Mention Joseph Beuys’ name and the usual iconic gestures come to mind — the objects made from felt and fat; the scribbled-out drawings; the pioneering performances of “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” (1965) and “I Like America and America Likes Me” (1974) — all of which have borne a profound influence on contemporary art. But if you dig beneath the surface, even a little, you’ll discover how ultimately alien his art really is.
An opportunity for just such an investigation can be found in the finely honed exhibition Joseph Beuys: Process 1971-1985, curated by Kara L. Rooney at the Rooster Gallery on the Lower East Side. The fourteen years covered by the show, as Rooney states in her erudite and far-ranging catalogue essay, represent a “procedural shift” in the artist’s identity “from maker of objects to artistic philosopher.”
This shift brought with it a change in methods and intentions that became “critical in determining Beuys’ theories surrounding the creative act and art’s role in the evolution of human society.” Out of these theories grew Beuys’ idea of “social sculpture,” which Rooney casts within “the notion of process: not only the elemental human process essential to the making of forms, but the anthroposophic processes inherent in the formation of matter.”
The term “anthroposophic processes” refers to the influence exerted on Beuys by the writings of the Austrian spiritualist Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925). Steiner was the founder of anthroposophy, which he described in a lecture delivered in 1916 as a “spiritual science” that seeks “ways and means of penetrating into the sphere of the spiritual, a domain which cannot be perceived with outer physical senses, nor apprehended with the intellect which is bound to the brain.”
The key to penetrating this domain is the development of higher human faculties, an aspiration toward perfectibility that strikes the contemporary mindset as anachronistic, to say the least. And yet that is what Beuys was all about in the last decade and a half of his life, adapting Steiner’s concept of a “Threefold Commonwealth” for the German state (predicated on the separation of politics, culture and the economy) to what Rooney calls a “tripartite system” in which “the realization of liberty, equality and fraternity, and in turn, the ‘responsible’ production of art, could be made.”
On Thursday I met Rooney, who is the Associate Art Editor (and my former colleague) at The Brooklyn Rail, at the gallery for a tour of the exhibition. As she pointed out Beuys’ use of alchemical symbols and nature motifs to chart the various stages of enlightenment, I couldn’t help but think of Richard Wagner’s mission to redeem culture through leitmotif-driven music and scenarios dredged from Germany’s runic past. We all know how well that turned out.
This connection to Wagner, who, like Beuys, was a proselytizer attempting to move beyond the limits of his art form, seemed to gain some credence when, later that day, I read Eric Michaud’s comment, published in an article titled “The Ends of Art according to Beuys” (translated by Rosalind Krauss) in the Summer 1988 issue of October, that in Germany, Beuys’ death in 1986 “was hailed as a disappearance of the ‘German phenomenon.’”
For Michaud, Beuys possessed the “naïve certainty of an absolute transparency between form and matter and the ‘idea.’” He refers to the “putting [an idea] into form” as “the Gestaltung”:
The Gestaltung is thus a continual resurrection: it dies only incessantly to be reborn, spontaneously generating itself within the circularity of the soil and revealing itself alternately as the soil of the German language and as the language of the German soil, each finding in the other the force necessary to this continuing self-engendering, whereby they purify themselves ever more highly.
This circularity is amply evident in the works on display — repeated references to the earth and the elements, ascending and descending ladders, the sun and moon, the masculine and feminine — in a didactic onslaught so intense that it submerges Beuys’ belief system in its own kind of obscurantism. His clusters of words, diagrams and images create a mirror, not of the ascension of consciousness toward enlightenment, but of the density of reality twinned with the mind’s inability to penetrate it. This hurdle is exacerbated for an American audience by the language barrier (most of the texts are in German) and the near-illegibility of Beuys’ handwriting.
We find these contradictions at work with particular force in the four-part suite of white-on-black photo etchings, “L’arte è una zanzara dalle mille ali” (“Art is a Mosquito with a Thousand Wings”) (1981), where alchemical symbols, words, diagrams and other forms of code collide in recurring graphic explosions. The opacity of Beuys’ language, leaving his message seen but not heard, unintentionally underscores the futility of human endeavor, which we can take as a different kind of circularity, the kind that goes nowhere.
Throughout the show, the gap between what Beuys intended and how we receive it is ever-present, even in such wordless pieces as “Spur 1″ (“Trace 1”) (1974), a set of four lithographs (from a suite of nine), which come off as lushly colored, semi-abstract splotches of ink but are actually laden with Beuys’ symbology. In “Element” (1982), a floor sculpture composed of two notched rectangles, one component is made of iron and the other is copper. How important is it to know that Beuys meant the iron to represent masculine aggression and the copper to embody feminine receptivity and openness? It feels much more natural to look at them simply for their geometry and materials, gleaning whatever connotations occur from those formal basics.
Although the over-determination of Beuys’ visual and verbal languages can be taken as material evidence of his fruitless utopianism, the strength of that belief — however misguided — is the source of their aesthetic potency. Rooted as they are in “the soil of the German language and […] the language of the German soil,” there may not be much overlap between what he poured into them and what we can comprehend, but the thin border that we share transmutes them from a German phenomenon into an experience of formidable, unaccountable lucidity.
Joseph Beuys: Process 1971–1985 continues at Rooster Gallery (190 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 9.