Hommage à Beuys

The blow dealt by Joseph Beuys’ death, on January 23, 1986, swelled the number of artists initially participating in “Hommage à Beuys” (originally planned for Beuys’ birthday, in May) to include 70 European and American artists. But few of these artists—in response to a request by Bernd Klüser, Beuys’ Munich dealer, and one of the show’s coorganizers—actually sent works especially created to honor their great colleague, who, according to Hermann Nitsch in his artist’s statement, “gave art the widest responsibility and thus ushered in a new understanding of art” The majority of these often representative works were created before Beuys’ death, and, if they referred to Beuys or his work at all, were content with references of varying degrees of explicitness.

Despite Beuys’ approval of the “Hommage,” to which he himself had planned to contribute a central work, questions are raised by this rather arbitrary pluralism, such as whether or not the conventional bourgeois program of such an honor can ever be true to the standards set by the artist’s own work. Beuys always resisted the attempt to read the tolerance implicit in his anthropology-related “erweiterter Kunstbegriff” (extended concept of art) as a free-for-all position. Tolerance, he stated shortly before his death, in a discussion in Basel, is aimed at form and poeticization. Indeed, just such a poeticization, sparking a sensually and conceptually sharpened perspective, was missing in this grand parade of famous names.

Beuys’ collaborators from a variety of actions were invited—Nam June Paik, Henning Christiansen, Klaus Staeck—as well as colleagues and pupils from the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie: Gerhard Richter, Gotthard Graubner, Wili Geiger, Reiner Ruthenbeck, Ulrike Rosenbach, and Walter Dahn, among others. Side by side with the founders of English and American Pop art were former arte povera artists and Wiener Ahtionismus artists. They had joined Beuys in the ’60s in the attempt to restore a sense of the archaic to our consciousness. Like Beuys, they had hoped to initiate an evolutionary change in society by appealing to the creative potential of the individual’s capacity for self-recognition and self-direction. It was as little in the interest of this exhibition to show such contrasts or links, to show common stances or reveal their subtleties, as to discover why the Beuys era had already ended for younger artists such as Jiři Georg Dokoupil, Richard Long, and Julian Schnabel, even before his death.

The installation emphasized presentation rather than the revelation of art as a source of spiritual energy The connoisseur, whom Beuys had never championed to begin with, could link the iconography and themes of many of the pictures and objects back to the traces of the artist. Dollar signs (Sigmar Polke) were clues to Beuys’ concept of capital, the kitchen chair (Dokoupil) referred to the early Fettstuhl (Fat chair, 1964), the boxing glove (Ed Kienholz) to the Boxkampf für direkte Demokratie (Boxing match for direct democracy) that Beuys waged upon completion of his 100-day office at Documenta V, 1972. The volcano (Schnabel) could be linked to Beuys’ frequent visits to Naples, to his great Terremoto work, 1981, on the occasion of the devastating earthquake there. At the same time, the volcano took us back to geological structures in the barren northern landscapes of Beuys’ early drawings in which he tracked mythic energies. The lightbulb (Dokoupil), the mother-child theme (Richard Hamilton), and the Braunkreuz (Brown Cross) by Antoni Tapies were themes leading directly to Beuys’ pictorial thinking. Yet the connections were merely suggested in this exhibition. Even Beuys’ own works, centered around the installation Zeige Deine Wunde (Show your wound, 1976), were displayed more with regard to their beautiful, approachable content than toward making any larger correspondences.

Such elective affinities as Polke/Beuys and Nitsch/Beuys were submerged in this presentation of unstructured wealth. The former might have exemplified experimentation with unusual binding materials, and an enlightened philosophical understanding of alchemy, and the latter a conception of the existence of artistic-creative action and of utopia through evolution.

Not all of the artists dealt directly with Beuys. Gerhard Richter, Donald Judd, and Cy Twombly sent important works. Francesco Clemente and Mimmo Paladino dealt more generally with the theme of death. Only Andy Warhol saluted the man, not in remembrance, as did Katharina Sieverding, but in the curious space between closeness and distance in which Beuys resides in our consciousness: his head, in a restless military camouflage pattern, gazes toward a distant goal.

Always on the lookout for the “dumbest” who “potentially possessed the most,” Beuys was convinced that “dullness must be credited, for in it reside many other strengths, such as wild will-power, a mad feeling for life, and perhaps a new type of recognition” In endless discussions and dialogues he was able to awaken the first doubts in opinions that had petrified.

Ingrid Rein

Translated from the German by Cornelia Lauf.