Joseph Beuys

Anthony D’Offay

While the location of Joseph Beuys’ thinking varies between street and study, thematically his sculpture seems to be undergoing some alarming temporal fluctuation. This recent installation, Dernier espace avec introspecteur (last space with introspector) features his Fettstuhl, an artist’s stool covered with wax, now 24 years old, as well as childhood reminiscences of the Schwanenburg Castle in Cleves, reduced to rubble during the war. At first the dating of the piece, “1964–1982,” suggests a Proustian reminiscence, a desire to fox art history by doubling back while remaining within an avant-garde, or simply an old man’s gathering senility. (Already Beuys is considering death; the trees he intends to plant at this year’s Documenta will outlive him.) Perhaps it is more interesting than that: in making a site for the Fettstuhl Beuys is researching his own career, providing a rationale for his earlier stance, while expressing doubts about the possibility of emotional return.

The introspecteur of the title is another relic. On a tripod, cameralike, is a rear-view mirror, the only part of a car left undamaged in 1967—in French, a retrospecteur. It reflects the sculpture before it, though in a personal manner; Beuys’ stamped cross prevents a direct image. Indeed, the function of the mirror seems rather to be to make a 3-D representation of a photograph of itself behind it on the gallery wall. Rammed gracelessly into holes in the walls are two double lengths of felt, one along the floor, the other making a slight arc as it hangs from the roof. The core of the installation consists of two differently angled models of roofs in molded beeswax, with chimneys added at the four corners. The molds for the roofs have been broken open and left in their debris, their plaster wings dangling. On one stands the Fettstuhl, the didactic symbol Beuys made to inspire his students long ago.

It all sounds such a mess, an anthology of junk with sentimental value, thrown together anyhow in a dumb formalist spoof. Why, then, is the effect so moving? The answer may lie precisely in “formal” failure, in the fragility of metaphoric superimposition. Thus striking open a mold of a destroyed building produces artificial (yet ideal) newness together with a sad rubble of its own; creation is an eternal return and an index of the impossibility of such a return; habits of obliquity alone can help free art from immediate temporality, yet obliquity demands an under pinning which may itself be regarded as one of the relics in Dernier espace. . . . Distanced from his own work, Beuys, looking back blankly, even ironically, sees his attempt at reconstruction of the German mind as limited by its role in repairing irreparable personal damage. Atop the rubbish, the Fettstuhl resembles a throne; the effect is tatty and flamboyant, at once pathetic and grand. Like certain works of Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer, Beuys’ “last space,” a forlorn museum parading as a public monument; expresses complex, significant feelings about the role of the intellectual in contemporary Germany. And if not overtly political, it indicates a wish to explore the motives underlying political action. Its paradoxes are realistic, even hopeful.

Stuart Morgan