Who Was Joseph Beuys, Anyway?

Andres Veiel takes a first shot at defining one of the last century’s most notable conceptual artists in ‘Beuys.’

Photo by Ute Klophaus, courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Van Gogh cut off his ear and, so, modern art began. Works of measurable constraint became tacky, Bob Ross kitsch and the infinitude of personality became the medium’s palette. Art became interesting in so much as it could express sensibility. Duchamp: a trollish dork. Picasso: tormented. Pollack: more so. The Brooklyn Museum exhibits Georgia O’Keeffe next to her dresses so her sensibility can watch over our assessment of her canvases.

Between these extremes was Joseph Beuys, a conceptual sculptor and performance artist who, at one point, outsold Warhol and Rauschenberg in the auction houses. He doesn’t anymore, but mention of this fact occurs early in Andres Veiel’s Beuys, the first documentary to evaluate the German artist’s life and works. Veiel is a maker of movies with political drama, achieving some fame in the early millennium with Black Box BRD, a study of Baader-Meinhof radicals, and later dabbled into feature films with 2010’s If Not Us, Who?, a dramatization of the same that starred August Diehl. Politics is more an attitude than set of convictions for Veiel, which suggests Beuys as a perfect subject. The man performed.

Beuys’s bleeding ear stump was, however, a gentle fedora, which under his handsome jaw evokes Dennis Hopper’s blue-eyes cowboy getup in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, a rogue American art forger with no respect for the centuries being bought and sold on auction stumps. Beuys was no less bold: “Everyone is an artist” was his po-mo mantra. At a time when American art was led by titans largely apathetic to politics until they weren’t, Beuys was co-founding the Greens, a German political party that now holds at least 60 seats in the Bundestag. The work itself was ambiently diffuse and largely conceptual. But influential in its particulars. His 1983–85 installation The End of the Twentieth Century was a production of basalt bars randomly scattered in a room like domino bricks or corpses. It is now impossible to walk into any museum of modern art and not come across such a thing, by somebody else and with guards posted at the corners.

Beuys’s style may be everywhere, but Veiel unearths the artist’s ethos to be fragments of a foggy past. His idea of post-war art was utopian, a collective Gesamtkunstwerk contributed to by all. He realized this in his lifetime, and Veiel’s movie captures these moments of perishing countercultural ideals and organizing them together like a dramatic third act fall. He is expelled out of his teaching position at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts when he abolishes entry requirements and invites anyone to his classes who wishes to hear him instruct. The Greens refuse to nominate him when they have a chance to win their first parliamentary seat. Beuys’s place is counterculture and, in other versions of this story, he is compared to Denis Leary. Veiel’s portrait is fawning and, throughout, no one accuses him of selling hippy nonsense, though many did. “The giant of Western shamanism,” Artforum concluded shortly after Beuys’s death in 1986.

Veiel brings together a curious cavalcade of supporters to make Beuys’s case as talking heads. Few of them are incredibly notable, which seems like a strange choice considering Beuys got around with the Jeff Koons set. Caroline Tisdale, one of the few non-Germans, is the most compelling of these. She is a former art critic for The Guardian who left the objectivity of newspaper coverage to be Beuys’s artistic partner, photographing his work in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Tisdale identifies her partner’s most notable work to be 7000 Oaks, which she calls one of “the most incredible works of the 20th century.” Planted in Kassel, a city in central Germany, the work was a statement of geological space, asserting the power to challenge urbanization and then doing it. By attaching a large rock to mark each tree being planted, the work straddled the physical demands of artwork, the demand we see some thing, with the utopic vision of his politics.

Veiel devotes more attention to these works, serene statements of purpose that are easier to piece together than his more memorably comic work, like 1965’s How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, which entailed onlookers observing Beuys dragging a dead jackrabbit around a gallery room, or his numerous works covering everyday objects in velvet. “You want to have a revolution without laughter?,” Beuys asks a dubious professor in one of the staged debates between himself and other academics whose footage Veiel liberally uses. Beuys lectured often, which creates ample university-shot material for Veiel to paw through, and this is, arguably, a significant chunk of Beuys’s corpus. A chalkboard from one of his talks in Chicago went for $1.2 million at Christie's last year. The fact that he signed the back of it suggests Beuys thought so too.

Beuys will not appeal to most, but it’s hard to imagine that Beuys’s own work ever did either. Veiel refers constantly to the “political dimension” of Beuys’s work without ever situating it into a digestible politic. Instead, it feels abstract and unattached to any international movement. Ditto the collective art world, of which Beuys was an active member. Only Warhol makes an appearance, briefly and in grainy footage; Warhol would later silkscreen Beuys, a fact of the latter’s international celebrity that goes unmentioned. It is a vision of the artist as an interior creature but also a fine introduction to his thinking and, to a lesser extent, his work. For Beuys, of course, those were one and the same.

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