Before attending the Joseph Beuys exhibition at the
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
(LACMA), I knew little about him. My conception of him was that of a man who spent most of his life in Germany creating sculptures and performance pieces. In reality, Beuys was more than just an artist. He believed that “art is the only revolutionary force.” His pieces evoked sides of Germany that many West Germans wanted to forget after World War II. Beuys, obsessed with not forgetting “Germany’s terrible past,” kept “the wound” open by mass-producing his work, and by making it affordable to the masses.
The LACMA exhibition showcases 572 of his works created between 1968 and 1986. The pieces are held in six rooms, covering themes that include Myth, Fluxus and Performance, Environmentalism, Teaching and the F.I.U., Beuys and America, the Readymade, Publicity, and Political Activism and the Holocaust.
The first thing a visitor sees upon entering the first room is a felt suite. It hangs on a wall, and though my instinct was to walk towards it, I instead opted to read the artist’s historical background.
Beuys was born May 1921 in Krefeld, Germany. As a 19-year-old he was a member of the German Luftwaffe, and by the end of the war had been captured by the British army and held in an internment camp until Aug. 1945. Soon after, Beuys began studying at the Dsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts, beginning his career as an artist, professor and political activist. He died Jan. 1986.
In one area there was a display case with wooden molds of postcards. The postcards were not made of paper but appeared to be made out of sap. Unfortunately there was no description of the display, but I had learned that fat was one of Beuys’s preferred materials. Beuys mass-produced these fat postcards, making them readily available for art lovers.
One consistent theme of the exhibit was Beuys’s use of hares as a symbol. “For me the hare is a symbol of incarnation,” Beuys had said. “The hare does in reality what man can only do mentally: he digs himself in, he digs a construction. He incarnates himself in the earth, and that itself is important.”
As I walked through the first two rooms, I expected to see a hare here and there, but in the beginning there were only film posters on walls, different sketches involving the human anatomy, and random postcards with German scribbles—some barely legible. As soon as I entered the Environmentalism room, though, the hare motif became apparent.
The Environmentalism room is made up of different sketches, paintings and photographs, some of which have hares as either a central figure, or as an object hiding in the background. What I found interesting in this room was not a piece featuring a hare, but a wooden box, measuring about one foot in height by five inches in length. The box was lined with cardboard, and a fish skeleton was attached to the cardboard with a bandage. While the museum description did not mention how this piece had anything to do with environmentalism, Beuys was a recycler. He used materials that would be considered trash to those who lack imagination.
In the room entitled “Teaching and the F.I.U.,” I came across the “Capri Battery,” Beuys’s last “multiple,” from 1985. The work was a yellow light bulb plugged into a lemon and was packaged in a wooden case with a note saying, “Charge the battery after a thousand hours.”
Not only was the piece funny, but it also mirrored an earlier Bueys work, entitled “Bruno Cor Tea.” That piece, dating from 1975, is a Coca-Cola bottle filled with herbal tea, which was inspired by one of Beuys’s friends who carried the drink around to treat digestive problems. Overall, while the exhibition was not as grand as I had expected, it was informative. I learned about the Fluxus and Performance, the idea that the audience should be included in the performance—ironic since the exhibition lacked that inclusion. I walked from one room to another, unable to fully ascertain the meaning of each particular piece, due to the absence of text describing the majority of the works. On the other hand, this allowed me to use my imagination more freely, and criticize the work as it stands— without historical background.