Joseph Beuys

Galerie Zwirner

With the death of Joseph Beuys, in January 1986, an epoch in German art came to a close. Questions arise: in what fashion will Beuys’ work live on; how does it affect the present; and in what way will it define the future? In September 1986, in conjunction with the spectacular show at Cologne’s Museum Ludwig, this gallery presented the first large-scale exhibition of a group of works from the artist’s estate: Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein auf Hirsch (Lightning with stag in its glare, 1958–1986). The installation was organized by Heiner Bastian, a longtime intimate friend of Beuys, and brought together works from various periods.

At the core of the exhibition were the objects and elements that before their incorporation in Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein auf Hirsch formed part of Werkstatt (Workshop), a large environment Beuys exhibited as his contribution to the 1982 Berlin “Zeitgeist” show. The Hirsch (Stag) already existed in 1958, the model for Boothia Felix is from 1967, and Ziege (Goat) is from the same period as well. Urtiere (Primordial animals) and Blitzschlag (Lightning) were made in clay for Werkstatt; in Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein . . . they reappear, but in a new medium—this is the only environment Beuys planned and had executed solely in bronze and aluminum. It is, so to speak, the transformation of a multimedia sculpture into the “eternal” medium of bronze (metal).

It’s at this point that other questions arise. For example, the elements Blitzschlag and Urtiere possessed a precise material symbolism in Werkstatt. Blitzschlag is the cast of a segment of the enormous clay hill that formed the nucleus of the whole idea behind the “Zeitgeist” show Beuys’ workbench rose up from this Hügel (Hill), and the Urtiere were stationed nearby, products of the process that led, via “work,” from the amorphic substance of the clay to “urforms” of sculpture. The theme of creation was invested here with religious, esthetic, and social meaning. The human being (the artist) works with nature (earth) to make meaningful art that embodies an interpretation of the world. In the material itself, the aspects gestaltet/ungestaltet (formed/unformed) and vergäinglich/unvergänglich (transitory/etemal) were implied. There is really no inner necessity for these clay works to be transformed into bronze ones and neither Beuys nor Bastian gives credible grounds for this step. In the case of Blitzschlag, one possible reason might be the metamorphosis of one sculpture into another, but the casting of the Urtiere in bronze strikes one as a rather implausible decision. It almost seems the self-destruction of the original conception, like resorting to the very concept of sculpture Beuys wanted to overcome.

This impression grows stronger and more problematic when one considers the interpretation Bastian provided for the Cologne exhibition: “Relics at the end of a path that has already left the future behind. There is no human presence. A threatening silence lurks, filling the space. It is not obsessive, not hieratic, just full of sadness, like a dream that shouldn’t be Bastian reinterprets Beuys’ work as “a time machine, like what appears after the dark of a Beckett play” The interpretation of Beuys as a kind of Samuel Beckett of the visual arts is frighteningly constrictive. It deprives Beuys of his utopian as well as his social dimension. It prepares the way for what we can already observe as a dangerous approach among other critics currently dealing with his work. Beuys is being stylized into a museum and art-market artist who is assigned the inconsequentiality of the classic. It was not for this that he lived, not for this that he worked—like one possessed.

Wolfgang Max Faust

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.