Here’s a bit of cognitive dissonance. There’s a famous takedown of Joseph Beuys by art historian Benjamin Buchloh (originally from Artforum in 1980, reprinted in his Neo-Avant Garde and the Culture Industry, 2000). For Buchloh, Beuys was a fraud, politically simplistic, shallow, and a problematic figure whose mixing up of myth and matter is ahistorical, unhelpfully glossing over the deep historical struggles of the twentieth century. The trouble is, Buchloh’s critique is both true and not true.
Buchloh echoed Marcel Broodthaers, who once sent an open letter to a Dusseldorf newspaper addressing Beuys as ‘Wagner’. Confronted with a German artist in the late twentieth century who was shying away from politically progressive conceptualism in favour of dabbling with messianic presentation and embracing mysticism, it must have felt much too soon for an artist to be skirting so close to what had got the world into trouble in the first place. But the ways of seeing of 1980 are not those of today. Today, Buchloh’s critique feels like a mischaracterisation of Beuys, but it might more accurately be the case that Beuys makes more sense in the context of ecologically perilous late capitalism.
The work on display in this extensive Artist Rooms at the reopened Leeds Art Gallery makes it clear that the myths that pop up in Beuys’ work are neither escapist or evasive. Dominating the largest space in the Henry Moore Sculpture Galleries is the vast, dizzying, Scala Napoleatana (1986), a ladder reaching into the sky, held down by two lead weights. It’s one of the last sculptures Beuys ever made, and since people flow through the linked rooms here in both directions, it’s either the first or last sculpture that a visitor to the exhibition will see. An elliptical beginning or an ending, from either angle it casts the whole exhibition in the context of death and rebirth.
It’s one of several key sculptures, showing alongside extensive posters, drawings and performance documentation, in this impressive survey. There are many works here including Sled (1969) and Fat Chair (1964-85), which exemplify Beuys’ singular aesthetic, the limited palette of material and colour, wood, felt, fat, metal. The same materials recur again and again, a very prosaic dread that seems to have been churned out in some hellish ACME Corporation factory for horror objects. Familiar materials are rendered creepier because of their plainness, the banality of evil. They seem to be traversing some line between survival and destruction; are we in the Shackleton expedition, or a gulag? And then there’s Felt Suit (1970) hanging high up in the White Gallery, which is one of several works that makes a viewer question the reliability of Beuys as a narrator. Felt as a material was described by the artist as emblematic of ‘spiritual warmth or the beginning of evolution’, but the suit, with its lengthened arms and legs, is an uncanny and uncomfortable object. These sculptures make a convincing case that Beuys’ work is a thorough investigation of the trauma of the twentieth century.
Beuys was a green rather than a socialist, a mystic not a scientist; and an advocate for a third way between communism and capitalism. His rhetoric prioritised freedom and self expression over collectivism. It’s fair to say that he wasn’t always on the side of the struggle. But now, as capitalism dissolves into floods and fires, and as the strident atheism that felt progressive thirty years ago now increasingly seems a crutch for white male cultural dominance, Beuys’ work feels prescient. There’s never been a more appropriate time to think through this, and Leeds, a place which more than most has felt the push-pull of twentieth century capitalism, and of industry giving and taking away, is a good place to do the thinking. Abuse and trauma leave traces, and those who have lived through it sometimes echo these traces with their own behaviour, so the presentation which Buchloh found so problematic almost forty years ago now seems appropriate and moving. Maybe he was a shaman, after all.
Artist Rooms: Joseph Beuys, Leeds Art Gallery, 13 October 2017 – 21 January 2018.
Tessa Norton is a writer based in West Yorkshire and London.