw off the felt and stood up, removing a pair of leather working gloves and tossing them on the floor. (Sometimes they never hit the ground; the coyote caught them, chewed them, pissed on them, and generally established territoriality.) Beuys was wearing his usual felt hat, vest, blue jeans, working boots. Tied to his vest was a small triangle which, if he struck it three times, would cause a gallery assistant to turn on about 15 seconds of amplified feedback. Beuys would repeat this randomly while outside the felt, usually about four times. It often seemed a way of distracting or slowing down the coyote.

The actions outside the felt were casual but regular: Beuys would come forward, straighten the pile of newspapers. He would then come to one corner near the fence and audience and light a cigarette. Then, back to the far corner to the pile of hay, where he would recline, smoke, look out the window, play with the coyote. All this time Beuys would carry the wooden can with its handle pointing down. After a while he would rise, put on the gloves and go back to the felt. This he would carefully wrap around himself, holding cane (handle up) out of the top. (The other pile of felt seemed never to be touched, except by the animal. It contained a flashlight which shone through a hole.) Inside the felt, Beuys would soon begin to slowly turn and twist, going up and down, bending over and straightening up. Finally he would fall over and lie motionless, which is where I came in.

The piece varied in interest and effect, with the period which Beuys spent inside the felt being the most peculiar and intense. Beuys’ isolation within the felt made the scene desolate and also affected the coyote, who resented the desertion. When Beuys emerged from the felt, the piece became more entertaining, less stationary and visual. At this point it was possible to observe the ease with which he moves in and out of performance. He would greet friends and converse with the audience a little, diminish the distance, but not lose contact with the piece. The audience also had this freedom of movement and could stay for three minutes and grasp the essence, if not the structure, of the work. Staying longer obviously yielded an accumulation of experiences and images.

The work does not seem to involve any radical departure from traditional performance. It is neither as abstract nor as psychological as some performance done in this country, although it is probably more professional. It ultimately remains involved with a narrative symbolism based on Beuys’ own vocabulary of material, actions, and theories established over the years. Beuys’ content is implicit; we sense its weight but we never quite see it openly. What is revealed is the mechanics of a good performance, the creation of presence.

––Roberta Smith