Conceptually Speaking: ‘Beuys’

Beuys Main Photo

By Paul Parcellin

German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, whose highly influential sculptures, drawings, performances and lectures entranced the 1970s international art scene, was at the top of the contemporary art heap in those years, temporarily, at least, replacing reigning superstars Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, two of New York and European galleries’ hottest commodities.

If you’re unfamiliar with Beuys (pronounced “boys”) and conceptual art in general, Beuys, the documentary, gives you a handle on the artist and the avant garde work he produced four decades ago. The film is a mashup of clips of some of the artist’s performance and lectures, as well as interviews with him and others who knew him. It uses lots of black and white photo portraits of Beuys as well as grainy video shot long before the days when smart phones allowed everyone to carry a virtual television station in his or her pocket. Editing and clever use of photos keeps the film moving along at a reasonable, if not brisk, pace, and helps smooth the way for those who are just getting acquainted with the shaman/artist bent on affecting social change.

To his legion of followers, Beuys was instantly recognizable — rail thin and clad in a gray fedora and fly fisherman’s vest, his clothes were obviously chosen for their function rather than style. His stark performances, using props such as honey, fat, yards of felt, a dead hare and a living coyote, was the stuff that wowed critics and fans of the avant garde.

Despite Beuys’s eccentricities and the sometimes provocative statements he makes in the film, those who don’t buy into the conceptual art movement will likely be bored with this documentary. For that matter, many might have a hard time understanding that Beuys’s work is, indeed, art. Performances such as the one titled, “I Like Amerika Because Amerika Likes Me,”  in which he wraps himself in felt and spends time in a New York loft with a coyote, might raise eyebrows, or guffaws, among the uninitiated.

A sizeable part of Beuys’s oeuvre is his own personal story, or myth, depending on what you believe, that he was a Luftwaffe pilot during World War II and was shot down over the Crimea. Native Tartars helped heal his wounds by covering them with fat and wrapping him in felt. The implements used to rescue and heal him, including sleds (he was transported on one), honey, fat and felt, became integral elements of his art and performances.

As you might imagine, even in the days when Beuys’s reputation was white-hot in some quarters, the artist attracted a good deal of hostility from people inside and outside the art world.

That was in part due to Beuys’s rejection of the traditional roles of artists as simply painters, sculptors and printmakers. Instead, he favored a broad definition of what being in artist means. For him, art was connected with social activism, which is part of the reason he drew the ire of more conservative members of his community. Beuys said anyone can be an artist, and anything can be art, and he set out to prove it. As we follow him on his tireless journey, proselytizing for ecological, economic and democratic reforms, he sits on panels and argues with pundits and delivers zingers to those who challenge his ideas — his charisma is apparent, and that may have been his strongest suit. He died in 1986, and while his art is still seen in museums around the world, without his live performances and lectures his work loses some of its impact.

Although the film gives a well articulated summary of the artist’s career, it can’t really convey the quality of his live performances, which tended to be austere and not particularly visually arresting. This being a cinematic endeavor, editing, sound effects and graphics are employed to present the artist’s work. Those elements, while not overly intrusive, allow the filmmaker’s point of view to seep in to the documentation of Beuys’s work. It’s not the dispassionate, artistically neutral recording of a Beuys performance that the artist would likely have favored — he’d probably want something more akin to video surveillance footage.

Beuys’s influence is still felt today among the newer generation of artists who have digested his ideas, if not chosen to follow his ideological example, exactly. The film will make the converted wistfully wish for a return to headier times, and may puzzle, induce sleep in or perhaps repel those unsympathetic to Beuys’s aesthetics. No matter which side of the debate you are prone to take, the film will probably provoke you to think, which is what Beuys would have wanted..

Beuys (2017) Directed by Andres Veiel, written by Andres Veiel, starring Joseph Beuys, Caroline Tisdall, Rhea Thönges-Stringaris.

8 out of 10