Works on Paper by Joseph Beuys from a Private German Collection
It is generally agreed that Joseph Beuys is the most influential European avant-garde artist since 1960. Though possessing this reputation, his work is little known or understood in the United States. Beuys, himself, stood in the way for many years. He refused to accept invitations to visit America until 1974, in protest against its participation in the Vietnam War. Until then, what little critical writing appeared in English generally and incorrectly relegated him to being a late European convert to the American Minimalist movement. In fact, Beuys was a forerunner of Minimalist appearances, yet as far from its content as possible. The breakthrough that did occur to the small appreciation of Beuys in the United States only began at the time of his omnibus 1979 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. That showing left many viewers deeply touched and curious about this apparently nomadic artist. Still, even after that exhibition, a deeper knowledge of Beuys eluded most viewers in this country for many more years. Indeed, he was generally thought of as some outlandish mystic who had little relevance to the canon of art history. Meanwhile, since 1979, many of Beuys's followers, admirers, and contemporaries, especially Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Janis Kounellis, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter would achieve enormous attention, with Beuys remaining in the shadows.
Beuys thought of himself chiefly as a sculptor, though to be precise, one finds all manner of two-dimensional work, glass covered ensembles of objects [Vitrines], performance work [Actions], and room-sized environments. Throughout, Beuys made highly poetic combinations of images and materials; indeed, perhaps above all else, he was a collagist. He particularly loved to use discarded and even degrading materials of every variety, this to evoke both a forsaken land as well as the humblest possibilities that exist for art making. Beuys's oeuvre is like a giant whirlwind of activity in which each aspect feeds another. Hence, the objects used in a performance could become part of a Vitrine; one of the blackboards used in a lecture, of which there were many, would afterward become an independent work of art. As one of the founders of the Green Party, Beuys wanted all of his art activity to serve a larger purpose, though politics specifically was not his aim. Rather, he held utopian ideas about the future of mankind, for example claiming "everyone an artist."
If one was fortunate enough to be in Europe in the two years after Beuys's death in 1986, and to see the outpouring of extraordinary exhibitions about him and his followers, one would have begun to understand Beuys's position on that continent. He demonstrated that art drenched in the experience of being a German and a European in the Post-War period was an extremely worthy pursuit. Beuys's ramshackle vocabulary gave a nomenclature to other Germans and Italians (chiefly the Arte Povera group) that an alternative existed to the slick appearance of American art. Uninterested in producing an art about art, he was an activist, who believed that art had a higher calling, and could even change the world. Such a notion gave permission to a host of European artists to imagine a distinction between their history and ambition and that of their American counterparts. Beuys was not an artist outside the mainstream. He established the European avant-garde mainstream along side the ubiquitous force and example of American art.
Additional works from this Collection will be offered in the Post-War Evening Sale on November 13, 2001 as lots 29-31.