By Ciara LaVelle
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Shortly before New York City's Guggenheim Museum opened the first major American exhibition of the work of Joseph Beuys in 1979, the institution's then-director Thomas Messer sent a letter to members of his board of trustees, warning them that the work would not find favor with the general public.
Indeed, New York museumgoers did not react well to what the German artist deemed his "expanded concept of art," arrayed along the Guggenheim's clean, curving modernist ramps: piles of thick gray felt, metal railroad rails, glass bottles, sleds loaded with blankets and lanterns lined up behind a VW van, stacked sheets of iron, and other objects and installations strategically placed in the path of the viewer. The show released, in Messer's words, an "authentic furor," with patrons swarming the sales desk demanding their money back after seeing what they considered fraudulent art. Meanwhile, most critics received the show enthusiastically.
"Joseph Beuys is at the very least a valuable absurdity in a world that is locked into the status quo," noted John Russell, writing in the New York Times. "Alike as an artist, as a performer, as a politician, and as an irreducible individual, he has tried all his life long to extend our notion of what it means to be a human being." Other critics called the work unsettling, humorous, morbid, compelling, and powered by "expressionist anger." And yet at least one writer ventured to ask the obvious question: "But is it art?" The "furor" extended to the New York art world, where some people opposed Beuys's presence at the Guggenheim on the grounds that he had served as a German pilot in World War II, and/or because he employed German Romanticist and Teutonic folklore imagery in his work, imagery still considered offensive by some, even 35 years after the war ended. Others, conversely, saw in his installations and ideologies a cathartic reaction to the Nazi nightmare.
More than fifteen years after that groundbreaking Guggenheim show, the Center for the Fine Arts has mounted Joseph Beuys: Drawings, Objects, and Prints. An international traveling exhibition organized by the German government's Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations A and now on the last leg of a five-year tour A the show opened here with little fanfare. My first reaction upon seeing the show was to wonder how he would have felt about it. It seems unlikely that Beuys, who died in 1986, would have supported a display featuring exquisitely framed drawings hung symmetrically in several of the center's softly lighted picture galleries. It might have displeased him to see his work so preciously displayed, his drawings blatantly revered in the manner of traditional artworks. Or perhaps he would have enjoyed the ironic affirmation that the "anthropological relics" of his "social sculpture" -- his performances and political actions -- had so thoroughly invaded the confines of a fine art center.
"When I say 'everyone is an artist,' then I address precisely the art that one could call social art, a new discipline within art," Beuys once said, explaining one of his basic principles. "But this wider concept of art, in fact, the true concept of art -- which relates to every person and to creativity, that means to the ability that exists as free creative power in everyone -- must really be called an anthropological art."
Beuys practiced his art in actions, drawings, sculpture, prints, and installations; as a professor of art; through his work with Germany's Green Party (which he cofounded); and through the establishment of his Free International University, which promotes democratic educational and social systems, and which still exists today.
The drawings on view at the CFA are a sampling of the more than 20,000 Beuys created. As was the case with his explorations in other media, he did not consider the drawings autonomous works, nor were they sketches for sculptural installations; rather they constituted just one element of an ongoing process, a continuous chain of events. The artist once said that people who grasped the meaning of his drawings would turn away from them and turn instead to his ideas.
At the CFA, examples of Beuys's first drawings, dating from the early Fifties, reflect interests that continued to fuel his work throughout his life: Germanic mythology, Romanticism, the environment, scientific principles (particularly the laws of energy), and the lives of animals. For Beuys, animals played a crucial role in the evolution of man. A follower of the teachings of Austrian social philosopher Rudolf Steiner, Beuys based many drawings and works in other media on Steiner's essay On Bees, which compared the activity of bees to human physiology. The stag, a common image, stands for spiritual failure, stagnation, and death. Women, for the artist, embodied a kind of antiscientific symbol; female figures pictured in the current show represent wisdom, a higher knowledge, even an occult vision.
Beuys reproduced the objects he used in his performances and installations in multiple editions of 1000 or 2000 (and sold them inexpensively) as a means of reaching more people than the art-world elite who attended the gallery events. He saw these as a sort of antenna through which people could connect to his spiritual energy, creating a network among his followers. Several of these "multiples" are included in the CFA exhibition, including a zinc box, part of a 1973 work titled Enterprise; it contains a photograph of Beuys and his family watching Star Trek, as well as a camera that has felt stuffed into its lens hole. This work comments on television's power to unite and isolate people simultaneously, just as the felt both insulates the camera and isolates it by negating its function.