Joseph Beuys, April 7, 2018 – July 2020, Art Gallery of Ontario

Joseph Beuys. Hasengrab, 1964/1979. Mixed media, Overall: 140 × 190 × 280 cm. Private Collection © Estate of Joseph Beuys / SODRAC (2018)

“Such retroactive and remote anointing is far more difficult in the context of contemporary art, which for the past century has often been the product of speech acts. I am an artist because I say I am an artist. This is art because I say it is.”
“It’s no small thing to be a lifestyle artist. It is a complex and difficult con.”
“I hate seeing the bad work. I hate seeing the ephemera. It always strikes me as something that the artist wouldn’t have consented to if they were alive.”
The objects and images that you encounter in the small room (relative to space allotted to other concurrent installations at the Art Gallery of Ontario) are barely art. The almost dismissive, apathetic nature of the works is mirrored – or further degraded – by the almost casual, uncaring installation of the pieces that seem even more like detritus of Beuys’ practice than usual (or intended, by the late artist).
Red Rabbit (which is directly to your left and slightly behind you as you enter the space, and is as striking in the rare vibrancy of colour and movement as the thick – reminiscent of congealed blood – marks and forms that seem to roll from left to right) is perhaps the first work you’ll encounter, and easily the best. Directly in front as you enter but strangely less ‘physical’, despite being sculptural, is Untitled (Vitrine with Horns). The axe-like implements look worn, stained and marred in points with paint and indexical marks of usage. Their vitrine is funereal, and extending out on each side of this ‘casket’ are two dark, metallic looking rectangles that are void-like, and yet mirroring (imperfectly) your gaze back at you. Untitled ‘appears’ behind you, and the ‘twin’ to the black ‘windows’ can be seen further behind/further in front in reflection. It’s almost as though Untitled (Vitrine with Horns) extends the width of the room, and you have to break the connection to walk further in, to offer more attention to the glut of smaller scratchy and stained drawings – especially on the wall far from you as you enter the gallery space – rise above the swamp of what is offered to us in this somewhat cramped room.
The physical arrangement of the space, however, gives a certain reverence to Hasengrab, 1964/1979, and the confused nature of this mixed media work functions as a microcosm of the problems of this show: flotsam and jetsam of Beuys’ practice, and we’re given little to decode the debris offered.
In Robert Rodriguez’s essay The God of the Desert wherein he visits Jerusalem, he’s nonplussed by how often ‘historic’ sites and objects are ‘recreations’ or fabrications or simply implied – an absence rather than evidence – or referential to something else (‘Later the [church] cave was destroyed. What remains is the interior of the cave, which is nothing.’)
Beuys here is a teaser if you’re familiar with his charismatic role in the Western canon of art. If you don’t know this, it’s a bit like seeing people kneel and pray before ANOTHER piece of the ‘one true cross’. That might have occurred to me (Rodriguez aside) because the gallery Beuys occupies requires you to traverse the numerous religious works of the Thompson collection. Beuys – the man, the art – requires an act of faith in the face of the detritus on display, and I’m too much of a skeptic for that leap. So many works here are unimpressive aesthetically, and their titles offer no assistance: the odd drawing that hints at the silhouette of a woman, or another that has some of the same flow and form of Rabbit, tantalize you, but then the pressed leaves and pencil doodles (where his signature is the most prominent aspect, which one might acidly suggest is all the matters…) deflate your expectations again. Sans titre (Fille de profil) (1948), Memorieren von Wachsplastiken (1957) and Émanation du précipice (1974) span nearly three decades and yet are interchangeable in their shoddy irrelevance. But it’s all “a romantic myth, like Joseph Beuys and his fat and felt and mountain people.”
“Performance art had established that an artist could be the medium for his or her art: Beuys moved this idea on and became the artwork. His persona when performing and his “offstage” self were one and the same. […] Beuys as a character became the unifying factor.”
“I didn’t want to say she wasn’t an artist. But she was a performance artist.”
The sparse wall didactic is unizluminating rote: Joseph Beuys (1921–1986) was among the most significant artists to emerge in Germany after the Second World War….best known for his sculpture and performance art, and often used found objects and everyday materials in his work. Beuys also drew constantly: drawing allowed him to experiment with different concepts and create a reservoir of ideas for other projects.
Nothing new or enlightening, but this latter part is what spurred me to make the trip to Toronto to attempt to engage with the sundry pieces: This selection of works…revolves around the theme of death. The notion of this exhibition functioning as a kind of memento mori sparked my interest (2019 has required negotiating three deaths, and what’s left behind, both emotionally and physically). In conversation with an artist whose own work explores memory and place, in talking of our parents, he remembered ‘emptying’ his mother’s house and how ‘any given handful or box of possessions could have been used to tell or invent any number of stories about her.’
But:“Isn’t that true of all retrospectives? Isn’t it rifling through a dead woman’s purse, every time?”
On that same visit, I also experienced Betty Goodwin: Moving Towards Fire, several floors above Beuys. This also had a memento mori quality, as her notebooks were part of the display, and the late artist’s aesthetic was also immediate and symbolic, as is sometimes seen in the best of Beuys’ practice. But her works entranced, while Beuys’ perplexed, and Goodwin offered a personal narrative that could echo with many visitors, whereas Beuys seemed more an obscurantist (one who deliberately prevents the facts or full details of something from becoming known) than ‘social prophet’.

Bart Gazzola

volume 34 no 1 September – October 2019 pp 20 -21

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