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.

Richard: One of the things that makes his work so magnetic is the fusion of the commonplace with the spiritual and intellectual – as if every object he touched was a means of deep psychological and material exploration for him and (possibly as a byproduct) a way to awaken curiosity about the physical world in the viewer. There’s a roughness and vitality to the drawings that makes them very difficult to co-opt for commercial purposes. How much do you think Beuys’ aesthetic/ anti-aesthetic has entered the vocabulary of advertising and media (I remember in the mid-Eighties Green from Scritti Politti citing Beuys as an influence on his record cover design)?

David: I’m not sure if Scritti Politti album covers form part of the advertising mainstream…but I think Beuys did a whisky commercial in Japan once? Or was that a myth? I don’t think that his style – if you want to call it that – could ever really work in advertising because he is not glorifying or glamourising his subjects. He is sort of Beuysifying them – the object is somehow turned into a stand-in for the physical properties of its construction, or its essence. He uses objects to translate his vision for us mere mortals, who cannot apprehend the scope of his abstract vision otherwise. Hidden from view but revealed to us by a Shaman (Beuys) through the change wrought to familiar objects – he has reinvented the role of priest and intercessionary between us and the divine. It’s not quite in the same vein as Jasper Johns who seems to borrow familiar objects as much for their formal aesthetic qualities as their familiarity. I would argue that advertising creatives have almost a diametrically opposing function – also reinventing priesthood in their own image, but very much in the pre Reformation sense of a priesthood that offers you the chance to buy indulgences – which is what they were really called – which gave you forgiveness and entry to paradise. Beuys is a modern day Luther ranting desperately against this lazy tyranny of materialism. Do you think his work has been absorbed into the commercial mainstream?

Richard: Nothing can be forgotten on the internet (if this is genuine): https://youtu.be/ARS3TO9r_z4 Completely agree with you about advertising creatives.  And think that maybe his use of objects is impossible for the mainstream to co-opt without creating some kind of weak pastiche. The aesthetic operation is what I think Green used.

For all the reasons you listed I think maybe Beuys is inimitable – I can’t think of a single other artist who makes work like him and he doesn’t seem to have any followers. I wonder if remaking yourself as a shamanic figure has this effect. There is a point in the show where Beuys’ work seems to change from being fairly straight representations of the earth goddess, stags etc to looking like he has been channelling some kind of outside force to create the work, inhabiting or being inhabited by pagan forces. I wonder whether Beuys considered this an artistic breakthrough or just another step in his creative evolution. Once he starts making non-objective work (i.e. not picturing something) Beuys seems very present in everything  he makes. Is everything from this point on a performance/ action or a by-product of one?

David: Looking at the Scritti Politti cover, it does remind me of Beuys’ work, at least superficially. The black rubber stamp in particular suggests more than an accidental resemblance. That may be as far as the similarity goes though…

As I recall they chose their name just because they liked the way it sounded, rather than what it actually meant. This might be the same story?

From my understanding of shamanism (looking at Beuys’ work and watching the Mighty Boosh), that is exactly what it is – a progressively closer identification with an object of fascination and power until the Shaman’s own identity is changed. You start by wearing the clothes as a costume but they eventually become your skin. Beuys’ actions are part of this process, but I would characterise them as rituals more than performances. I’m not sure they need an audience. If you saw one of Rauschenberg’s performances, you would feel as if you had seen a theatrical show, but if you had seen one of Beuys’ you might feel like a traveller in a remote region, stumbling across the priest of an obscure cult.

There have been one or two brave souls who have tried to follow Beuys down this kind of path to make Art, but without the conviction or aesthetics, and they disappear without trace. Richard Wilson is probably the only one I can think of who comes close, but he is so English – and (successfully) theatrical in his performances.

To Be Continued…

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