New York

Joseph Beuys

Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery

So much is the man, Joseph Beuys, the image and the instrument of the art that one dwells first on a portrait of him. Photographs show a face that seems to register the mind exactly; indeed, they seem so coincident that the man seems less, not more, real, like an actor or a persona that subsumes the person. Beuys looks equally like Beckett and Buster Keaton, lined and deadpan, keen to absurdity. So extreme is the picture that it seems parodistic, and one is not sure whether it constrains or frees him (my sense is that, unlike Duchamp, it constrains him). As it is, one envisions a man (again, a persona?) so eccentric as to be negatively charismatic. No one seems to know: is Beuys naive or mad or right? Apparently, he is an extraordinary performer (I have not seen him, but the 1974 performance in which he lived and played with a coyote in a New York gallery is well remembered). Much of his activity is polemical, the espousal of a committed art; he lectures on “socio sculpture” that will help enact a “free democratic socialism.”

With this in mind, one hardly expected to see the kind of drawings, made from 1946 to the present, recently on show. All the work is private—notes, perhaps, toward a symbolism but one that is not public. Except for two series of drawings done on sheets from a diary or calendar (in which tense lines in the form of twisted parabolas oppose the commonsensical lines that mark the days of the week), the work is reserved, if not contemplative. There are several drawings, done in oil on paper scraps like envelopes and bags, that puzzle over banality and literalism, concerns of other artists of the time. But, by and large, the effect of the work is a negative one, in the apparent contrast between Beuys the painter and Beuys the performer. One is left to debate the relative merits of the two practices and to consider just what “commitment” in art is.

Hal Foster