Joseph Beuys

Galerie der Stadt

Joseph Beuys’ Plastische Bilder (Sculptural images, 1947–70), which have not been shown together since the early ’70s, are formally heterogeneous; it is their spiritual content that provides their continuity as a group. The materials in these collages, mounted behind glass in wooden cases, are vastly disparate: plaster casts or models, small religious statues from Beuys’ initial sculptural phase, paper, newsprint, cardboard, cloth, clay, lead, wax, plaster, and other amorphous materials are often wrapped in gauze and tied up. Normally, the combinations and confrontations are reworked, treated with oil pigments or asphalt, or mounted in layers and packages.

Located between painting, sculpture, and object, each piece engages multiple levels of perception without hierarchically subjugating them to a didactic meaning. The results evidence motion, flux, or “process,” just as Beuys’ later sculptures do. The artist permitted these small works to stay multivalent and to divulge their character as found solutions. The works in the series usually evolved in several steps, some of them over long periods of time. First, the individual elements, the frames, and cases were collected. In several later stages, Beuys combined, mounted, and reworked the various elements and finally provided them with titles, thereby integrating them into his didactic cosmos.

These works obey formal laws of combination and organization in a closed system that functions very much like a picture plane. It is not just the beauty or meaning of the individual element that counts, but their formal pictorial deployment in the cases. The glass pane operates as a separating wall, contextualizing the elements within a new reality—a theatrical and purely visual one. In this way, the wooden case becomes the optical vehicle, analogous to a canvas. Like a relief—the case is not flat like the surface of a canvas—it functions as the site where motif and material vehicle overlap. The ambiguity of these “images,” as charged objects, semantic sculptures, and formal paintings, makes them resemble cult instruments, relics, or private shrines in which objects resonant with memories are displayed.

Eventually, during the ’60s, these works led to the open galvanized or wooden crates, which were usually hung on the wall and sometimes conceived as multiples. They also gave rise to Beuys’ open glass cases in which the artist gathered leftovers of actions, relics of earlier works, elementary materials, musical scores, tools, and lists—in other words, elements that transmit concrete meanings chiefly through their connection in the context of his didactic and enlightening oeuvre.

Johannes Meinhardt

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.

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