Joseph Beuys, the artist that hugged a Coyote


German artist, sculptor, and professor Joseph Beuys

German artist, sculptor, and professor Joseph Beuys

30 April 2015 –

Joseph Beuys (German: born 12 May 1921 – 23 January 1986) was a German Fluxus, happening and performance artist as well as a sculptor, installation artist, graphic artist, art theorist and pedagogue of art.

His extensive work is grounded in concepts of humanism, social philosophy and anthroposophy; it culminates in his “extended definition of art” and the idea of social sculpture as a gesamtkunstwerk, for which he claimed a creative, participatory role in shaping society and politics. His career was characterized by passionate, even acrimonious public debate. He is now regarded as one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century.

Beuys, sculptor, teacher, performance artist, maverick politician and one of the most influential and controversial men of his generation in Europe, died of heart failure in January 1986 at his home in Dusseldorf, West Germany. He was 64 years old.

Beuys began to attract worldwide attention in 1961. He was a charismatic teacher, in the Academy of Arts in Dusseldorf and elsewhere, and one who consistently subverted the stiff traditional ways of academe. As a sculptor, he had a gift for the bizarre and unforgettable image, made with no less bizarre and unforgettable materials, that made him a favorite with European museum directors. To more than one generation of young people, he was indispensable both for the freedom and independence of his thought and for his readiness to spend unlimited amounts of time in open-ended discussion.

As early as 1960, he made a sculpture out of the metal tub in which he had been bathed as a child. Though enriched with sticking plaster, and with gauze soaked in fat, it was still self-evidently a tub – ”a kind of autobiographical key,” Beuys said later, ”an object from the outer world, a solid material thing invested with energy of a spiritual nature.” Attracted Extreme Responses.

Later, and at a time when European life was still permeated by the memory of times when a quick and unwilling getaway was the fate of hundreds of thousands of people, Beuys epitomized that memory by producing a sculpture made up of a small-size toboggan on which were strapped the bare necessities of life on the run.

At every stage in his life, Beuys attracted extremes of admiration and contempt, with little in between in the way of objective assessment. As he grew older, he was preoccupied above all by what he called ”direct democracy.” The essence of that democracy was that all citizens should make their views known by direct referendum, rather than through what he regarded as an outmoded political party system. He also envisaged, however impractically, a parliamentary system in which the voice of the unaligned voter would be heard and could have some effect.

It was, however, as a maker of large-scale and often disconcerting three-dimensional images that he may be longest remembered. His work can be seen to advantage in the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland, as well as in museums throughout Germany. Instruments of Expression

Joseph Beuys was born in Krefeld, now West Germany, on May 12, 1921. Raised in the nearby town of Kleve, a Celtic and Catholic community not far from the Dutch border, he joined the Luftwaffe in 1940 after graduation from secondary school and became a pilot. In 1943, when his aircraft crashed in the Crimean mountains, he was saved by Tatars who wrapped him in layers of fat and felt to keep him from freezing to death. Thereafter, these two materials stayed with him as symbols of regeneration. Not only did he see them as predestined instruments of expression in his work, as bronze and marble had been to earlier sculptors, but they stood for warmth, comfort and consolation.

By the end of the WWII, Beuys had been wounded five times. Eventually he was taken prisoner by the British. He had a long, slow, checkered apprenticeship as an artist, but in 1961 he was appointed professor of sculpture at the Academy of Arts in Dusseldorf. An inspiring teacher and a sculptor who soon won an international reputation, he became notorious for the ritual performances of an enigmatic sort with which he sought to bind up the wounds of central Europe and release what he regarded as beneficent forces of feeling, understanding and orientation.

Whether in conventional art galleries or on the stump in a variety of makeshift locations, Beuys left an unforgettable impression, though not one that earned him universal approbation. In 1974, on his first visit to the United States, he did not mount a conventional exhibition, but spent a week in his dealer’s gallery, fenced in with a live coyote. The performance in question, ”Coyote: I like America and America likes me,” aroused widespread astonishment and was intended as a healing ritual that related to the American Indians’ regard for the coyote. In the winter of 1979-80 he had a full-scale retrospective of his sculptures at the Guggenheim Museum.

Eight years after his death, one of best- known figures of the German art world in the second half of this century, the Pompidou Center played host to the retrospective of his work that was on view in Zurich and Madrid.

The Proa Foundation in Buenos Aires held a retrospective exhibition of Beuys as one of the key figures in the development of contemporary art and remembered for his particular conception of man, politics and the world, and concern for the environment and to promote social openness of art.

Joseph Beuys and a coyote - New York 1974

Joseph Beuys and a coyote – New York 1974

 Since its early association with the Fluxus group, which made several collective works, Beuys pushed the opening of art to all social sectors, resisting the exclusive and elitist approaches.

In 1965, with a dead hare in his arms which he explained the contemporary art (How to explain pictures to a dead hare“), Beuys claimed the idea of art and the artist as therapeutics for a sick society and rejected the effectiveness of academic training of artists.

Determined to contribute to building a more humane society, she went looking for philosophical, religious, mythological or doctors (both academic and popular) to serve for this purpose elements. A constant that can be seen in his drawings, actions, videos and conferences.

Beuys, who died at the age of 64, was a lanky, frail, but manically active figure who, with his permanently affixed felt hat and multipocket vest, could occasionally call to mind Buster Keaton performing under the guidance of Samuel Beckett.

The hat was ostensibly there when his Stuka crashed in the Crimea in 1943 – and like Andy Warhol’s silver wig, it also served to advertise its wearer.

Though the Pompidou Center does a pretty good job of enshrining Beuys’s often cumbersome relics, most of it is predictably devoid of aesthetic quality. Characteristic elements include massive bolts of gray felt, piles of rocks, lumps of animal fat, etc., which may be regarded as no more than vestiges of Beuys’s actions.

In one such action, he flew to New York in 1974, had himself wrapped in a felt blanket and driven in an ambulance to an art gallery where he spent three days inside a cage with a coyote. He was then once more wrapped up, taken back to the airport and loaded onto the plane.

 When Beuys locked himself three days with a coyote on a room by Rene Block Gallery in New York, which had newspapers, felt and straw only. Beuys had a crook and around his neck triangle. That coexistence with the animal and control components creation I Like America and America likes me” emerged.

In the course of this experience, the artist and the coyote are known, are accustomed to each other and trust each otherIsolation, albeit brief, given the opportunity of harmony, like the one that had existed in natural and primitive past that tried to restore Beuys believed that better and healthier. Towards the end of the coexistence of the temporary utopia, the artist embraces the coyote.

When Beuys locked himself three days with a coyote on a room by Rene Block Gallery in New York, which had newspapers, felt and straw only. Beuys had a crook and around his neck triangle. That coexistence with the animal and control components creation I Like America and America likes me” emerged.

In the course of this experience, the artist and the coyote are known, are accustomed to each other and trust each other. Isolation, albeit brief, given the opportunity of harmony, like the one that had existed in natural and primitive past that tried to restore Beuys believed that better and healthier. Towards the end of the coexistence of the temporary utopia, the artist embraces the coyote.

In some native American cultures, it was the Coyote who, in the beginning of time, taught humans to survive.  For Beuys choosing the coyote was not  accidental. Pursued, fought, center extermination campaigns, the coyote is perhaps the most successful American mammal in regard to survival.

Beuys liked to say that “everybody is an artist” and “everything is art.” Such notions can easily become demagogic and they hardly hold up under scrutiny. – though it has been demonstrated in our present century that practically anything can be used to make art.

As for Beuys’s works and actions, while they were not really art, as he maintained, they were quite obviously something else.

What they were may appear more clearly in the light of another “action”: Here is a man who takes a linen belt, carries it out to the banks of a broad river, folds it carefully and slips it into a crack in a rock. Some time later he returns to the spot, removes the belt, unfolds it and “exhibits” it to show that it has become mildewed and rotten.

What makes this action noteworthy is that it happened in the sixth or seventh century B.C., the “artist” in question being the prophet Jeremiah. Prophets used this kind of procedure to dramatize a mystical and ethical lesson. Jeremiah did several other similar actions. So did his colleagues Ezekiel and Amos.

My point is that Beuys’s works were prophetic actions both in form and in intent, and one may argue that like circumstances produce like effects: Jeremiah and Ezekiel were active at an exceptionally dramatic time – and so was Beuys.

Jeremiah witnessed the siege and fall of Jerusalem and the deportation of much of the city’s population to Babylon. Beuys witnessed the defeat and destruction of Germany and he was aware of the collapse of values and meaning that followed this event.

He also realized that one could no longer call for a return to traditional values. Precisely such a call, under a perverse form, had, after all, been largely responsible for the recent national disaster. So he chose a peculiar way of his own, using his idiosyncratic images and unusual materials, elucidating his choice by commentaries with an obvious ethical content.

At a time when young people were troubled by the nihilistic view of art they assumed to be inherent in the work of Marcel Duchamp, Beuys’s speeches, if not the frequently dreary objects he displayed, carried notions of social and human betterment and resurrection.

The difference between Beuys and the Hebrew prophets was that the latter assumed they were speaking at the behest of the divinity. Beuys, on the other hand, did not claim to be delegated by any divinity. He nonetheless felt “called upon” to do certain things and used the mechanisms of prophetism and even of shamanism to dramatize a moral lesson.

Not surprisingly, this orientation of his work occurred after Beuys had gone through a deep psychological and spiritual crisis in 1955-57, in his mid- 30s. From this crisis, which required treatment in a psychiatric clinic, emerged Beuys, the public figure – a man whose vocation it was to deal in contemporary terms with the German romantic heritage that had been radically polluted by National Socialism.

As “art” his work leaves much to be desired (there are some good drawings, however). But as a cultural or prophetic event, it has rather the same morbid aura as do the strange accumulations of offerings heaped around the shrine of St. Anthony in Padua.

Part cranky innocent, part virtuoso media star, Beuys was driven to serve something holy – the positive, human values of German culture, which then stood between a rock and a hard place.

“I Like America and America Likes Me” (performance, 1974)

Art historian Uwe Schneede considers this performance pivotal for the reception of German avant garde art in the United States, as it paved the way for the recognition of Beuys’ own work, but also that of contemporaries such as Lüpertz, Baselitz, Kiefer and many others in the 1980s.

In May 1974 Beuys flew to New York and was taken by ambulance to the site of the performance, a room in the René Block Gallery at 409 West Broadway. Beuys lay on the ambulance stretcher swathed in felt. He shared this room with a coyote, for eight hours over three days. At times he stood, wrapped in a thick, grey blanket of felt, leaning on a large shepherd’s staff.

At times he lay on the straw, at times he watched the coyote as the coyote watched him and cautiously circled the man, or shredded the blanket to pieces, and at times he engaged in symbolic gestures, such as striking a large triangle or tossing his leather gloves to the animal; the performance continuously shifted between elements that were required by the realities of the situation, and elements that had a purely symbolic character.

At the end of the three days, Beuys hugged the coyote that had grown quite tolerant of him, and was taken to the airport. Again he rode in a veiled ambulance, leaving America without having set foot on its ground. As Beuys later explained: ‘I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote.’

Photo of Joseph Beuys (AP)

More to be added.

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