Joseph Beuys

The Walker excels at curating exhibitions on artists whose material production is ephemeral or elusive, and its show of Beuys multiples was no exception. On view were over 300 works in Beuys’ main media—photographs, drawings, postcards, and found objects—in editions from one to unlimited, as well as film and video. Considered by category, the postcards are more successful than the drawings, and the objects are the most compelling. They share a quietly natural, Wolfgang Laib–ish aesthetic of white and yellow, milk and honey. But where Beuys’ art is calibrated at 90 percent information and 10 percent form, Laib (a follower, though not a student) readjusted the proportions.

In his adherence to producing multiples, Beuys simply stepped over the ailing debate about originality. While many of the works were reproduced mechanically, some of these “multiples” are in fact originals made by hand. Rather than ironize an already deflated concept of singularity, he simply wanted to disseminate his work more widely—to make Kunst for the masses, not Kitsch for the elite. His multiples refer to the circulation of money; he designated and labeled particular works “economic value” objects: Economic Value Gelatin Dessert Mix, ca. 1977-84; Economic Value Mineral Water, 1981. “Kunst=Kapital” was a favorite slogan, written on banknotes and printed on subway posters; given the objects’ ephemerality, it was clear that creativity, not commodity, conveyed value.

But more than anything, Beuys circulated himself: moving around the exhibition, and through the beautiful catalogue, we were confronted again and again with his repeated image, the incessant imprint of his name. He radiates aura, illuminating margarine and photostats alike through sheer will. The paintings of Anselm Kiefer, a student of Beuys, are loaded with ponderous Romanticism, yet the artist is personally effacing; in this he rebelled against his teacher’s precedent, for Beuys made a myth of himself out of a Romantic overcoming (and obscurance) of his wartime experiences. In The Silence, 1973, Beuys galvanized an entire print of Ingmar Bergman’s film of the same name, one of several works related to his 1964 critique of Marcel Duchamp’s masterful withdrawal. The German artist’s photographs with Andy Warhol are also included here, but he diverged from this similarly prolific, public artist as well, playing exhibitionist to Warhol’s voyeur. Felt TV, 1970, a filmed performance and an object that document Beuys boxing with himself and a television, presents him to us as an exemplary figure. The art may be considered postmodern in its multiplicity and performativity, but Beuys’ method was echt-modern, offering a religion, a belief system, with the artist as shaman.

If the artist serves mass society as a model, how are we to model ourselves on him? “Everyone is an artist” answered both Beuys and Warhol, yet neither meant for us to rush out and buy paint sets. The banality of Warhol’s art was designed to equal that of life, while Beuys hoped to unleash mass creativity that would be channeled into reorganizing the social order. In the wonderful video Beuys in America, 1974, made by Klaus Staeck and Gerhard Steidl, Beuys tells a rapt audience at the New School in New York that art is the only revolutionary power with the ability to free us from oppression.

Maybe “Everyone is a student” (as per the Free International University) comes closer to Beuys’ assumption, what with all his blackboard art. Perhaps the most specific lesson is found in the photograph/ postcard entitled Democracy is Merry, 1973, which shows the artist being forced to depart from the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie, martyred for his policy of open admissions to his classes. But Beuys seemed untroubled by another complex politics, that of veneration, of looking out over a podium into a sea of love. For better or worse, charisma disrupts democracy.

The usual complaints about curatorial didacticism or overzealous museum education didn’t apply to “Joseph Beuys: Multiples.” Beuys sent art-school art (combining a handful of incongruities—clever jokes, odd scraps, idealism, and mail art) into the world. He also tried to draw the world into school: “I want to make museums into universities.” Like the best teachers, Beuys delights and then ultimately—“felt, schmelt,” someone wrote in the visitors book—disappoints.

Katy Siegel