Joseph Beuys editions: Schlegel Collection, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
Edinburgh, 3 July - 12 September 1999
Joseph Beuys: Multiples, Barbican Centre
London, 28 October - 12 December 1999
I am late for almost everything. I was only ten minutes late one Sunday last December when I met my husband to visit the Joseph Beuys: Multiples exhibition at the Barbican. Unfortunately, we were both ten days late for the exhibition. Would the fact that we had seen the show in the summer in Edinburgh (on our honeymoon no less) save us from the wrath of the things ed., we wondered? Like true art pilgrims, we peered in at the remains of the exhibition, almost totally dismantled now apart from piles of identical unpeeled labels stacked up on those battleship grey metal trolleys used by hospitals and museums, before repairing to the cafe to summon up the Edinburgh show over a warm slice of felt and a cup of lard....
Those enervated by the recent trend in the arts to incorporate incidents from the writers' and artists' own lives into their work (ahem, see above) could blame not only Helen Fielding or Tracey Emin but, ultimately, Joseph Beuys. For Beuys, life was art: both in his exhortations to others to incorporate creativity into their daily lives, and in his relentless use of his own life, both quotidian and embroidered if not wholly invented, in his work. Both types are represented in the 'editions' or 'multiples' which were on show in Edinburgh and London: the small works of art such as cheap postcards, and drawings made as prints, that he produced in runs of various sizes from just a handful to many thousands from 1965 onwards. Beuys maintained that his art was made from the experiences and objects that came to him in his life: art could even appear on his doorstep, as in the photograph Dusseldorf, Drakeplatz 4, 16 November 1977, 14.40, which shows two wasps who had died while having sex, and which Beuys found outside his house, as commemorated in the title he gave the photograph.
The most famous incidence of life becoming art for Beuys is his much described near-death experience during the Second World War. Beuys had joined the Luftwaffe in 1940 and trained as a Stuka pilot. While flying over the Crimea in 1943, his plane came down during a snowstorm and, so the story goes, he had been rescued from certain death by nomadic Tartars who had brought warmth back to his body by rubbing fat into it and wrapping it in felt. Whatever the exact truth of this story of rebirth Beuys played down its significance in interviews late in his life his experiences during the Second World War certainly seem to have changed the direction of his life, like those of so many other Germans of his generation. After the war he gave up the medical career for which he had begun to study before joining the Luftwaffe and went instead to the Dusseldorf Art Academy to study sculpture, his first step towards transformation from fighter pilot into art school hero and radical thinker.
Crimean Tartars notwithstanding, fat (signifying life-giving energy) and felt (protection, insulation) are the two most famous elements of Joseph Beuys's work. In the Multiples show they were represented by, amongst many others, Sled, 1969: one of 50 such sculptures made of extremely greasy-looking yellow fat and felt, strapped on to a sled with leather belts, and finished off with a torch, apparently recalling the snowy scene of his Crimean experience. 'Each sled carries its own survival kit,' Beuys explained; 'the flashlight represents the sense of orientation, then felt for protection, and fat is food.'(1)
Produced in a run of 50, the Sleds undoubtedly qualify as a multiple. However, Beuys's careful marking of the edition numbers of the sleds on their runners 25 out of 50 in this case is more reminiscent of the exclusivity of a limited edition of prints rather than the democracy one might expect of 50 identical works of art. But it is unrealistic to expect Beuys to have made thousands and thousands of Sleds: they are after all, handmade, relatively large sculptures at 41 x 34 x 110cm. And yet Beuys felt that a single sled was not enough. A 1970 interviewer asked him about the growing exclusivity of some of his editioned works, in particular a fragile 1970 work made of fish bones, Friday Object '1st-Class Fried Fish Bones (Herring)': 'That doesn't bother me', he replied, 'In some cases the edition has to be limited because it just isn't technically possible to do it any other way. After all, I don't feel like frying fishbones for the rest of my life!'(2)
Beuys began to make the multiples, it seems, from a desire to communicate with the largest number of people possible: both in terms of his exhortations of art for everyone, and his political ideas.(3) By producing the multiples, 'I stay in touch with people', Beuys explained in an interview about Evervess II: a 1968 series of sculptures made from pairs of bottles of Evervess-brand soda water encased in a wooden box. 'Just as you have come to me because of what I've made and we can talk about it, I can talk to just about anybody who owns such an object. There's a real affinity to people who own such things... I'm interested in spreading ideas.'(4) If art was life for Joseph Beuys, then the two bottles in Evervess II are a parable of 'life' before and after Beuys's appropriation of it: he left one bottle as he found it, with its blue and white label depicting a snowy mountain range, and covered the labels of the other with his trademark brown/grey felt.
But Evervess II is more fun than that. It is unfinished until the eventual owner of the piece carried out the instructions on the lid of the box: to open the bottles, drink the water, and throw the caps as far away as possible.
And it's precisly this exhortation from Joseph Beuys to 'just do it' that makes him so special imagine Picasso suggesting to Gertrude Stein that she might like to try rearranging the shards of her face into a new pattern when she got home. (Manufacturers of art merchandise please note this suggestion for cubist jigsaws and and start making them, fast; I'll go halves with you on the idea.)
Many of us feel that we make a Tracey Emin when we get out of bed after a particularly bad night. But my advice to anyone who, like me , missed Joseph Beuys at the Barbican, is to go out into the garden, make their own Evervess II and see what happens.
2 Joseph Beuys interviewed in 1970 by Jörg Schellman and Bernd Klüser, as reprinted in Joseph Beuys: The Multiples (Cambridge, Mass., Minneapolis, and Munich/New York: Harvard University Art Museums, Walker Art Center, and Edition Schellmann, 1997).
3 Beuys went on to become one of the 500 founding members of the German Green Party in 1979, and was famed for his radical approach to teaching and involvement in student politics at the Dusseldorf Academy of Art where he staged his famous sit-ins and many of his art 'happenings' during the 1960s.
4 Beuys interviewed
in 1970 by Jörg Schellman and Bernd Klüser, as above.