Joseph Beuys

Anselm Kiefer by Chris Hall

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Art is difficult, it’s not entertainment.  Anselm Kiefer  

To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.  Theodor Adorno


Born just a few months before the end of World War II in 1945, Kiefer grew up among the ash and ruins of postwar Germany.  Kiefer’s work directly addresses Adorno’s statement, that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and questions how beauty and culture can continue to have any meaning.  Kiefer also wants to understand how the Nazis leveraged art and culture into killing.  In this respect, Kiefer’s body of work is primarily reflective of the new German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung.  Invented in the late 1950’s, Vergangenheitsbewältigung translates roughly as “struggle to come to terms with the past.”  Kiefer believes that one can not progress into the future until the past has been properly dealt with.  Although much of his early work addresses issues specific to Germany, his output in more recent years has expanded into more universal concerns.

Anselm Kiefer began making work in 1969 and would become a student of Joseph Beuys.  Kiefer’s first opus, his Occupations, had him traveling around to different sites in Europe, sometimes in his father’s Army uniform, and then having himself photographed giving the Nazi salute.  It may seem a bit shocking, but there is a moral heart to Kiefer’s work.  Kiefer wants to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust remain fresh in collective memory.

Some of Kiefer's Occupations. Click to enlarge the images.

In his paintings and sculpture, Kiefer reexamines German history, mythology, and culture, everything from Wagner operas, German Romanticism, the poetry of Holocaust survivor Paul Celan, the architecture of Albert Speer, and the Third Reich, but he also references theology, occult symbolism, alchemy, mysticism, and the Kabbalah.   The weighty subject matter is often mirrored in the physicality of the works itself, which are often large scale and monumental.  Epic in size and scope, Kiefer’s work become visions of the apocalyptic sublime.  His paintings are mixed media endeavors, dense and heavy with impasto paint mixed with straw, dried flowers and plants, lead, sand, broken glass, ash, clay, shellac, gold leaf, copper wire, rusted metal, broken ceramics, woodcuts, charred photographs, and wood.  Kiefer uses a variety of application and reduction techniques, including a blowtorch.  

Some of Kiefer's early work.  Click to enlarge the image.

In the 1990’s Kiefer’s focus grew from focusing on Germany’s role in civilization to the fate of art and culture in general.  He began to explore universal myths of existence about the trauma experienced by all societies, from inevitable destruction to continued renewal and rebirth.  By examining the past, Kiefer seeks personal, national, and universal healing and absolution of collective guilt.  In 1999 the Japan Art Association awarded Kiefer the Praemium Imperiale for this lifetime achievements.  The explanatory statement reads:  

Kiefer worked with the conviction that art could heal a traumatized nation and a vexed, divided world . . . Only a few contemporary artists have such a pronounced sense of art's duty to engage the past and the ethical questions of the present, and are in the position to express the possibility of the absolution of guilt through human effort.

Some of Kiefer's later work.  Click to enlarge the image.

Kiefer is known for keeping giant studio complexes which he turns into site specific monuments with his painting and sculpture.  Most recently Kiefer purchased the decommissioned Mulheim-Karlich nuclear reactor plant.  In 2010 Kiefer’s studio in Barjac, France was the subject of a documentary called Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.  The 35 hectare studio complex was built in the ruins of an abandoned silk factory.  You can watch the documentary on Youtube.  Here is a trailer for the film.

I first saw Anselm Kiefer's work sometime during the early or mid 1990's, either at the Cincinnati Art Museum or Atlanta's High Museum of Art.  I have always been attracted to his willingness to tackle the big subjects, life, death, and the possibility of re-birth as well as his use of mixed media and his painterly technique.  I also agree with Kiefer's stance on anti-art, that is he bemoans it, but acknowledges it's right to exist.  For these reasons I am happy to call Anselm Kiefer both an influence and an ally.

The Importance of Foundations Classes by Chris Hall

Joseph Beuys, teaching.

Joseph Beuys, teaching.

"Craft is about right and wrong, preserving tradition, not reinventing the wheel. The teaching of craft in art school tends to create artist-technicians who so clearly know what is right and what is wrong that they will never do it the really fucked up/interesting/revolutionary way. Craft dulls the potential MakerThinker. It creates false security and throws up barriers to understanding. Craft is conservative."  Deborah Fisher


I disagree with Deborah Fisher.  Learning the formal elements of composition, form, line, value, color, etc. is useful no matter what field or art medium you chose to practice in the future.  If the artist is put into this world with the innate desire to construct a world of their own, what tools are they going to use for this construction?  Foundations classes gives students those tools.  Even if you pursue a conceptual path, void of aesthetic considerations, it is still helpful to know art language and terminology, as well as develop visual critical skills.  Joseph Beuys realized this, and while his later life practice was primarily of a conceptual nature, he always maintained that his students should have drawing classes.  It is better to think of foundations classes not just as a boot camp for technical skills, but also a place where one can begin to exercise critical creative thought.  How are you supposed to break the rules if you do not know what they are first?  Craft and technical ability is not conservative; it is a stepping stone necessary for future progress.  

Andy Warhol: Art of Superficiality by Chris Hall

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962

“You’re a killer of art, you’re a killer of beauty, and you’re even a killer of laughter. I can’t bear your work!” 
Willem de Kooning, yelling at Andy Warhol at a Larry Rivers party.


Where artist like Beuys sought to make the world a better place through their art, clearly did Warhol did not.  By mimicking the aesthetic of commerce and advertising, he only added to our cultural clutter.  By celebrating the idea of celebrity, he championed superficiality.  If artists like de Kooning are an ocean in their depth, Warhol is a dirty puddle.

One of Warhol’s first commercial successes was his 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962).

Andy Warhol, 32 Campbells Soup Cans, 1962

The soup cans at least could not be confused with the real thing, but Warhol soon remedied that with his Brillo Boxes, (1964).

Andy Warhol, Brillo Boxes, 1964

I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They're beautiful. Everybody's plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic. Andy Warhol.  By celebrating superficiality and celebrity culture, Andy Warhol became a celebrity himself.  

Soon Warhol puts himself before the work.  In Warhol’s first museum show at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art in 1965, the expected crowd was eager not so much to see the work, but rather the artist.  Warhol obliged them when Sam Green, fearing that the work might be damaged in the crowd, ordered that the work be taken down from the gallery walls.  

Andy Warhol at the Philadelphia ICA show, 1965

With fame came money, and Andy, true to his superficiality, loved money more than anything else in the world.  I'd asked around 10 or 15 people for suggestions... Finally one lady friend asked the right question, "Well, what do you love most?" That's how I started painting money.  Andy Warhol.  Warhol also tells us, Making money is art.  And working is art.  And good business is the best art.  There is nothing wrong with making money from your art, but making money is certainly not art.  

Andy Warhol, 200 One Dollar Bills, 1962

The people gave Andy Warhol wealth and fame, and what does he give us in return?  He purposefully tries to bore us to death.  One film, Empire (1964), is nothing more than slow motion, static footage of the Empire State building, stretched out to eight hours and five minutes.  The video below is a ten minute excerpt, but a poor quality full length version is available on YouTube if you wish to torture yourself.

Excerpt from Empire, 1964

Oh, and here is another video, Andy Warhol Eating a Hamburger (1982).  No meaning, no aesthetic, nothing but banal, boring nonsense.  At least with his celebrity portraits there was a formal aesthetic, composition and color, but here the boredom seems calculated and cruel.  There is nothing here, nothing to take away, just Andy Warhol, eating a hamburger.

Andy Warhol Eating a hamburger, 1982

The Art of Suicide by Chris Hall

I recently read over a list on Complex.com, of the top 25 Performance Art Pieces of All Time.  I found many expected works of art, both good and bad, ranging from Joseph Beuys’ I Like America and America Likes Me (1974) to Pussy Riot’s 2012 Punk Prayer.  Acconci’s Seedbed was there, as was Schneemann’s Interior Scroll.  As much as I would like to discuss the merits and flaws of each inclusion, as art, I feel more compelled still to question the presence of one inclusion at all.  I am thinking of Yukio Mishima’s suicide (1970).

Yukio Mishima giving his speech to the soldiers just before he committed Seppuku.

Yukio Mishima was a Japanese author, poet, playwright, actor, and film director.  He is considered one Japan’s most important authors of the 20th century.  Indeed, he was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  

But Mishima was a troubled soul.  Having survived WWII, he became a fervent rightwing nationalist; he pined for the pre-war days with its samurai mythology, bushido code, veneration of the emperor, and other traditional Japanese values.  Mishima formed a militia called the Tatenokai (Shield Society) on October 5th, 1968.  Two years later, on November 25th, 1970, Mishima and four members of the Tatenokai, visited the commandant of the Tokyo headquarters of the Japan Self-Defense Force.  Once inside, they barricaded the office and tied the commandant to his chair.  Mishima then stepped out onto the balcony with a prepared manifesto and a banner listing his demands, and then addressed the group of soldiers gathered below.  His speech was intended to inspire a coup and restore power to the emperor, but instead the speech was received with mocking and jeers.  Finishing his speech, Mishima then returned to the commandant’s office where he committed the ritual of Seppuku (self disembowelment with sword followed by a beheading).  Later it was revealed that Mishima had been planning the suicide performance for at least a year and had composed a ritual death poem in preparation.  

While Seppuku is a kind of performance it is also a ritual with a long tradition, going back to the 12th century.  It was reserved for samurai who would rather die by their own hands than face dishonor and be captured by their enemies, as a form of capital punishment for samurai who had committed a serious offence, or performed by a samurai to atone for a great shame.  Did Mishima view his Seppuku as an art piece (did he hope to inspire change by his act) or did he view his act as a something more private and personal, an act of reverence for samurai tradition?  Did he know he would fail to inspire a coup and was seeking to atone for this failure?  Perhaps it was all of these things.  If it was a final work of performance art, I can think of no greater conflation of life and art.

Kathy Change during happier times, before she committed self-immolation.


Similar in circumstance to Yukio Mishima’s suicide by Seppuku, Philadelphia artist Kathy Change death by self immolation on October 22, 1996 on the University of Pennsylvania campus might be argued as being art action.  Born Kathleen Chang, she legally changed her name to Kathy Change to indicate her commitment to political and social change.  Change’s life was defined by acts of political activism as art and also bouts of mental illness.  For twenty years Change was a fixture in Philadelphia, giving street performances on the University of Pennsylvania campus and in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  She would sing, dance, play guitar and keyboard, wave handmade flags, and give speeches, all while dressed in different outlandish costumes.  Her performances were meant to education the audience on various government and economic issues of the day, and to wake people up from their complacency.  Perhaps feeling like her work was not getting through to her audience, she decided on final act . . . but was it art as suicide or just suicide as an act of despair?  Is art as suicide truly even possible?  Like Mishima, the suicide act was meticulously prepared.  She practiced with meat and different accelerants before settling on gasoline.  Unlike Mishima, we do know that Change had hoped that her self immolation would wake people up from complacency and inspire them to take action on the formation of a new government.  In a packet she delivered to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Daily Pennsylvanian, and to several of her friends, she writes:  

I want to protest the present government and economic system and the cynicism and passivity of the people…as emphatically as I can. But primarily, I want to get publicity in order to draw attention to my proposal for immediate social transformation. To do this I plan to end my own life. The attention of the media is only caught by acts of violence. My moral principles prevent me from doing harm to anyone else or their property, so I must perform this act of violence against myself. . . . Call me a flaming radical burning for attention, but my real intention is to spark a discussion of how we can peacefully transform our world.  America, I offer myself to you as an alarm against Armageddon and a torch for liberty.

With a history of mental illness, it is difficult to say whether her suicide was a matter of free will and artistic agency.  Much depends on how one perceives not only mental illness, but also the act of artistic creation.  But if she felt she had to kill herself because of a suicidal urge, that is a depression perhaps brought on by her perceived failure to change the world, perhaps, she decided to make the most of it, and turn the act into one final work of art.  

Artist Ray Johnson with painting.

I think of one final example of the possibility of art as suicide, Raymond Edward “Ray” Johnson’s suicide on January 13th, 1995.  Known primarily as a collage and correspondence artist, Ray Johnson was a seminal figure in the history of Neo-Dada and early Pop Art.  On January (Friday) 13th, 1995 Johnson was seen diving off of a bridge in Sag Harbor, New York, and then backstroking out to sea.  Earlier that day Johnson checked into a hotel in room number 247 (2 + 4 + 7 = 13).  The age of his death was 67 (6 + 7 = 13).  Witnesses have even suggested that the exact time of Johnson’s jump also added up to 13.  Could it all have been a strange coincidence, or was this Ray Johnson’s final art action?  We will never know for sure, as Johnson did not leave a suicide note.  Johnson’s body was found washed up on the beach the next day.  

Recovering Beuys: Artist, Activist, Shaman, Teacher by Chris Hall

Zeige Deine Wunde - Show your wound.  Joseph Beuys

And when I say: “Show it! Show the wound that we have inflicted upon ourselves during the course of our development”, it is because the only way to progress and become aware of it is to show it.  Joseph Beuys  

Image from I like America and America Likes Me, 1974

The Origin Myth

Joseph Beuys remains a controversial figure to this day, nearly 30 years since his death.  Despite being on the vanguard of conceptual and performance art, the hard-core Post-modernists don’t want him because of his enigmatic myth making and his refusal to give up and become a pessimist and skeptic.  Beuys was in line with the artist as hero rhetoric of his Modernist predecessors and since Post-modernists like Benjamin Buchloh won’t claim him, I think I will take him for one of my own team.

As a young man Beuys was fascinated by animals and studied medicine.  But soon afterwards the Second World War broke out and in 1941 Beuys volunteered for the Luftwaffe where he trained as a radio operator and gunner for the Ju-87 Stuka dive-bomber.  But on 16 March, 1944, at the age of 22, something significant would happen that would alter the course of his life forever.  While flying a mission over the Crimea he was shot out of the sky, the plane crashing into the snow.  The pilot was instantly killed, but somehow Beuys survived.  According to Beuys, he was pulled unconscious from the wreckage by a group of nomadic Tatars, who then warmed his frozen body and cared for his wounds by wrapping him in animal fat and felt blankets.  The Tartars took him in as one of their own until Beuys was well enough to make his way back to German field hospital.  Later, returning home, Beuys fell into a deep depression.  It was in this state that Beuys begin to feel himself transformed.  He found help through making art in the form of drawings which at this time he produced in the thousands, and he began his fascination with Shamanism and healing.  Drawing would later remain a big part of his practice and teaching philosophy, even as his own work grew more conceptual and he began to make performance art.   

It is for certain that Beuys did crash in the Crimea, that is in the record, but as for the rest, his Shamanic initiation with the Tatars and the transformation through depression, that can not be substantiated.  It has led some skeptics such as Buchloh to believe that Beuys made the whole thing up in order to create a legend or myth about himself.  However, I am inclined to believe Beuys story, as I, too, have gone through a bit of a transformation myself when I was 19, when I had my first black, howling, soul shattering depression and my own Shamanic initiation dream.  But irregardless of whether it all happened as Beuys described it or not, the story still informs his art, and the subsequent art is more important than the origin story.

After recovering from his wounds and depression, Beuys saw that Germany, too, was sick and wounded, and was also in need of healing.  Beuys viewed his art as a healing tool, and viewed himself as an artist, healer, and teacher.  He sought to bring mystical truths to the people and genuinely sought to make the world a better place through art, politics, and education.  

Beuys the Activist, Beuys the Educator:  a Misunderstanding of Intent.

As a political activist he was one of the founding members of Germany’s environmentalist Green Party.  Beuys would also run for a seat in Parliament, unsuccessfully.  Beuys’ merger of politics and aesthetics, plus his messianic myth making character, lead some people to distrust him and become skeptical of his intentions.  Despite Beuys democratic rhetoric, some viewed him as a totalitarian in disguise, reminiscent of Hitler.

To make people free is the aim of art.  Therefore art for me is the science of freedom.  Joseph Beuys  

Even today Beuys remains a controversial figure.  In a recent biography, Hans Peter Riegel writes, “Beuys was one of the first members of Germany’s environmentalist Green Party, and he spoke a great deal about democracy. Ultimately, however, the artist strove for a totalitarian society …” This assertion is made only because of Beuys willingness to be vocal about his politics through his art, and his supposed, tenuous connections with former Nazis (while this is in character for the messianic Beuys, to heal the wounded sinner, I might also argue that everyone among his peers would have been guilty, at least by association, in Post War Germany; to say otherwise would be completely naive).

Photograph from a performance at the Technical College Aachen, in 1964.  The performance was part of a festival of new art coinciding with the 20th anniversary of an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler.  The performance was interrupted by a group of students, one of whom attacked Beuys, punching him in the face. 

As an educator he taught at the university, where he was very popular with is students, but when the university fired him because of his unorthodox teachings, he founded his own university.   Despite being a conceptualist and a practitioner of performance art, Beuys was deeply invested in the power of aesthetics and would require that his students take drawing classes.  Beuys was often outspoken about his criticism of Duchamp for removing aesthetics from art.  Unfortunately for Beuys, who was politically active, the connection between aesthetics and politics was one of the major defining characteristics of Fascism.  This, of course, led many people to distrust him and misunderstand his intentions.

The esthetic conservatism of Beuys is logically complemented by his politically retrograde, not to say reactionary, attitudes. Both are inscribed into a seemingly progressive and radical humanitarian program of esthetic and social evolution. The abstract universality of Beuys’ vision has its equivalent in the privatistic and deepy subjective nature of his actual work. Any attempt on his side to join the two aspects results in curious sectarianism. The roots of Beuys’ dilemma lie in the misconception that politics could become a matter of esthetics …  Benjamin Buchloh  

So when I appear as a kind of shamanistic figure, or allude to it, I do it to stress my belief in other priorities and the need to come up with a completely different plan for working with substances. For instance, in places like universities, where everyone speaks so rationally, it is necessary for a kind of enchanter to appear.  Joseph Beuys

To be a teacher is my greatest work of art.  The rest is a waste product, a demonstration.
Joseph Beuys

Beuys the Artist, Beuys the Healer:  Two Significant Performances

How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 1965.  

It was made “when he was almost entirely unknown. Visitors could view Beuys through a window, where they found him sitting and cradling a dead hare in his arms. The artist’s face was covered in the symbolic substances of honey and gold leaf, and his boot was weighed down with an iron slab. He mumbled barely audible noises into the ear of the inert animal, as well as explanations of his drawings hanging behind them. This action, both strangely hilarious and moving, puts us in mind of the impossibility of teaching, the skepticism of listeners, indeed the deaf ears of most of those we ask to listen. It speaks to the difficulty of making one’s work known in the world and the possibility of an unexpected transcendence of these limits.”  (Italicize mine, from Outsiders:  The Art of Joseph Beuys by Tim Segar for Potash Hill).  

I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974. 


For this performance Beuys flew to New York City and was taken to a room in a gallery on West Broadway. He “was transported by ambulance, lying on a stretcher and wrapped in felt. For three days, the artist shared the room with a wild coyote. Some of the time he stood leaning on a shepherd’s staff, swathed in his felt blanket. Other times he lay on a bed of straw and watched the coyote. The coyote watched him, circled him, and shredded his blanket to pieces. The artist did things like striking a large triangle, drawing lines on the floor, and other mysterious gestures . . . After three days, the coyote had grown quite tolerant of Beuys. The artist hugged him and returned to the airport in an ambulance, leaving without having set foot on American soil . . . A bit of context to remember is that the Vietnam War was in its last year when this piece was made, President Nixon was on the verge of resigning the presidency, and the international community had been looking askance at the United States for quite some time . . . In both works, Beuys is acting on our behalf both humorously—mocking our attempts to interact with the world—and shamanically—conjuring hidden languages with which to cross the boundaries of death, species, language, and cultural divides.”  (From Outsiders:  The Art of Joseph Beuys by Tim Segar for Potash Hill).  

Coda:


This is what Beuys tries to do: only through showing the wound – the pain and suffering caused by the past – and through repeatedly reliving these traumatic events can some form of coping take place and can one leave the past behind. Beuys pushes where it hurts and shows in which ways one can cope with a problematic past.  From Joseph Beuys and the German Trauma by Lisa VanHaeren.

Beuys fought against skepticism and doubt.  Through his art he sought to do well by both people and the environment, healing the rift between mankind and nature (in 1982 with the help of volunteers he planted 7,000 Oak trees in Kassel, Germany).  And yet many of his critics remained skeptical, if not suspicious of his work.  His ardor and artistic and political idealism tended to turn off and frighten people.  Beuys critics fall into two camps:  one group, represented by critic Stefan Germer, believed that art did not have the power to initiate political change; they were filled with skepticism and doubt, and viewed Beuys as a deluded fool.  The other group, represented  by critics such as Benjamin Buchloh, believed (in light of Fascism) that art and politics were a dangerous combination, and that aesthetics should not serve as a vehicle to effect political change; Buchloh and others were suspicious of Beuys and sought out ulterior motives in his politics.  Despite the harsh criticism, Beuys did not give up, he continued his work; he truly believed in his mission and in the power of art to change things for the better.  Beuys’ artistic altruism, his generosity, his dedication to his mission as an artist, his championing of artistic and political idealism, and most of all, his refusal to give up, these are all worthy and admirable qualities.  There should be more artists like Joseph Beuys.  

Drawings by Joseph Beuys

Not Everyone is an Artist by Chris Hall

There are too many artists, too many dealers, and too much art. If plumbing was as popular as art, we would have amateur plumbers running around in stained clothing, brandishing plungers and roto-rooters, climbing in and out of sewers, and writing gibberish about pipe systems.
And none of our toilets would work.

- Walter Darby Bannard

Every man is an artist – Joseph Beuys  


While I appreciate his Democratic impulse, Joseph Beuys was wrong.  Just like not everyone can be a surgeon, or not everyone can be an astronaut, writer, film director, or musician, not everyone can be an artist.  

It used to be the rare individual who was an artist.  You had to have both a technical ability (aka talent), and also have a visionary or poetic spirit (imagination).  Now neither of these two aspects is required in order to be an artist, or at least a postmodern artist.  With the new direction art has taken, art in the expanded field, (art as social experiment, art as data collection, even art as food service) it seems like a lot of people are producing what some people might call art.  Postmodernism’s destruction of hierarchies and a refusal to be critical of just what exactly defines an art practice (the pluralist “anything goes” attitude) has made for a bloated market.  

Instead of art and the expanded field, perhaps we should call it art and the expanding balloon.  Eventually the expanding balloon will pop.  

Christopher Hall  Spiderman Can't Paint , c 2010

Christopher Hall Spiderman Can't Paint, c 2010