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JOSEPH BEUYS: DISSOLVING INTO BRAND by Dan McLaughlin


I left that road so far behind by Dan McLaughlin, 2019.

Gouache on catalogue page


What does that mean exactly, to dissolve into brand. Beuys’ most significant and consistent idiom was a language addressing movement and transformation on material bodies, often his own, using forms of ritual that were visually compelling, deeply personal, and politically challenging. In essence, as an individual he slowly disappeared into a brand, in order to help bring about a social project empowering belief in the creativity. Brand for Beuys became currency, with a stamp that would come to signify, through his commitment to any element within his grasp, those materials or objects that could be understood as a metaphor for the three central ideas of creativity he saw as essential and universal: spark (or idea); movement (flux or flow); and form (crystallization).

I became aware of Beuys as a student as he neared what would be the end of his life, in 1986, and found in him a blend of politics, philosophy and art-making that were new. His drawings were delicate. His sculptures were elemental. His performances fixed you in place and transported you at the same time. His work shared a sense of seismographic transmission - of innocence, intuition and connection, to material and spiritual energies - that I hadn’t encountered before then. His oft-repeated personal story, of near death and resuscitation by a group of Tartars in the Crimea, was the origin story for his very personal approach to materials and process. Many of the performances that would come to define his unique presence in the post-war art world utilized fat and felt, two elements that Beuys employed with both humor and formality. The essential creativity and power he believed was available to all humans, the movement between fluidity and form, he found perfectly illustrated in felt as a conductor and insulator, and in fat as representing the poles of idea and action. In the sixties he began his association with the international Fluxus movement, a group with a philosophy and project that perfectly complemented what could be considered the middle term in his own art-making approach: the firing of idea, the flux of movement, the crystallization of form. All human action, all human interaction, could be the sparking media for encounter, where the breadth of available forms of human experience could be expanded. In a lecture by Anne Carson, following the spread of the Occupy movement in 2011, she took a moment to highlight and congratulate its participants for an action that resisted the instrumentalist ideologues that were marching people into feudalism by refusing to see anything rational in the remedies they offered. The participants had removed their consent. Her call to those gathered was to "occupy reason!" This was Beuys’ occupation, in both senses: where he resided and what he did. But in post-war Germany, occupying reason, with intuition, passion, mysticism, even folk wisdom, had its own seismic consequences. Beuys’ roamed freely and found communicative power in the materials he came to employ, juxtaposing them in ways that were arresting. His work with felt, a powerful example being his Infiltration Homogen für Konzertflügel, der größte Komponist der Gegenwart ist das Contergankind, 1966, was a work comprised of a grand piano wrapped completely in felt. The effect, a quiet absorptive silencing of an instrument capable of an infinity of expressions, was his way of bringing a focus to the growing tragedy surrounding the use of thalidomide at the time, a drug meant to relieve the effects of pregnancy but which was discovered to have devastating and sometimes lethal consequences for children born to women who used it. The power and potency of the instrument is dressed, swaddled even, in felt, legs and all, and creates a clumsy, pachyderm-like metaphor for a kind of silent entombment. But it is also a power incubated, protected and storing potential expressions. In an important sense, pieces like Infiltration showcase the intuitive power Beuys had, understanding that some materials had invested in them human language and human gesture through use and proximity, through morphological sympathy. In performances his materials and his story were transformed. Their essence, whether honey, fat, gold leaf, water, iron, copper, animals dead or living, Beuys seemed to tap into and activate through their combination and use. He played, he formalized, he used repetition, he confronted, taught, challenged bureaucracies, moved in and out of the role of shaman and, in the view of many, charlatan. The application of that title, as well as the label of demagogue began to find resonance in Germany once Beuys turned toward his conception of “social sculpture.” The German generation that followed the horrors and demise of the Nazi party had visceral memories of a “social sculpture” whose tagline of “Blood and Soil” found echos in Beuys’ more esoteric and at times opaque descriptions of science, which he preferred not to disconnect from intuition. His use of personal myth, as well as powerful references to cultural myths across the Celtic world, formed a language by which he would encourage first his students and then the voters of Germany to directly create the polity that all humans had the power to fashion. His appeal found young Germans most responsive to the offer of a way out of the post war weight they were born into and carried. Those who’d had more experience, who’d witnessed the machine of totalitarian power were suspicious of an artist who used totalizing language to describe what was becoming a political project. In a description she offered of his 1976 piece, Environment, Tram Stop, Caroline Tisdall, his devoted follower and biographer, had this to say: “The intention of this head is to suggest an inner battle, a war of ideas in which one idea struggles constructively with another toward a future in which the archaic repression of bureaucracy and selfishness of the isolated, alienated individual is replaced by freedom of the total individual and the totality of individuals.” It was this type of description of his philosophy that catalyzed an opposition to his teaching and to his political projects by those in power. Beuys moved to metaphors and actions that addressed broader social systems in the 1970s. His inclusion in the Documenta exhibitions gave him a further chance to use language incorporating the social critiques and utopian ideas of Rudolph Steiner. In this, Beuys extended his appeal to all that we are each a wellspring of creative power best exercised directly, in cooperation and coordination, and that like the movement of idea to action to structure, from fluid to form, we too can act to create a new society. His “Honey Pump at the Workplace” installed at Documenta 6 uses Steiner’s ideas in the form of a massive pump distributing honey, a material long in use by the artist as a symbol of heat and movement, through plexiglass tubes throughout the building where it was set up in Kassel. At the following Documenta in 1982 he introduced his final monumental work, 7,000 Oaks, which extended his engagement with the ecological movements of the time and continued his invitation to the citizens of Kassel to see themselves as both the heat and the crystallization of a creative process that was simultaneously political and ecologically reparative. Beuys’ political project, of social sculpture, of direct democracy, and his decision to run for the German parliament as a candidate for the newly formed Green Party towards the end of his life, each saw him ceding a significant degree of individual authorship towards work that served as opportunity for Kassel’s residents to “own” a piece of the greater social project through the active participation of the community. The Beuys “brand”, the multiple, by which currency he would fund the growing costs of his work, subsumed much else. His work became more and more the presentation of participatory sculpture that meant to illustrate the creativity and cooperative capacity in each of us. He was deeply embedded in the discourses that came to define his most productive years, and what he added to them in turn continues to inform performance, installation, sculpture, interdisciplinary work, and, not unimportantly, a politics to this day.

DAN MCLAUGHLIN: ODE TO JOY is on view through August 20, 2020.