View of “Julian Beck,” 2014.

View of “Julian Beck,” 2014.

Julian Beck

Supportico Lopez

View of “Julian Beck,” 2014.

One of the highlights of this year’s Gallery Weekend Berlin was the discovery of drawings and paintings by Julian Beck (1925–1985). An artist, poet, actor, and director, Beck is mostly known for cofounding, with his wife, Judith Malina, the Living Theatre in New York. One of the most radical theater companies of the twentieth century, it was inspired in part by Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. Uncompromising in their confrontation with all aspects of human existence—social, political, religious, sexual—the Living Theatre’s performances had a reputation for being challenging experiences. Legal battles with the US Internal Revenue Service led to an almost twenty-year-long exile in Europe for the troupe, with its first appearance in Berlin taking place in 1961.

This artistic and theatrical visionary returned to Berlin posthumously with “Now in Paradise,” a selection of paintings and works on paper created between 1944 and 1958. The show’s title is a play on what is probably the Living Theatre’s most famous work, Paradise Now (1965).On his return to New York after dropping out of Yale in 1943, Beck got acquainted with Peggy Guggenheim and showed in her gallery Art of This Century alongside Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, and Jackson Pollock, as well as an older generation of European Surrealists. Executed in charcoal, ink, pastel, oil, and collage, the mostly intimately scaled works shown here were created during a period that coincides with Beck’s early experiments in theater. Though influenced by various voices of the time, from Cocteau and Mondrian to art informel and Abstract Expressionism, they now appear anything but dated. With the pieces hung tightly at equal height in a chronologically ordered line—except for some 1953 drawings on glass slides, used as theatrical backdrops, which were shown separately—the presentation indicated a passage from the two- to the three-dimensional, from impetuous compositions in line and color toward a more experimental approach to materiality. This progression also retraced the artist’s energetic unraveling of an inner world and its relations to physical reality. In 1958, Beck abandoned painting to devote his time, in his words, “to the more social art of theater.” Dated that year, his penultimate painting, The Sugar Industry, presented in a separate room like the full stop at the end of a sentence, is a mixed-media collage incorporating a naturalistic pastel drawing of a butterfly, remnants of a torn-up painting, and vintage postcards of statues of Abraham Lincoln as well as pornographic content on a raw whitish background with drippy paint. With its title alluding to an actual political matter—it was the era of the Cuban Revolution, an answer to the imperial sugar monopoly, though the work could also be read as an ecological critique of industry—and combining gestural painterly expression and the inclusion of “life” through assembled images, The Sugar Industry appears to manifest an ending as well as a point of departure. For Beck, it seems, this was as far as painting could go in the direction of physical expression and direct political action; only in theater could he go further.

It would be worth looking at these paintings in relation to Gustav Metzger’s early works from the same period, shown for the first time at Documenta 13 in 2012. Born only a year apart, but with very different backgrounds, both artists started painting in the early 1940s—one in the United States, the other in the UK—and both had largely stopped by the end of the ’50s in favor of an expanded idea of art and an unconditional merging of life, art, and political activism. Yet it might be said that neither ever stopped seeing the world through the eyes of a painter. In any case, Beck’s works before his abandonment of painting are rare testimonies to the imagination of a radical vanguard artist who ultimately aimed to do exactly the same thing that Metzge does: change society.

Eva Scharrer