Art

The Unfortunate Timeliness of Joseph Beuys

An exhibition covering major bodies of work reveals his urgent resonance for our troubled times.

Installation view of Fat for Heat, Felt for Warmth at Shin Gallery, 2017 (photo: courtesy Shin Gallery)

For the inaugural exhibition at its newly expanded space, Shin Gallery is taking a close look at Joseph Beuys. The exhibition, Fat for Heat, Felt for Warmth, highlights several tangible works, as well as documentation of actions, spanning from the 1960s through the ’80s, with a common theme of the difficulties of communication weaving throughout. Like many artists reacting to the horrors of war, Beuys sought catharsis through alternative means, finding mere words painfully insufficient. Having fought on the side of the Nazis as a young man, the artist sought to recreate his very self.

Beuys, a member of the Hitler Youth as a teenager, joined the Luftwaffe (the Nazi air force) in 1941, when he was barely 20 years old. Three years later, his plane crashed in Crimea, where he claimed he was rescued by a group of Tatars, who wrapped him in animal fat and felt, saving his life in the process. The story of his recovery, though later found to be untrue, served as the major inspiration for his creative output. As a result, fat and felt appear as materials in many of Beuys’s works — hence the exhibition’s title.

Joseph Beuys, “Explaining pictures to a dead hare,” 1965. Gelatin silver photograph, 12.1 x 7.8 in. (photo: courtesy Shin Gallery)

In 1965, on opening night of a show of Beuys’s drawings at Galerie Alfred Schmela in Düsseldorf, the artist locked his guests out of the gallery. Inside, his face painted with honey and gold leaf, one foot wrapped in felt and the other wearing a shoe with an iron sole, he held a dead rabbit in his arms, leading a private three-hour tour of the exhibition, endeavoring to explain his works to the lifeless animal. “Even a dead animal presents more powers of intuition than some human beings with their stubborn rationality,” Beuys said during the performance. “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” would become one of Beuys’s best known actions.

A photograph of Beuys and the hare starts off the exhibition at Shin, setting the stage for other works struggling with effective (and affective) means of communication. Right next to the photograph, a sculpture of two tin cans tied by a knotted string highlights a certain futility, while on the wall opposite, “Iphigenia/Titus Andronicus”(1985) and “Hasenblut” (Hare’s blood, 1971–79) symbolize the pain of the individual in the face of evil and attempts at repentance and regeneration. Like felt and fat, the hare would often recur in Beuys’s works as a symbol of spiritual incarnation.

Joseph Beuys, “Untitled,” 1973. Wood board with two earth blocks and silver paint, 11 x 56 in. (photo: courtesy Shin Gallery)

In the middle of the gallery, “Untitled” (1973) ties the show together. Composed of an old wooden bakery board coated in beeswax, with two mounds of dirt on either end, the sculpture refers back to the creativity of bees, bread as a symbol of warmth and sustenance, and the nourishing role of earth to all living things.

Beuys is one of those artists that’s hard to understand without any background information, and although Shin’s exhibition is tightly curated with its focus on the impossibility of language, it lacks any information for those unfamiliar with Beuys. When I visited the gallery, a person came in, looked around for about 30 seconds, and walked out. Without context, Beuys’s work makes very little sense — which was certainly the intention behind it, and perhaps why the gallery chose to leave the work unexplained — but, especially with the passage of time, the inherent meaning seems to be lost to the general public. With documentation and remnants of the artist’s actions, the Shin show felt more like an archival exhibition than anything else, where the visitor still remains one step removed from the actual artwork. Then again, Beuys famously considered every person an artist and life itself a work of art.

In the aftermath of WWII, as Germany began the long process of rehabilitation of both its destroyed cities and, more significantly, its national psyche, the importance of denazification and repentance became so ingrained in the national identity that a word was coined specifically to define it. Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “coming to terms with the past,” also perfectly describes Beuys’s works, as the artist struggled to regenerate himself and his fellow Germans, seeking to overcome the limits of language, but careful to remember the errors of the past. People today would do well to take a page out of Beuys’s book and remember that regenerating a nation and remembering mistakes of the past are not at all mutually exclusive; in fact, they should go hand-in-hand.

Joseph Beuys: Fat for Heat, Felt for Warmth continues at Shin Gallery (68 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through December 31.

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