Joseph Beuys: Under Construction

Joseph Beuys, by Andy  Warhol

Joseph Beuys, by Andy
Warhol

As a native German and trailblazer of contemporary art, Joseph Beuys is very well represented in Berlin. The Hamburger-Banhof has three large rooms full of his work, which includes pieces of basalt, huge chunks of tallow, and a stage full of blackboards from his famous lectures.

A certain professor of mine has a profound love of Beuys and piqued my interest in his work. Though I can’t say I fully understand everything about Beuys’ pieces or performances, I am always moved by the way Beuys engages his audience. He is famous for saying that everyone is an artist and that teaching is his greatest work of art. I am lucky to have a lot of exposure to his work, especially while staying in Berlin, and it is leaving a great impression on me.

Beuys piano

Remnents of his performance “I Try to Set (Make) You Free” which ended in a near riot

Currently running at the Berlinische Gallery is an exhibition featuring work from Galerie Rene Block. Artists such as Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Nam June Paik, and Joseph Beuys were represented by Rene Block. There were many posters and recordings from these artists, but not much actual work. However, they did have a video taken of Beuys’ seminal work, “I Like America and America Likes Me.” It was Beuys’ first show in America. The performance included him locked in Rene Block Gallery with a coyote. I sat and watched the whole 37 minute video (watch an informative video of the performance here).

The performance is an incredible thing to watch. The separate forces of man and nature coming together as one in an art gallery. At times Beuys and the coyote are friendly. Beuys feeds it and tosses leather gloves that the coyote catches. Other times, especially when Beuys wraps himself in the felt, transforming himself into an ethereal creature, the coyote attacks him and rips the felt.

However, there was something else in the gallery that I focused my attention on. The museum is preparing for a Max Beckman show opening soon, which means that it is pretty much a construction site. Certain galleries were closed off, and you could hear power tools at work behind the curtains. In the main hall there was a man painting the large wall grey using a roller on a large extended pole. I watched him paint. Mesmerized. Long straight lines of grey industrial paint layering over each other in flat sheets. Done with precision. The man, with earbuds firmly in place, looked at me confused. I could tell his wasn’t sure why I was there watching him. I looked at him, not sure if he realized he was the artist. 

Also, as I watched the video of Beuys’ performance, I could see a man painting a makeshift wooden door. He worked on a felt dropcloth to catch any paint. Felt, the same material that Beuys covered himself in during his performance. To me the actions are essentially the same, just that one performer did not realize he was performing. I stood leaning on the temporary wall in the exhibition space, watching the Beuysian felt monster fend off a coyote and a professional painter work in his element.

Berlinische2

The tools of an artist, lying in anticipation of the action

After, I went upstairs to see the other exhibition, but not even caring for the paintings I was looking at. There was art happening in the space that had grabbed my attention.


As far as my own artistic production is concerned, I have made the painting you see below. It is a painting of a picture I took of Beuys’ Capri Battery: a lightbulb powered by a lemon. The piece was in a display case, so when I took the picture, there was a reflection of my jeans. While painting, I was reminded of the Rolling Stones’ album Sticky Fingers. The cover, bursting with innuendo, shows a male crotch complete with working zipper, an idea formed by Andy Warhol. So I gave my painting a little pop culture pizazz by adding a painterly textured zipper. I wonder what Beuys would think….

Sticky Beuys

Sticky Beuys, oil on canvas, 2015

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