Beuys Alive

Joseph Beuys would have turned 100 on May 12, 2021. Worldwide, this is an occasion to now turn to the life and work of this exceptional artist.

In Germany alone, the home of Beuys, the anniversary is being celebrated with exhibitions in twenty-eight locations. Worldwide, there are exhibitions across all continents including Australia, Japan, the United States, and numerous European countries. 

Especially in the Rhineland, and more precisely on the Lower Rhine, where the artist spent most of his life, the artist is remembered in numerous themed exhibitions. In Kleve, his hometown, where the artist maintained a studio until the early 1960s, the rooms of the Museum Kurhaus Kleve – which today houses one of the most beautiful Lower Rhine museums – commemorate Beuys’s early work. Here, you can observe how the artist developed strategies over the years with which he then achieved world fame in the early 1960s with spectacular actions such as How to explain pictures to a dead hare, 1965.

Just a stone’s throw away from Kleve at the Museum Schloss Moyland, which houses the world’s largest collection of the artist’s work, Beuys’s closeness to shamanism is documented. A few kilometres further on, in Krefeld, the birthplace of Joseph Beuys, one of the artist’s central autobiographical installations, the Barraque D’Dull Odde, 1977, is located; Beuys’s intensive artistic engagement with Duchamp is being examined. A few kilometres along the river Rhine in Düsseldorf, the relevance of the artist and the strategies with which contemporary artists take up their ideas are explored.

Relational Aesthetics

Interestingly, a clear focus of the discussion with Beuys today is on the topicality of the artist, especially for the field of “relational aesthetics,” a term Nicolas Bourriaud and Claire Bishop introduced into the aesthetic discussion as an umbrella term for the different forms of participatory art, activism, postproduction, community-based or dialogical art. 

Not so long ago this was different. Until a few years ago, the draftsman and sculptor Beuys was the focus of interest. After his death in 1986, Beuys became more and more the subject of art history. The fact that this is changing today may be related to the important political, social, and ecological impulses that Beuys gave in the 1970s and 1980s.

Beuys created the first large-scale sculptures that stretched over an entire city, or economic area, such as the sculpture 7000 Oaks, 1982, in Kassel, or the large-scale agricultural and reforestation project Difesa della Natura, 1984, in Italy, eventually becoming one of the founding fathers of the German Green Party in 1980.

By in the late 1960s, and following his trip to the United States in 1974 and the large solo exhibition at MoMA New York in 1979, the artist was influencing the art scene in the US. There was also great influence and importance placed on his work in Japan and Korea, in the British Isles, in Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands, but also in the then-Eastern Bloc, including Poland and the German Democratic Republic. Beuys was now considered an insider tip in contemporary art! Beuys maintained close relationships with other leading artistic figures of that time, such as John Cage, Andy Warhol and Nam June Paik.

Today, when world greats like Ai Wei Wei, Pierre Huyghe, Mauricio Catellan, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Félix Gonzáles-Torres or Liam Gillick include social and ecological contexts as decisive factors in their work, or artists with a strong activist orientation such as Shelley Sacks, Ernesto Pujol, or Pablo Helguera and artist groups such as Superflex, WochenKlausur, and countless others, work with artistic interventions in social spaces, Joseph Beuys is often one of the decisive factors and inspirational figures for them.

Beuys in Australia

But the influence of the artist of the century Beuys can also be clearly felt in Australia; central figures of the current Australian art scene such as Tom Nicholson refer to him. In Beuys’s sense, his social space-related activities are aimed at awareness and transformation and work with the creativity of people in different social contexts. 

Last year the Joseph Beuys Café, which holds the largest private collection of Beuys works in Australia, opened in Melbourne. It has set itself the goal of bringing Beuys’s ideas closer to the current generation of young students, with an interdisciplinary focus on universities and socially engaged adults. The idea here is to remove the comestibles from the menu and instead serve Food for Thought, a new take on a Philosophy Café.

Messages from the death-zone

There was a radicalism with which Beuys placed his fingers into the wounds of time in his art. At the same time, he offered a therapy with which to influence the reality of the second half of the century, which he described as the “death zone.” “Everyone is an artist” was the principle which he wanted to develop, and use to promote the creative forces in individuals. To this end, he looked for alternative solutions in education, politics and economics and, as a member of the Greens, tried to actively intervene in political events in the Federal Republic of Germany.

Beuys’s ideas point to the possibility of mastering the global crisis through creativity, self-determination, and social responsibility. I think there is a need for those ideas more to be discussed.  

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 56, 2021.
Images courtesy the artist, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, and Museum Schloss Moyland.

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