Joseph Beuys

Occasionally the opposition to Joseph Beuys takes the approach that his work is archetypally “Teutonic.” Deliberate and careful as his recourse to myth and ritual may be (and the roots of all humane civilization lie in myth), it is pulled in as proof. The artist’s use, both here and at Documenta 7, of heavy pieces of stone in his work may encourage this kind of attack, but even in these instances the “Blut and Boden” (“blood and soil”) mentality, the gloominess, melancholy, and solemnity associated with the Teutonic spirit, are absent. If any artist can associate the power of myth with the poetic fluency and cheerful sensibility of the classical Southern spirit, it is surely Beuys.

Perhaps, though, it is precisely this balance between gravity and lightness—Beuys’ typical combination of accomplished artistic transformation and smiling matter-of-factness in dealing with the elemental—that provokes his opponents. His recent work here must really have upset such folk. The invitation card was an integral part of the piece: the first line read “DASENDEDES20.JAHRHUNDERTS” (“The end of the 20th century”), the second “JOSEPHBEUYS,” the words and name in uppercase letters with no spaces between them. Above the type was an abstract symbol familiar from Beuys’ earlier work—the “earth phone,” looking perhaps like a rough telephone or the head of a horned animal.

In the gallery itself heavy pieces of basalt, in uneven pillar shapes, covered the basement floor. A cone had been cut out of each stone, the resulting hole smeared with mud, the basalt plug wrapped in felt and then replaced. The rocks lay like forgotten sacred relics from the ancient sites of obscure cults.

“DASENDEDES20.JAHRHUNDERTS JOSEPHBEUYS.” Was the work mythic? A science fiction story about self-destruction? In its coincidence with the increasingly frequent gloomy predictions of the ecological and antimilitary camps, it is tempting to interpret the piece in terms of anxiety over impending catastrophe. But this would be an error. Beuys’ utopian dream of “social sculpture,” his dream of a humane society of free, creative individuals in free, creative communities, is surely the most advanced conception so far of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total art work.” (Das Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts was expanded in Diisseldorf’s Kunsthalle for Harald Szeemann’s show “Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk” [“The tendency toward the total art work”], discussed in the September 1983 issue of Artforum.) Many people may separate Beuys the artist from Beuys the theoretician so as to preserve the concept of the identifiable work of art: but all his pieces, whether traditional objects, as here, or in the form of active interventions in the social process, function as both transmitters and conductors of a certain positive energy. What made this piece so fascinating was precisely this energy, which could beexperienced intuitively and which was unnerving in the precision of its aim at the nerve center of life.

In this work Beuys used stone, as many others do and do well. As a 20th-century sculptor he worked with the given space and its light, which in this windowless basement, enterable and observable only from above, was of course artificial. As an installation artist he is precise, a craftsman. But in the way he built on the energy and communicative power of his materials, the way he established an archaic realm of stone opposed to the currently prevailing feeling of impending doom, he went beyond questions of craft and medium. Aware of our fear of the apocalypse, he used the stone as shattering proof of petrification, but also to embody the energy of hope. Das Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts may be an ending and a new beginning for Beuys’ social sculpture—the sculpture of an open, humane society. Intuition is necessary to approach Beuys’ work, but in this piece it found a rich field for activity—and for Beuys, that too is creativity.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Martha Humphreys.