Joseph Beuys

Martin-Gropius-Bau; Akademie der Künste der DDR; Akademie der Künste; Galerie Silvia Menzel; Galerie Nikolaus Sonne

Two years after Joseph Beuys’ death, some of the questions concerning the presentation of his work are commercial ones: how will the unsold works be marketed; how will curators, dealers, and collectors handle Beuys’ false datings? With the mounting of several exhibitions on both sides of the Berlin wall, it has become obvious that other questions are tied to deeper concerns about the power of Beuys’ artmaking activity to sustain its meaning now that the artist who so carefully guided its presentation is gone. For Beuys saw his “works”—his drawings, sculptures, and installations—as manifestations of his theories, his doctrines, and his attempts to establish institutions that expressed the connection between art and politics. As long as Beuys was writing, teaching, lecturing, and supervising his exhibitions, his works served as symbols of his utopian strivings for a more humane future. Will his “manifestations” now become just hermetic objects that belong to the history of sculpture in the 20th century?

Curators Heiner Bastian and Götz Adriani at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in West Berlin originally planned a show entitled “Retrospektiv.” But with objections coming from the artist’s widow, they were forced to use the less ambitious title “Ausstellung” (Exhibition). This compromise reflects the conflict that has been isolating Beuys’ integrated activities into discrete elements, making it difficult to see his oeuvre as a whole. “Ausstellung” brought together 108 sculptures, objects, and vitrines, as well as 15 large installations, and a complete set of the 456 works on paper to which Beuys had given the overall title “The Secret Block for a Secret Person in Ireland.” The works were arranged in chronological order. In one case, the original site for an installation was actually “recreated” here: Plight, 1958/85, was reconstructed in a room in the museum that duplicated the room in London’s Anthony D’Offay gallery where the work was first exhibited. Ironically, this precision, reflecting the curators’ commitment to Beuys’ original vision, infused this exhibition with a rigidity that was antithetical to the artist’s methodology. Plight and other works seemed like relics, only vaguely recalling the living contexts from which they had sprung.

At the Akademie der Künste der DDR, in the exhibition “Early Works from the Van der Grinten Collection,” the “Secret Block” drawings were also among the works on display. This was the first major exhibition of works by Beuys in the German Democratic Republic, and the show was mobbed by a public keenly interested in artistic activity that deviates from the state’s official art policies. But lest we forget, the early drawings, watercolors, oil studies, and collages from this collection do not have the radicality that later gave rise to Beuys’ powerful fat-and-felt creations, which represented the artist’s concept of “soziale Plastik” (social sculpture). This latter Beuys was alluded to with only a few explanatory texts accompanying the exhibition. However, these remarks sufficed to ignite heated discussions. Indeed, one visitor wrote in the museum guest book: “Show us more Beuys!”

In West Berlin, the Akademie der Künste offered more from the Van der Grinten collection. Their “Works on Paper” featured 420 pieces—mostly oils and watercolors—in a survey that included and went beyond Beuys’ early works, documenting more accurately the development of his themes and world views. Complementing these “official” exhibitions, a show at Silvia Menzel in West Berlin concentrated primarily on Beuys’ multiples, while another show at the Galerie Nikolaus Sonne aimed at an overview of Beuys’ artistic and political activities through a presentation of his posters, slogans, texts, and signs—a dimension of Beuys’ oeuvre that was given short shrift at the museums. Members of the Free International University (Johannes Stüttgen, Felix Droese, and others), furthering the concept of the gallery through an appropriately Beuysian action, drove a “Bus for Direct Democracy—A Plebescite” through the streets. However, they were not allowed beyond the Western sectors. Their action was the clearest indication of the tensions now surrounding the reception of the artist’s work: Will Joseph Beuys become the hero of a culture that is centered in Museums; or will he succeed—posthumously—in keeping alive his concept of an “expanded notion of art”?

Wolfgang Max Faust

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.