By John Duncan Talbird.
“Everything under the sun is art,” Joseph Beuys famously – or fatuously, depending on your point of view – asserted. He also said “Everyone is an artist.” And: “I nourish myself by wasting energy” and “There’s no such thing as weekends” and “Nothing needs to remain the way it is.” He was an artist of the pithy statement, but also an artist of gibberish and probably would have asserted that there was no difference between the two. At a speech for local political bigwigs at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf where Beuys was professor of “monumental sculpture,” he grunted into the microphone never uttering a single, recognizable word. As a former student said, “No one laughed; it was too dangerous.” In the screening I saw the other day of the new documentary Beuys (writer/director Andres Veiel), everyone laughed. That is one thing that quickly becomes apparent: That despite all the highfaluting ideas about art, all the scary avant-garde performances, sculptures, and happenings involving dead animals and fat, Joseph Beuys was a funny and charming man. He was often interviewed and a large portion of Beuys is composed of these interviews so that we become very familiar with his uniform of fedora, fisherman’s vest, fur coat in cold weather, and also his skull-like face (from facial reconstruction following a near-fatal plane crash during World War II), and that dazzling smile, those teeth that look strong enough to cut the felt that he was so fond of using in his artwork.
Joseph Beuys was born in Krefeld, Germany in 1921. He joined the Hitler Youth and participated in the Nuremberg Rally at the age of fifteen. At the age of nineteen, he joined the Luftwaffe where he trained to be a fighter pilot. He was in a plane crash which he almost died from. After that, he returned to Kleve, went to art school, “failed” at that, and retired to the country for ten years. Perhaps he entertained the idea of suicide. After some kind of reckoning, he decided to live and make art again and shifted from drawing and painting to sculpture and performance art.
His first piece after this crisis was titled How to Explain Art to a Dead Hare (1965) in which he spent three hours in a room with his head covered in gold leaf and honey explaining art to a dead hare (this, too, which is shown in the documentary is strangely funny, though also disturbing). This performance made him an international star. It was followed by other notable works such as I Like America and America Likes Me (1974) in which, after a quick trip in an ambulance wrapped in felt, he spent several days with an American coyote, this one living, inside a New York art gallery space. It’s unclear if they discussed art, but film and image from the performance suggest that indeed they grew to accept each other’s company if not actually “like” one other.
He was also a professor from 1961 to 1972 at the before-mentioned Kunstakademie Düsseldorf until he was dismissed from that post after joining students in an occupation of the administration offices (Beuys had accepted four hundred students into his fall seminar contrary to school policies). His work for the 1982 documenta 7 exhibition in Kassel, Germany, 7000 Oaks, is what it sounds like: With a work crew, he planted 7000 oaks in that city over several years (the work is more complicated than this…but never mind). He was among those that helped form the German Green Party in the early 1980s and ran and lost for the European Parliament. Despite his relentless work, teaching, speaking engagements, and writing, he was often sickly and died of heart failure in 1986 at the age of sixty-four. Several of his students went on to have successful art careers, including Sigmar Polke who recently had a huge career retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Much, if not all, of this information is provided in Veiel’s documentary, not always in chronological order. Veiel lets Beuys be Beuys. Beuys talks and performs for the camera and we watch and listen. The result is a much more impressionistic and freeform document, less a standard biographical documentary. All in all, more Beuysian. The soundtrack by Ulrich Reuter and Damian Scholl is excellent, a minimalist mix of drums, percussion, keyboard, and wind instruments and Veiel improvisationally shifts between sound and silence with elegant facility. The editors Stephan Krumbiegel and Olaf Voigländer and graphic designer Toby Cornish create a constant sense of movement, animating even still photos. The cinematographer Jörg Jeshel zooms in on strips of hanging film and positions multiple competing images across the screen like a patchwork of narratives.
Reportedly, Veiel spoke to sixty contemporary witnesses and acquaintances and filmed around twenty interviews. It was supposed to be a film of 30% archival material, but ultimately became one of 95%. The four subjects that are left – critics and artists and a former student, all friends of Beuys, all talking heads – give little to the proceedings and it’s unclear why we needed even these four. These are the converted and so they don’t give us really any counter perspective to the one that Beuys gives us about himself. For instance, Beuys tells a captivating story about his crash landing during the war and how he was rescued by nomadic Tatar tribesmen who wrapped him in felt and covered his body in tallow and nursed him back to health. Viewers will have to go elsewhere to discover that this story is not true, instead a self-constructed myth to “explain” why felt and fluids like fat and honey were so often used in his artworks. In addition, though we see pictures of Beuys as a young lad frolicking and launching model airplanes with other Nazi youth (identified by their swastika armbands), we have no explanation for the extent of his involvement in this ugly aspect of his country’s history. We see a few pictures and clips of Beuys with a woman and two small children. We have to go to the internet to confirm that yes, indeed, this is his family, but we have no interviews from family members. The wife, Eva Wurmbach, was an artist and professor too, but we know almost nothing about her (or at least Google doesn’t). Although the film is not concerned with this point, it’s difficult not to raise it: It makes it a lot easier to assert that “There’s no such thing as weekends” and to urge artists (which, according to Beuys, are everyone), to “wear yourself out” if you’ve got a nice little wife who will take care of all the messy and boring details of living.
These gaps in the narrative raise a question: If the object was not to give a counter-narrative to Beuys, why did we need any contemporary interviews? I felt a little let down by the recent Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (2016, director Thorsten Schütte) for similar reasons, but at least Schütte went all in and used only archival material.
Any troubling issues that we might dig up after watching this very compelling documentary is not to suggest that Beuys (in addition to Beuys) doesn’t have a particular pleasure and charm and historical relevance. I remember seeing his work at Dia:Beacon in upstate New York. There were stacks of big sheets of felt and I almost didn’t know that I was looking at art. It seemed that perhaps I had stumbled into a strange storage room that wasn’t meant for visitors. Although I don’t know if I “liked” the work, I suspect after seeing Beuys, that Beuys would have asserted that that was entirely beside the point. That moment where I was shocked out of my dutiful admiration of all this “great artwork,” the moment where I wondered if I was supposed to be looking at this or if, instead, this was behind-the-scenes junk I wasn’t supposed to see, that was entirely the point. Although Beuys isn’t as famous in the US as some other 20th-century artists who pushed the boundary of what can and can’t be art, artists like Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp, the film makes a compelling argument for why we should revisit his work and think more carefully about what he had to say. Similar to Warhol, he was a figure during his time who was as famous for being Beuys as he was for the work he created. But unlike Warhol, it seemed that Beuys was genuinely interested in doing human good with his artwork. (There is a nice moment in the film where we see Warhol waiting at an opening of Beuys’ work to meet the artist, but the artist never arrives.) Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” but you never got a sense that Warhol saw this as a democratizing event. He clearly thought there would always be a class system of fame, that certain people would always be more famous or famous for longer than 15 minutes. With Beuys, you get the sense that he feels his fame is a little silly (even as he relishes it) and that he can use his fame to better humankind. It’s a naïve thing to think and almost certainly untrue, but you can’t hate him for thinking it.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.