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The first major documentary on Joseph Beuys, simply titled Beuys, is finally screening in New York for a short run at Film Forum. The artist is often referred to as Germany’s most important artist since World War II, and with good reason — he pioneered new definitions of performance art, political activism, sculpture, installation, and art pedagogy in the war’s wake, and they are still widely circulated today.
Shockingly, despite this stature, there has not been a major Beuys retrospective in the US since 1979, when the Guggenheim in New York let him take over its building and left some critics and the less adventurous members of the public scratching their heads. No one knew then that he would die just seven years later, at the age of 64, or that his enigmatic approaches would come to be so widely imitated.
Major European museum retrospectives in the 1990s and 2000s crystalized critical understandings of Beuys’s standing and pervasive influence, but they never traveled stateside. American museums are long overdue for critically revisiting Beuys, and until we get the retrospective we need, this film steps into the gap to reveal him.
“Movies about art are incredibly difficult,” Klaus Biesenbach remarked at a talk with the documentary’s director and writer, Andres Veiel, last Friday at Film Forum. Bisesenbach went on to explain, “I think it is an impossible task to make a film on Beuys,” before praising the film as an “impressive impossibility.”
What is impressive is that Veiel did not stick to the worn format of retracing an artist’s career in linear, chronological fashion, replete with talking heads in hideous tweed outfits telling us what it all means. Instead, Veiel dug into the archives, creating a film that is 95% footage of Beuys and 5% talking heads contextualizing what we just saw. The film mostly lets us hear it straight from the horse’s mouth.
Beuys made it hard, however, because there is so much footage of him. As Veiel explained at the talk, “If you have this huge amount of footage, you could do 300 different films … but it’s my film.” So Veiel chose to select the most captivating archival footage that could introduce audiences to some of the key ideas in Beuys’s oeuvre. The film opens on a theoretical note, with Beuys rattling on about his notions of an expanded concept of art — including his much recited aphorism that each person is an artist — and moves on to explore the artist’s major projects and political activism.
Beuys gives Charlie Chaplin a run for his money for the most expressive face of the 20th century. It is hard to find words for his visage as water douses his face in a performance art piece, the forlorn sag in his eyes as he talks about crashing his plane as a pilot during the war, the surging electricity in his gesticulating hands as he led a demonstration at the Düsseldorf arts academy, or the graceful, calm demure in the way he tries to convince a German woman to take a green party pamphlet on the street. This critical dimension — Beuys’s unique physical presence — could only reveal itself in a film like this.
Beuys’s penchant for provocative, concise statements drives the film along. You become so intrigued by his unorthodox thought processes until you stop yourself to ask: Wait — felt, fat, and bees can become metaphors for politics and capitalism? One feels like a surfer riding on the waves of his clever bon mots and unexpected connections between objects and ideas.
This film has its critics. It’s unfortunate that so many still cling to linear storytelling. The Guardian’s Ryan Gilbery dismissed the editing as disjointed and higgledy-piggledy. Another line of attack has been that it didn’t check all the art historical boxes, leaving out the mystical influence of Rudolf Steiner, Beuys’s engagement and exit from Fluxus, or certain key artworks. But the problem with these critiques is that no single film could do it all. Perhaps, as critics, we are supposed to evaluate whether films succeed at achieving their defined narrow scopes, instead of pretending that 107 minutes can somehow magically cover all the epistemological bases.
Veiel made a choice to do what typical documentaries can’t. His scope was to introduce you to the raw presence of the artist, the timber of his voice, the way his face twists, and the complexities of his mannerisms. Whereas most documentaries leave you with an art historical abstraction projected onto a person, this film succeeds at familiarizing you with the living, breathing, mystical force of nature of Joseph Beuys.
Beuys, directed by Andres Veiel, continues at Film Forum (209 W Houston St, West Village, Manhattan) through Tuesday, January 30.