Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments" at the Menil Collection is billed as the "first Beuys sculpture exhibition in the English-speaking world for 25 years." This is partly because the oh-so- Germanic and more than a little messianic Beuys can be a hard sell for Americans. But it's also because showing his sculptural work is a conservator's nightmare. Beuys is an important artist in many ways, but he's best known for his use of really nontraditional materials. Conservators have had problems with Beuys's pieces oozing liquid, developing worms and weevils and just downright disintegrating, which isn't surprising, considering one of his favorite materials was animal fat. How do you preserve, present and transport work like that?
Beuys famously declared, "Everyone is an artist." In addition to installations and objects, he made art through "actions" (performances) as well as blackboard lectures that became art objects themselves. But it's the anti-art materials Beuys chose to express himself with -- in addition to fat, he made pieces using felt, tallow, sausage, chocolate and butter -- that are most revealing. He wanted art to transform and heal society, which is why the overused and loaded words "alchemy" and "shaman" come up a lot in discussions of Beuys.
Beuys was drawn to materials such as fat and felt for their heat-generating properties. The whole fat-and-felt thing springs from a story Beuys told about what happened after he was shot down in the Crimea during World War II. In his version, the Tatars saved his life by wrapping him in fat and felt to keep him warm. Around 1980, people started questioning whether that actually had happened. It had not. But the story gave Beuys, who had volunteered for the Luftwaffe, a symbolic rebirth, something a lot of Germans in the postwar era were looking for. Doubtless the story -- and Beuys's involvement with utopian and peace concerns from the '60s onward -- allowed the artist a way to separate from his own feelings of guilt. I suppose if you had been a tiny cog in the systematically brutal Nazi war machine, a way to reject the regime's order and cruel precision could be making artwork using materials that are unwieldy, absurd, ugly, grim and unaesthetic.
Sweeping Up (1972/85) is a glass case containing the remnants of a 1972 Beuys performance in which he and two students swept Berlin's Karl-Marx-Platz following the May Day parade. They symbolically removed debris -- and ideology -- by placing it into plastic bags that said, "Organization of Non-Voters, in Favor of Free Referendum." The 30-plus-year-old collection of filth and crap is presented complete with a broom lying on its side in the raised rectangular vitrine. It's the result of a dynamic and active performance, but in the museum context, it has become a kind of holy relic. The work has become like an urban archeological preserve, in which vintage cigarette packs and booze bottles vie with political tracts and Schmutz. A speaker plays the sounds of the long-ago performance.
Looking at the Sweeping Up vitrine you wonder, how do museums handle 30-year-old trash? Do they just ship the whole case and let all that crap roll around inside? Actually, the glass bottles and rocks are removed from the mix and the rest of the debris is boxed up. The work's owner came to install Sweeping Up himself. He basically just started dumping the 1972 garbage into the case, arranged a couple of the brighter pieces on top and added in the broom.
The installation of other works is much more anal. A massive printing press that's a part of Earthquake (1981) can't be touched on any visible surfaces while being installed. The Guggenheim owns it and wants the original patina of dirt intact. Almost every piece in the Beuys show arrived with a courier -- someone authorized by the piece's owner, and sometimes the owner himself, traveling along with it to oversee its installation. (The Menil has to foot the bill for this; it's a part of lending agreements from private collectors and other museums.)
Beuys's Economic Values (1980) arrived with two of its own couriers to install it. An L shape of open metal shelves displays a depressing collection of 24-year-old East German foodstuffs, a study in communist splendor. The aging process has altered the piece dramatically; there's a scary-looking jar of hare pâté, and yellowed packages of what might pass for East German convenience foods. The stuff looks even older than it is because of that cutting-edge Soviet bloc package design. It's not surprising that Beuys found the unaesthetic labeling appealing.
Economic Values smells like aging food -- or is that the butter? A massive block of plaster is placed in front of the shelves, and its worn corners have been spackled with seven pounds of butter. Extra butter sits in an enamel basin with a trowel. You can see how the oil from the butter is soaking into the plaster block -- the whole cube becomes like a giant chunk of ersatz butter. At the end of the show, the butter will be wiped off the edges and the plaster block will be repacked into its own (stinky) case. The shelves of foodstuff each will be placed in their own sealed Plexiglas drawers and flushed with nitrogen, to drive out the oxygen and kill any weevils, worms, etc.
Materials have meanings, and Beuys understood that better than most people. What's amazing is how a casual gesture or a spontaneous choice to use a particular material now causes teams of people to agonize over how to display and maintain it. But should it be maintained through such extreme measures? Isn't it part of Beuys's process to just let these inherently unstable materials molder away?
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