New York

Joseph Beuys

Hirschl & Adler Modern

Now, with Joseph Beuys’ death, a small flurry of exhibitions, at once commemorative and commercial—it’s time to cash in on the giant of Western shamanism—is hitting New York like a shower of meteorites. These exhibitions help to make two things very clear: how much Beuys’ work was an incremental, improvisational, spartan matter, in which subtle small work was piled upon subtle small work to make a universal point about creative possibility; and how self-obsessed Beuys was, though not in a straightforwardly narcissistic way. It is as though, in trying to make sense of this oddity called himself, Beuys felt the puzzle had to be solved by a series of grand socioartistic gestures rather than by quiet introspection; it became his project to give meaningful shape to himself in relation to society. In the end, Beuys could articulate no final, perfect form, an acknowledgement of the intractability of the self.

Few of Beuys’ objects make sense as art apart from his intention to present them as such. Thus the profligate shower of objects that constitutes Beuys’ oeuvre—ranging from natural to manmade materials, from everyday found objects to esoteric invented ones—is entirely dependent for its validity on Beuys’ psycho-ethical intention, his sense of working for the good of self and society, and for their integration. Beuys’ vision of the good, sometimes simplistically described as ecological, in fact involved a romantic notion of restoring the self by communion with invisible forces—with the earth spirit Faust evoked. In his naiveté, Faust imagined that he could command this spirit, and found that he was terrified of it because it would not obey him. What made Beuys think that he could command this spirit? Is his art only a semblance or ghost of it—a memento mori of it?

The key works in Beuys’ oeuvre are those—and they are the majority—that bespeak his sense of relationship to the earth, rather than those that are in effect minisermons on creativity, those that give a creative twist to ordinary objects. The more or less automatist drawings seem to be in a class by themselves. But they also are of the earth: they are a record of Beuys’ attempt to invoke the earth spirit in himself. More particularly, they are materializations of its immaterial spirit of growth unfolding. All of Beuys’ work, in my opinion, can be traced back not to the mythical moment when he was shot down in World War II, rescued by Tartar nomads, and wrapped in fat and felt, but to his post–World War II mental and physical breakdown, when he went to work on the land in order to recover. He never did completely, and his art became an ongoing effort at self-healing through closeness with and even immersion in mothering Earth. In the wake of his breakdown, his work moved from an explicit Christian iconography to a pagan orientation. There’s a long German precedent for this attitude, going back at least to the vitalism of the Danube School. But the nature with which Germany identifies itself today is devitalized. For Beuys (and Anselm Kiefer), the issue is whether nature—and Germany—can be revitalized through a magic act of art.

In a sense, all of Beuys’ production leads up to his project to plant 7,000 oak trees—that sturdy symbol of phallic Germany—in Kassel (The 7,000 Oaks Project, 1984). The photodocumentation of the streets before and after the planting is on display at Gallery Moos. Ein-Stein-Zeit (Einstein time, or One stone age, 1984), and Basalt Column on Wood Panel, 1982, are two such works. There is a certain pathos to this project, not because it is an attempt to take nature out of the ghetto of the park and spread it throughout a variety of sterile everyday urban settings, nor because of the peculiar whimsicality of its ambition, but because it is didactic. I think Beuys was stuck in didacticism to his dying day. He was not terrified by the earth spirit, because he knew it had become an object lesson in the failure of the human spirit. It had become objectified as a happening. In Beuys, didactic performance was an admission of personal and social failure, however much it was an artistic success.

Donald Kuspit