Joseph Beuys Multiples
Walker Art Center

A CENTRAL FIGURE of the postwar European avant-garde, the charismatic Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) was at once an artistic innovator, new-age huckster, utopian dreamer, political activist, and self-made messiah. Beuys considered all his work, and for that matter all human creative activity, "social sculpture," an expansive yet hazy notion of Art as any conscious fulfillment of human potential. He saw his mission as no less than that of a facilitator of social transformation on a grand scale. It follows that, like its subject, the Walker's Joseph Beuys Multiples show is simultaneously engaging and infuriating.

To put together an exhibit that can somehow capture all that Beuys represents is a tall order and the Walker attempts it with mixed results. Part of the problem lies in the nature of the art presented. Beuys's multiples included prints, postcards, editions of small sculptures made from slightly altered everyday objects, and other assorted flotsam and jetsam. These represented an important part of his work, but every physical object he produced was subordinate to Beuys's self-proclaimed primary role as teacher. "The rest is waste product," Beuys would say, "a demonstration." He considered the objects seen in this show as mere vehicles for his ideas, with marginal value as art in a traditional aesthetic sense.

So what's a major cultural institution to do? The Walker's curators have opted to present this residue of a life of ideas in handsome glass cases that suggest a cataloging of historical artifacts--relics of a curious, bygone cargo cult. In a sense this is entirely appropriate; to so enshrine works like "Noiseless Blackboard Erasers" and "Felt Postcards" gives the otherwise mundane objects an aura of mystery like pieces of the true cross, and adds to the mystification of the self-styled shaman who "created" them.

What's lost in such a display is the direct engagement with materials like fat, lead, and honey that were often presented in gritty, spare installations and which played an important role in his "actions"--performance pieces that emphasized an elemental link between the natural world and human society. We get a taste of that in video and photo documentation in the exhibit, but they lack the immediacy that must have seemed so essential to the actual events. The most prominent video clip, appearing on two monitors at the end of the entrance hallway, highlights another major paradox of Beuys's agenda. The wall above the monitors features Beuys's famous slogan, "Everyone is an Artist"; and in his role as motivational speaker for the avant-garde, Beuys constantly emphasized this point. The videotapes below, however, forward a slightly different story.

In a nine-minute clip from a four-hour performance, Celtic + ~, one camera actively follows Beuys as he climbs a ladder, picks detritus out of a wall, puts it in a bowl, climbs down, and then gravely deposits the bowl's contents over his head. The other stationary camera focuses on the passive audience, some watching Beuys intently, others impatiently milling around. Clearly, not everyone is an artist here. Beuys had a commanding presence that he used successfully to cultivate an aura of celebrity. His physical image is a central feature of many of his multiples, and, despite egalitarian leanings, he wholeheartedly embraced the role of artist-as-genius, a position that seems to run contrary to the democratic ideals he espoused.

The same paradoxes arise in regard to the statements the artist intended to communicate through the multiples. The idea of the multiple implies accessibility; Beuys wanted to make his ideas available to people outside the art world, and saw the creation of cheap reproducible objects as a way to do that. And yet their meaning is opaque without significant contextual information.

And to its credit, the Walker does provide a good deal of context in its didactic material, particularly in explaining Beuys's idealistic belief in the power of individual creativity and its potential use for collective good. This is seen most clearly in the documentation of his last major project, "7000 Oaks," in which he undertook a planting of 7,000 trees as a symbolic restoration of the earth.

Sadly lacking, though, is the presentation of a critical historical context concerning the artist's early years in Germany, as a member of the Hitler Youth and as a pilot for the Luftwaffe. Beuys himself constructed an elaborate mythology surrounding his rescue in the Crimea after a plane crash. This myth, often taken for truth, has effectively clouded his factual past, which is then conveniently ignored. Although he has denied it, one could consider Beuys's entire artistic endeavor as a personal expiation for his complicity with the Third Reich.

Yet that topic seems verboten in the uplifting world of Beuysiana. Why is Beuys still lauded as a mythic hero when the Yale deconstructionist Paul de Man was widely discredited when his Nazi collaboration came to light? The Walker's decision not to address this issue denies us the chance to even consider the possibilities.

Despite these misgivings, the exhibit does provide a hopeful, if somewhat naive picture of a time not so long ago when assertions of art's transformative potential were not met with collective eye-rolling. And much of the work seems freshly relevant. Who today can't identify with the videotape of Beuys ritually pummeling himself in front of a blathering television? Universal verities indeed.

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