Joseph Beuys

Anthony d’Offay Gallery

Writing in 1976 about Joseph Beuys and his work, Germano Celant said, “Desires and aspirations are wings. There are desires and yearnings so little adapted to the situation of our earthly life that we can argue the existence of a situation in which they become the powerful wings of an element that will lift them up, of islands where they will be able to come to rest.”

I imagine Beuys’ Plight, 1985, as a barrier to the great flight of energy from contemporary culture caused by his passing. Completed only two months before his death this January, Plight seemed Beuys’ attempt to intervene in the normal passage of time, to cause a moment of sublimity to repeat.

The installation extended through two adjoining gallery rooms, both completely lined with large rolls of felt. At the center of the first room was a piano, upon which a blank chalkboard and a thermometer rested; the second room was empty The felt altered every perception of the space: it functioned as an insulator in terms of the external temperature and humidity; it modified and absorbed sound; and its acrid, animal odor affected one’s sense of smell. As an insulator, the felt gradually underwent a change. The geometric, ordered cylinders, arranged in a defined architectural space, began to pulsate around each person who entered, moved about, or spoke, becoming a sort of large, organic womb. The piano was an ulterior symbol of a vital, embryonic form; as described by the German lyric poet Novalis (with whose work Beuys was familiar), a mere gesture would suffice to awaken this “animal with a heart, internal circulation, veins and lungs, crossed by sounds and by music.” The chalkboard and the thermometer, which generally serve to record signs or impulses, were symbolic of the attempt to map out and rationalize nature’s latent disorder.

Plight, like all of Beuys’ work, was centered on the human presence. Beuys believed that the work of art was useful only if it constituted another step toward self-awareness and freedom. The observer, no longer passive, functioned as an integral part of the mechanism created by the artist; the felt-lined environment, isolated from the constructive rules of the external world, aided the imaginary growth of special antennae that induced the senses to greater activity Often drawing upon themes from early-19th-century German romanticism (there are oblique references to Goethe as well as to Navalis), a philosophy that committed man to continuous and often dramatic contact with the forces of nature, Beuys attempted to create a relationship of relaxed awareness with the material world, eliminating the bond with a transcendental entity and the unsettling questions of approaching night and death.

Despite the disillusions of recent years and his intended withdrawal from political activity, Beuys still believed in the concept of art equaling life, or man. In London he built for himself and for others a shaman’s hut, wherein the diurnal cycle of birth, growth, and death could elapse, and wherein he was able to carry out his magical rituals, impart his memories and knowledge, and instill in us his respect for the humblest materials of nature.

Barbara Maestri

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.