In early June 2018 David Cook and I visited Joseph Beuys: Utopia At The Stag Monuments at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, 17th April to 16th June 2018. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing.

David: This show was like a refresher course in Beuys for me. I think we have both been big fans of Joseph Beuys for a long time – we became interested in him when he was still alive and making work. He was such a charismatic, individual artist with such a radical program. I sometimes try to explain his work to people who don’t know it, and it’s not easy! The first thing that I saw of his was Plight at the d’Offay gallery back in 1985 – one of the most powerful art experiences I have had. If I had seen the works in this show first though, I might have been a bit confused. Do you remember seeing his work for the first time? Would this show have been a good place to start?

Richard: The first Beuys works I saw were at Tate Britain when it was the Tate Gallery in the mid-80s – a couple of vitrines and a felt suit hanging on the wall – the objects weren’t that spectacular in themselves, but I think that’s what ignited my interest – they didn’t look like art. I bought a poster of one of Beuys’ sludgy green paintings and read any books about him I could get my hands on. I’m still excited to see his work. But I wouldn’t introduce someone to his work with this show – unless I got them to stay downstairs! Shall we talk about the drawings?

David: Beuys’ drawings are his fundamental tool. They translate experience in a completely individual way. And they have such a unique range of feel, they seem to be the work of many different artists. Some of them seem to be diagrams of the impossible drawn by an insane mind, or an alien.  Some of them are so faint it’s almost impossible to see them, others are just plain slabs of oily floor paint on paper. One thing I love about them is their museum standard frames that Beuys insisted on. The frames unify these disparate, often scrappy excrescences into a body of work and force you to appreciate them as the product of one mind and one hand. Their breadth of subject is extraordinary. It is as if he has considered everything in a para-scientific way. He uses art to describe the world – not just its surface appearance, but its history, natural forces seen and unseen, and the structures of human society – reinventing not only art but also science in a sort of philosophical slap around the face. Which is more fun than it sounds.

I once showed a book of Beuys drawings to someone who only drew from life, but was very open minded. He took a look, scratched his head, then took another look and said: “Well, he certainly has great taste…” The drawings certainly do have huge and sophisticated aesthetic appeal which is easy to overlook when you get caught up in the showmanship of the performances and installations, yet for me underpins Beuys’ whole vision – his crazy (or not so crazy) agenda for putting art at the centre of society. Knowing your preference for the awkward and the unbeautiful, do you find them, er…nice to look at?

Richard: Yes, I do! Beuys seems unconcerned with aesthetics (I think they’re more about getting something down on paper directly and without too much intervention), and because of that they are very liberating to look at in that you don’t have to appreciate their craftsmanship. I’m a big fan of the stains and smudges he made. Several of the drawings in this exhibition suggest ideas or representations, but don’t  deliver a “finished” view, leaving room for the viewer to complete the picture. Which makes the drawings very democratic (and in keeping with the idea of putting art at the centre of society). And I think you’re right about them being at the core of Beuys’ practice – this is the quiet, intimate space where he worked things out, whether in a thoughtful, representational way or as the vehicle for the mark. Are the drawings rehearsals for his other work?

I don’t think the drawings are rehearsals so much as explanations. Beuys was very dedicated to teaching and the drawings often have the quality of diagrams or notes. But I don’t think you can hope to understand them in a rational way, any more than you can make a working battery out of an orange. There is some kind of aesthetic alchemy going on which attempts to connect different areas of human thought – e.g. the spiritual and the political – through art. A lot of this is driven by the use of materials to effectively represent themselves – floorpaint, beeswax, blood, felt and copper all have their place. I can’t think of another artist for whom the diversity of physical materials (and the uses to which they can be put in the real world) has been so critical – and it carries across from the drawing into the sculpture. In fact I am not entirely sure that Beuys himself would have really distinguished between the different forms.

To Be Continued…