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The disappearance of Joseph Beuys

11 May 2021

Earlier this year a property in Oberkassel, an upscale neighbourhood in Düsseldorf, appeared on the market. The brokers of the property, a high-end estate agent called Engel & Völkers, made much of it as the former home and studio of the artist Joseph Beuys. ‘The creativity and genius of Beuys can be felt in every room,’ said the agency’s managing director Birgit Pfeiffer. And the timing couldn’t have been better: the artist ‘would be celebrating his one hundredth birthday in 2021 and we are particularly pleased to be brokering his home and studio on this special anniversary’.

The property, where Beuys lived between 1961 and his death in 1986, is still listed on the agent’s website: price available on request. Both the city of Düsseldorf and the state of North Rhine-Westphalia passed up the opportunity to buy it – although not out of any dearth of respect for Beuys. Pandemic restrictions notwithstanding, there are some 19 exhibitions planned to commemorate the centenary of the artist in museums across North Rhine-Westphalia, from Düsseldorf to his native city of Krefeld, to the small industrial town of Kleve where he lived for most of his childhood. Institutions elsewhere in Germany and abroad are likewise marking the anniversary: Beuys is often lauded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. And yet there is no single museum dedicated to his life and work. Would his former home and studio not have made an ideal site?

The property in Düsseldorf, at 250 square metres, is rather small for a museum, so this may have been a factor in the considerations. But in a statement explaining its decision, the Düsseldorf culture department said that the site, which was sold by Beuys’s family in 1999, ‘unfortunately shows hardly any traces of Joseph Beuys that would allow insight into his way of life, work, or his artistic goals’.

Joseph Beuys with his installation Show Your Wound (1976).

Joseph Beuys with his installation Show Your Wound (1976). Photo: Roedel/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The desire invoked here to discover some ‘trace’ of the artist, some kind of material evidence of his past physical presence, is not uncommon when discussing historical figures – hence the prevalence of house museums, places that enshrine this evidence – but in the case of Beuys it often seems particularly strong. As both his admirers and his critics have acknowledged, Beuys epitomised the notion of the artist as a charismatic cult figure, one whose public persona was so extensively and successfully cultivated that it threatened to overshadow his actual art.

More generously put: Beuys’s greatest artwork was himself. A pioneer of performance art – although he used the term ‘actions’, asserting like many of his peers in the Fluxus movement that there was no distinction between art and life – he turned his own existence into a kind of performance. As Thaddaeus Ropac, a former intern for the artist and now the gallerist representing his estate, says to me: ‘He lived his art, 24 hours a day.’ Kitted out in his distinctive uniform, that wide-rimmed felt hat and matching suit, he travelled the globe, airing his grandly utopian political and aesthetic theories in galleries and lecture halls. He co-founded the German Green Party in 1980, and ran for office in both European and federal elections. Most controversially, he had his very own mythical origin story, presented as truth but since proven to be at least partly fabricated: the tale of how, as a young Luftwaffe pilot in the spring of 1944, he suffered a near-fatal crash landing on the Crimean front, before being rescued by Tartars who healed his wounds with felt and animal fat.

That’s not to say Beuys didn’t make physical works: drawings, etchings, installations and sculptures, which were exhibited and collected in his lifetime, as they are today. As Ropac points out, ‘He saw these as works of art, which can live on their own.’ But the works were also part of a wider project, centred on what Beuys saw as the artist’s own role as a healing force within society – as a modern ‘shaman’, in his words. (Hence the many installations fashioned from felt and fat, the materials he said had saved him after his plane crash in 1944, or drilled with metaphorical ‘wounds’, such as The End of the Twentieth Century.) Although he referred to himself as a sculptor, Beuys’s most influential cultural contribution was not any individual work or series of works but rather an idea: the theory, which he summed up using the term ‘social sculpture’, that everyone is an artist – that society at large can be viewed as a kind of artwork, shaped by the creative activity of each of its citizens.

All of this can make it very difficult to think of his legacy in material terms, some 35 years after the artist’s sudden death from heart failure. Exhibitions about Beuys sometimes work around this by veering either towards the conceptual – a thematic show, say, of contemporary artists influenced by one of his ideas – or the densely archival: letters and essays, grainy black-and-white photographs, the blackboards on which Beuys would draw and write during his lectures and talks. But even when you have the works themselves in front of you, there is often the sense that something vital – Beuys himself – is missing. As the artist Cornelia Parker, who travelled to see Beuys speak in the 1980s, said in 2005: ‘The exhibitions seem like residues, really.’

Joseph Beuys at the 1st Jour Fixe in 1981 in Düsseldorf. Fotoarchiv Ruhr Museum.

Joseph Beuys at the 1st Jour Fixe in 1981 in Düsseldorf. Fotoarchiv Ruhr Museum. Photo: Jürgen Leiendecker /© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020

I’m not so sure Beuys would have minded. He was himself fascinated with the idea of the relic – an object to be venerated for its symbolic or physical associations. One of his favourite modes of presentation was, in fact, the glass vitrine, in which he would display a selection of small objects, including on occasion props from his own actions, as if they were precious historical artefacts. It was his idea to take the blackboards with their chalk residue and exhibit them as artworks in their own right – what he called ‘an extension of [my] ideas’. And then, of course, there’s his uniform: the felt jacket and trousers, ‘tailored after my own suit’, which in 1970 he produced as an edition of 100, and which now hang in museums and collections around the world – quite literally, often, on a wooden coat hanger pinned to the wall.

What are these works if not examples of the artist’s self-made relic, objects that both commemorate and stand in for him in his absence? Maybe it’s unsurprising, given his self-fashioning not just as an artist but also as a kind of spiritual leader – a guide towards a better future – that Beuys would have left us with these tokens to venerate. All we need now is a site of pilgrimage to visit – perhaps a dedicated museum.

For more information about the Joseph Beuys centenary programme visit Beuys 2021.

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