Joseph Beuys, clockwise from top: “Capri Batteri” (1984), “Buttocklifting” (1974), “Element” (1982) (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

“Socio-economic illumination, enabled by the evolutionary process of thought, was Beuys’ end-goal,” writes Kara L. Rooney in her substantial catalogue essay for Joseph Beuys: Process 1971–1985, the small but ambitious show she’s curated at the similarly disposed Rooster Gallery on Orchard Street. Spanning the space’s two narrow floors, the show probes the final decade and a half of the influential German artist’s life, a period that saw the maturation of Beuys’ sociopolitical thought and consciousness and its attendant effect on his artistic output. This career transition was marked, as Rooney notes, by the artist’s 1969 proclamation to an interviewer, “Objects aren’t very important for me anymore. I want to get to the origin of the matter, the thought behind it.” And here the bifurcation of space across two levels helps give some order to the intellectual thicket of this period of Beuys’ art: downstairs, elemental sculpture and alchemical prints vie with the lighthearted, while on the main floor more declarative sociopolitical matters unfold.

This final chapter of Joseph Beuys’ life saw the artist develop his ‘social sculpture’ practice, of which the most notable embodiment presented here is “Element” (1982), two superimposed plates of iron and copper representing what Beuys held to be masculine and feminine values. The conductive power of copper, which he associated with femininity, was a particular area of interest that surfaces again in “Capri Batteri” (1985), a classic ‘lemon battery‘ apparatus in which the citrus powers a lemon-yellow lightbulb. Trumpeting the show on an elevated platform in the window, it pops like a Lemon Drop in the vitrine, its vital color and renewably organic source of energy belying the fact that it was among the last artworks Beuys ever created: he died the following year.

Beuys is a difficult artist to address in a gallery setting, a situation both remedied and not by Rooney’s ultimately reductive essay, which concludes, “Language, speech, the articulation of process: such were the cornerstones of Beuys’ late work. All else was simply the means to an end.” But we are still left wondering a few things about process, especially regarding Beuys’ “Organization for Direct Democracy through Referendum,” which was hardly a study of democratic proceduralism but rather a work invoking the aestheticization of politics and politicization of aesthetics. Though she cites Thierry de Duve’s more politically attuned analysis of Beuys by way of comparing him to Marx, it’s clear that Rooney’s interests here are primarily formal, which perhaps explains her asserted endorsement of the glib remarks in “Bonzenbunker” (1981) and “Das Kapital 1” (1971) and “2” (1974) as “anti-capitalist,” as well as the more serious omission of Beuys’ career as a politician, a key element of his life during this period. (It involves a failed run for the West German Bundestag in 1980 and his abandonment by his party, the Greens, when they joined the parliament in 1983.)

The man himself was of course more variegated, more subtle, than his famed all-caps statements allow — “EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST,” “TOTAL ART WORK OF THE FUTURE SOCIAL ORDER,” “A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART,” “ART=CAPITAL,” etc. It’s a nuance that’s difficult to convey in a show with such a dense yet chronologically delimited purview. But, as in all good utopias, the seriousness on view here still commingles fruitfully with the comic: a multiple from 1974, affixed to a closed door in the downstairs space, breaks from the rest of the show’s German compound-verbiage and reads:

Prof. Joseph Beuys
Institut for
Cosmetic Surgery
Speciality: [sic] Buttocklifting.

Joseph Beuys: Process 1971–1985 continues at Rooster Gallery (190 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 9.

Mostafa Heddaya

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.