Archives for posts with tag: Sculpture

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: It’s time we went upstairs, I think. The Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac is a generous refurbishment of a sumptuous town house in Dover Street in Mayfair – one of the most expensive areas in the world. But we are swimming in space as we go up the double staircase. There is a ‘sparse hang’ along the corridor of a few multiples and drawings, with the white walls and the oak floors it all feels very much as it should do – the works have plenty of space, but you can still get close. Then we arrive at the end room…

Richard: Having seen Feldbett (Campaign Bed), 1982 on the ground floor, which has a quiet but authoritative power (and that familiar sense of commemoration that accompanies a lot of Beuys works), I was expecting something good for the last room of the show. The Library Gallery – the main room on the first floor of the gallery contained five works: Tisch mit Aggregat (Table with Aggregate), 1958-1985, Hirsch (Stag), 1958/1982,  Boothia Felix, 1958/1982, Ziege (Goat), 1958/1982 and Urtiere (Primordial Animals), 1958/1982. Taken in isolation I’m sure these sculptures have the power to enthral, to drag you into their strange world/ mind-set shared with Beuys’ best work. For me the arrangement of the works – dotted around the floor in close proximity to each other dissipated the works’ energy – their individual meanings seeming to bleed into and cancel each other out. The collected works did not work as an artistic siphonophore, despite their uniformity of appearance. The room was difficult to look at, and digest in any meaningful way and I think it was a missed opportunity. At Tate Modern the placement of the works in the Beuys room seems to work to the individual works’ advantage rather than against them (major works are given room to breathe). What did you think of the final room?

David: For me the last room upstairs was a curatorial misstep. I was baffled, almost as if I suddenly couldn’t understand a language I knew well. It made me aware of how any exhibition depends on tension between the exhibits – but if they actually mix and fight each other then the net result is a nullification. A bit like mixing colours in a painting…if you mix them too much all you get is a grey mess. And I speak from experience! I wonder if that kind of separation was why Beuys himself was so fond of vitrines? They are almost like mini-installations.

Richard: Yes, the vitrines are like a discreet closed world – the box frames the objects inviting the viewer to consider their function and their relationship to each other. The final room of this exhibition does the opposite – it presents a chaotic jumble of objects – and reminds me of sightseeing in the Louvre – you get to half-glimpse the Mona Lisa in a sea of people – not so much an art experience as a box ticking exercise. Utopia at the Stag Monuments: yep, seen that.

David: Maybe the arrangement of objects is shamanistic magic. Unless you are a member of the Shaman’s Guild, an arrangement of objects is just…objects.
If you are a bona fide shaman, however, you can make the objects talk to one another and open doors in reality through which we glimpse meaning. Or endow them with a kind of residual charge by using them in a certain way – so that they become an art battery where creative power is stored. When this happens it is as if Beuys’ strange rituals and fetishes can connect the present to the past. I don’t think of Beuys as New Age in any way, but he certainly was able to take advantage of interest in atavistic spirituality to draw punters in to his circle. The spiritual void of our modern tribe is so huge and we feel it keenly; yet we are so close, not only to our ancestors, but also to the energy of the Earth and many other eternal things. This for me is Beuys’ legacy now that his charismatic presence is gone.



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): 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…

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…

Untitled photographs 1984, rephotographed and treated 2011