Joseph Beuys: Parallel Processes

Kunstsammlung Nordrhein Westfalen (K20), Dusseldorf

Parallel Processes, part of the Dusseldorf Quadriennale, was a major retrospective of Beuys’ work, bringing together around three hundred drawings, sculptures, vitrines, modified objects, etc. arranged around ten major installations. In many ways the exhibition seemed comprehensive, with so many famous pieces gathered in one place. The Pack (1969), Stripes from the House of the Shaman (1964-1972, 1980), Tramstop (1976), Show Your Wound (1974-1975), Lightning with Stag in its Glare (1958-1985), all duly appeared, before the tour of Beuys’ remains terminated in the transmutational Palazzo Regale (1985), in which all the felt, lead, minerals and rough board of the previous spaces abruptly turned to gold. But what a handful of video-recordings, scrawled pronouncements (for instance, two placards referring to ‘Baader + Meinhof’), and knowledge that, next door in the Schmela Haus annex, the five-and-a-half hour recording of the action Celtic+ ~~~ (1971) was running, reminded the visitor was that, no matter how many pieces were brought together to represent Beuys’ art, the very restriction to material objects meant that a whole dimension of Beuys’ activity, of what he himself considered to be his art – the persona, the ‘politics’, the educational initiatives, the actions and less formal performance, the pronouncements – was absent. It is interesting what happens in this absence.
What the curators did – there appears to have been a fair number involved in the exhibition, led by Marion Ackermann and Isabelle Malz, and including architect Wilfried Kuehn and a ‘team of young researchers’ – was gather as many of the ‘museum pieces’, that is, display objects –sculptures and drawings, to put it crudely – into one space, inwardly organising the exhibition with a certain chronological rationale (from Torso of 1949-1951 to Palazzo Regale from the year before his death in 1986), and bookending it between two portraits of the artist, one photographic, with all the charisma of the earnest, war-scarred face, the other, significantly, a Warhol print. The effect of this concentration of familiar and undoubtedly powerful museum-work with the portraits, I felt, was to publically announce Beuys’ fame, to formally represent a German post-war artistic phenomenon in the city most closely associated with him. As such the exhibition probably succeeded: the public response, if the statistic recorded on the Kunstsammlung’s website, of 8000 visitors queuing for admission on the final weekend, would seem to suggest so. Beuys is a famous German artist. Ironically, it was of the same trumpeting goddess that Heinrich Böll warned Beuys in a poem written for the artist’s sixtieth birthday.
In saying this, I am not necessarily suggesting that without the inclusion (as opposed to ‘appendage’) of the ephemera of Beuys’ extended practice, his ‘social sculpture’, no Beuys exhibition can be truly representative. In truth, the media-stream of theories and slogans, mythicising narratives and images of ‘the man in the felt hat’ can easily become a distraction when assessing his work. Without that distraction, in fact, something comes into focus that, by extension, places his dematerialised work in a different perspective. Walking through the array of material two things struck me. First that, whatever about fame, it was hard to doubt that Beuys was a major artist and worthy of such lavish attention – simply as a sculptor, with a feeling for form and material, and an eye for an iconic object, and as a practitioner of the art of drawing, he was clearly a master. Second, that the same ‘form’ and ‘material’, if one thinks beyond the Beuys ‘signature’ (a worn artisan’s tool wrapped in felt next to a wedge of fat, some lead and a piece of pig-iron marked with a halfcross sign – that’s our man!), shows an extraordinary degree of consistency of treatment (which is what makes Palazzo Regale so surprising). In fact, even without the narratives and symbolism surrounding the pieces, the formal and material choices make evident a consistent significatory concern.

Joseph Beuys, Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein auf Hirsch (Lightning with stag in its glare), 1958-1985. Installation, 39 Elemente: Bronze, Eisen, Aluminium, Kompass, Leihgabe. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010. Foto: Achim Kukulies
Joseph Beuys, Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein auf Hirsch (Lightning with stag in its glare), 1958-1985. Installation, 39 Elemente: Bronze, Eisen, Aluminium, Kompass, Leihgabe. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010. Foto: Achim Kukulies

In terms of form, Beuys is clearly uninterested in the Platonic or technicist aesthetic possibilities of formalism. This, of course, is a trait held in common with many wartime and post-war artists –hence the elaboration of Georges Bataille’s concept of the Informe by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss. Beuys, however, is not an artist of the ‘formless’: what appears in his work is a combination of the half-formed and the post-formed, of objects, often made of clay, still bearing the artist’s hand-print, and seemingly on their way to some more distinctive shape, but caught at a moment of their development; and of objects that, by extreme usage or immersion in a space of violent conditions (a furnace perhaps), have lost their sense of final shape and readiness for use. In terms of materials, Beuys’ sculptural works can be divided roughly into two modes: the ‘grey-brown’ and the ‘black’. The former is the most familiar; I registered the existence of the latter for the first time at this exhibition – the shining black of bakelite and ebony giving an odd sense of ‘industrial luxury’, perhaps, in the surrounding pauperdom. My first thought was to the parallel with Arte Povera, and with a Jannis Kounellis piece I had seen at a Tate retrospective some years ago – to my mind a resistance to the commodification of the artwork by the presentation of basic materials of commodity culture – iron ore, coke, etc. – so fundamental to industry as to provide a limit point to its commodificatory action. Then it occurred to me that the materials and, indeed, class of industry evoked, were curiously anachronistic for an artist working in the sixties, seventies and eighties. Beuys was not only putting on show the bare rudiments of an industrial culture, but those of a particular industrial culture, that of the thirties and forties. In the context of the work of a German artist it was very hard not to sense that here was an art concentratedly working through the detritus of the war and the Nazi era.

I don’t think that this would have occurred to me had the retrospective been filled out by references to the non-material work: in restricting themselves to the ‘serious’ museum pieces the curators had amplified what the critic Gene Ray has referred to as ‘the work of mourning’.¹ I had a niggling misgiving about this recognition and especially its calling to mind of Ray’s account: was what affected me among these objects an ‘Auschwitz aesthetic’?Did I automatically sense a solemnity to the work because of an innate resemblance to the images I’d absorbed of the remains of the extermination camps? Ray is clear on this point: there was never any suggestion of Beuys’ exploitation of these images, he was at pains to keep mention of the camps at a distance in his scattershot of public pronouncements, only letting his awareness of a deep concern for that era slip out once or twice in his career. Beuys had no qualms about exploiting other affairs – the media-friendly character of his appearance, for instance – if it promoted the work; but when a number of others had set up their stall as ‘Auschwitz artists’ he remained rigorously silent on the subject.
But in bringing this essential ‘mourning’ dimension to our attention Ray is remiss in terms of what Beuys did articulate: in short, what has often been seen as his ‘clownish’ side, his relentlessly positive Steiner-influenced politico-artistic agitation. If the unvoiced ‘work of mourning’ has its formal equivalent in the ‘post-formed’ objects – bearing the blows and scorching of the preceding violence, then the ‘half-formed’ links to the constant, garrulous propulsion of the same rudimentary materials towards a future. Beuys, in short, is a Janus-faced artist, at once a late-modernist elegist and a post-modern impresario, the same ‘post-modernism’ revealing itself here as a relentlessly positive openness to whatever new social forms or opportunities appeared in the post-war course of north-western history. I don’t think the two sides can finally be separated, and in a work like Lightning with Stag in its Glare a sense of their conjunction, albeit with the stress on the side of retrospection because of its materiality, can be felt.
For some reason the piece didn’t come off for me in its position in Parallel Processes, but I’ve felt the energy and registered the inherent artist’s trace when viewing it elsewhere (originally at Frankfurt’s Kunstverein). It is, as his Belgian contemporary Marcel Broodthaers intimated, when he slyly identified Beuys with Wagner in a famous open letter published in the ‘Dusseldorfer Feuilleton’, a Gesamtkunstwerk, an all-embracing maximal artistic effort suggesting the artist’s status as quasi-spiritual genius, but, significantly, it fails as such. The narratives, symbolism and theatrical action having withered away we are left with the remains: an ‘unformed’ artwork, or rather, an energy-bound configuration of the half-formed and post-formed. With boundless optimism, using the most rudimentary, and grave, materials, the ‘genius’ has made a huge attempt to bring a work of regeneration into being, and has been forced to abandon the effort in a state of incompletion, casting doubt on the genius’ status, or the possibility of renewal, but not on the artist’s positivity, or the gravity of his subject. Without the former (the spirit that announced that ‘democracy is fun’) the latter would not be articulated; and without the latter (the silent absorption in the legacy of wartime Germany) the former would have evaporated off as another haze of half-focused utopianism, typical of its heyday in the sixties.
1 ‘Joseph Beuys and the After-Auschwitz Sublime’ (Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy, 2001).
Parallel Processes ran from September 11th 2010 –January 16th 2011.