Basel

Joseph Beuys/Enzo/Cucchi/Anselm Kiefer/Jannis Kounellis

Kunsthalle Basel

The prelude to this exhibition was a large, long table with chairs that invited one to sit down and peruse a copy of the book on display. The table was the one from the Kunsthalle’s library around which these four artists met last year for extended discussions with Jean-Christophe Ammann, director of the Kunsthalle and organizer of this exhibit. The book, Ein Gespräch/Una Discussione (A discussion), contained the transcript of these talks. This “reading room,” an explicit component of the exhibition, informed us of the conceptual basis of the collaborative project, namely “discussion,” which was originally meant to be developed into a “dialogue” among artworks with the idea of constructing, as Kounellis terms it, a new “cathedral,” a unified position from which to view art. This dialogue did not take place; indeed, under the circumstances, it could not. Beuys’ death in January, during a crucial phase of the show’s organization, was of course a significant factor in upsetting the delicate balance of artistic positions. The exhibition therefore became a sum of four individual shows presented in tandem, a mirror of the desolate, fragmented condition of European culture and of the destitution of the contemporary art scene, which is a prominent theme of Ein Gespräch/Una Discussione.

This is not to say that this undertaking was a failure. Far from it. But the decidedly individualistic presentations of the four artists in separate rooms was in fact a telling reflection of the isolated position of today’s artist, as well as of the current fundamental incompatibility of different artistic visions. Although within the broad framework of art all are working (ideally) toward a common “goal,” which could be paraphrased as the wish for social efficacy, each must develop his own strategy and work out his own profoundly subjective point of view. Furthermore, this desired goal can at best be only vaguely fixed today. Nearly every artistic direction ends in the insatiable gullet of the art market, which consumes all and digests nothing. The current problem is not how to make “art.” The problem is for the artist to find a way to sabotage the exploitative mechanisms of the art market so that what he produces can be assimilated as more-broadly defined building blocks of culture rather than merely being celebrated as esthetic events. This dilemma is crystallized in Kiefer’s observation that the artist in today’s cultural purée—speaking here specifically of the European situation—must do more than postulate and invoke, as Kounellis does, an elitist cultural tradition. One must constantly test the ideal of a broader concept of art, such as that conceived by Beuys, and give it room to spread beyond the tight circle of the cultural elite.

This discussion about art and culture, Europe and the world, politics and economics, is a muddled lament that opens no perspectives on new structures. Its value lies in its exposure of the crisis of the art world, and in the potential, implicit in the work to date, for further probing—and further probing is definitely in order. For we should not rest satisfied with Beuys’ pessimistic coda, that “a dead artist is better than a living one.” In this exhibition it was clearly the works themselves that took up the task of deeper probing and specification, for here even Kounellis’ “rejection of imagery” became a magnificent metaphor for the poetic culture-creating act. In the hissing gas flames of his Feuerraum/Millesimo tentativo per un requiem (Fire room/thousandth attempt for a requiem, 1985) lie hopes for a fresh wind that could clear the haze and disclose his vision of antiquity as a living tradition, as well as blow a bit of Mediterranean spirit up north. It might then cause Kiefer’s desolate landscapes to burst into bloom, revitalizing this fallow, scar-encrusted earth, whose reflection in the paintings and drawings exhibited here told us so much more about the fate of Europe than can be learned from Ein Gespräch/Una Discussione.

Beuys had wished to present, for the first time, a selection of drawings from his “Ulysses” cycle, Joseph Beuys verlängert im Auftrag von James Joyce den “Ulysses” um 6 weitere Kapitel (Joseph Beuys, under commission from James Joyce, adds 6 more chapters to Ulysses, 1959–61). Since Beuys had not made his selection before his death, the exhibition showed the first two sketchbooks in their entirety. These gave us a first, partial insight into a work of central importance to Beuys’ development, a work that presents the quintessence of his cosmic view of earthly existence, his always persuasive “rational irrationalism.” Cucchi’s selections moved within the realm of pure poetry. In these works he practices his semiotic mode of painting on large, heavy cement panels. He thereby evokes fresco painting, a medium that cannot translate weighty contents directly into heavy impastos but must express significant meaning with a certain airiness. Since the panels were not painted al fresco, these detached walls must be seen as metaphors for a fragmented architecture, as symbols of alienation within an ill-defined cultural realm that the artist must first endow with meaning.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.