Exploring the Life and Art of a True Original: Joseph Beuys at the NGC Library and Archives

Celebrated for an art practice incorporating sculpture and installation, performance and theory, Joseph Beuys is also renowned for radically challenging artistic conventions. An exhibition now on view at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) Library and Archives, highlights the artistic production and cultural theories of the influential and controversial German artist. Drawing upon the Art Metropole collection, Joseph Beuys (1921–1986) — The Man and His Multiples features a number of objects designed by the artist, including postcards made of unusual materials, a badge, a shopping bag, and vinyl records. These, along with related photographs and texts, help illustrate the artist’s performances, his concept of social sculpture, and his political activism, as well as his expansion of sculptural vocabulary with materials such as felt and honey. The exhibition complements the larger NGC exhibition, Joseph Beuys, on view until November 26, 2017, by providing additional examples of his work, as well as biographical context.

As the title of the Library and Archives exhibition suggests, Beuys’ life and art were indistinguishable. Arranged chronologically, the objects survey the artist’s career from the mid-1960s until his death in 1986, and convey a sense of his charismatic persona. While Beuys’ work continues to resonate in a particular way with Germans, his themes of suffering, empathy and atonement are universal. His postwar career also helped to re-establish an avant-garde tradition in Germany: his grimy, unfixed, and scarred aesthetic was completely at odds with the officially promoted art of the Nazi era. In addition, his striking “Actions” pioneered performance art, and helped ensure that the medium was taken seriously.

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Joseph Beuys, The Revolution Is Us, 1972, serigraph on polyester acetate, 191 x 102 cm. NGC. © Estate of Joseph Beuys / SODRAC (2013)

Connected as they were to Beuys’ cultural theories, the multiples were integral to his artistic strategy. The artist termed his multiples “vehicles of information,” which could trigger or supplement memories. Industrially printed and manufactured multiples helped disseminate the artist’s ideas while democratizing the experience of owning an art object. Their modest cost constituted a protest against the economics of the art market, and Beuys believed that the seriality of the multiples created a relationship between the artist and many collectors, opening up new possibilities for wider conversations. After his limited editions in 1965–1970 became objects of financial speculation, the artist authorized increased production to preserve their affordability. The 1992 edition of the catalogue raisonné of his multiples lists 557 items.

An early example of a multiple exhibited at the NGC is a shallow wooden box, open on top, titled Intuition (1968). In the exhibition catalogue Art Metropole: The Top 100, AA Bronson, an artist and member of General Idea, has written of the seminal impact of this simple object: “We could not imagine life as artists without it.” Beuys on occasion used such boxes as framing devices for his sculptures. The owner of this multiple was implicitly invited to place his own object inside, but was also free to leave it empty and reflect upon the empty space.

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Joseph Beuys, Cosmas und Damian. Multiple, postcard. Heidelberg: Edition Staeck, 1974. AM 7653. NGC Library and Archives. © Estate of Joseph Beuys / SODRAC (2016)

Beuys believed that everyone could become an artist, in the sense of living with creativity and freedom, and promoting change within their own spheres. He called this concept “social sculpture.” The theory has remained influential. A good illustration of Beuys’ social sculpture concept can be found his final, massive and regenerative project, 7,000 Oaks. After consultation with civic and community groups, and with their help, Beuys had 7,000 basaltic columns paired with young oak trees planted throughout the German city of Kassel. The four-year installation was only completed in 1986, following the artist’s death, when his son planted the final tree. In the years since, the project has changed the Kassel streetscapes and surrounding countryside and, as Beuys had hoped, the concept has been taken up by cities around the world.

Two original photographs document Beuys’ 1974 performance, I Like America and America Likes Me, which took place at the René Block Gallery in New York. After arriving by ambulance, rolled in felt, Beuys spent three days with a coyote in the Gallery’s window space. (The semi-wild coyote had been raised in captivity and gradually accepted Beuys’ presence.) The artist then left New York by the same means, as a form of protest against American involvement in Vietnam.

The animal most often associated with Beuys, however, was the hare. As the artist explained in the exhibition catalogue Joseph Beuys: We Go This Way, “I am the hare, a swift shy creature with no home, just a hollow in the ground and a huge mythology.” In addition to a hare badge titled Friedenshase, dating from 1984, the exhibition includes a photograph of Beuys’ 1965 performance, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. On this occasion, the artist covered his head with honey and gold leaf and cradled the dead animal while whispering explanations of his art to the hare.

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Joseph Beuys, Friedenshase. Multiple, lapel button, gold on black. Japan: New Art Seibu, 1984. AM 7645. NGC Library and Archives. © Estate of Joseph Beuys / SODRAC (2016)

One of the last images in the Library and Archives show is a tongue-in-cheek homage by Keith Haring, dressed as a hare with glasses, included in a memorial book to which nearly 200 artists contributed. Originally intended for Beuys 65th birthday — which the artist did not live to see — the book was transformed into a memorial.

Beuys also used recordings to experiment and diffuse his ideas. Ja Ja Ja Nee Nee Nee consists of Beuys repeating the German words for “yes” and “no” with different inflections and rhythms for the entire length of the LP. He first performed this work at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf in 1968. The Ja and Nee might be seen as corresponding to positive and negative spaces in sculpture. The symmetrical, oft-repeated text gives the listener the impression of hearing a one-sided phone conversation. By shaping sound with a human voice over a fixed period of time, the work may be seen as blurring the rigid distinction between sculpture and music. The album cover features the artist’s signature in “Braunkreutz”: a reddish-brown colour and sculptural medium, invented by Beuys, whose warm tones alluded to the earth.

The Art Metropole collection, the source of the Beuys multiples on view, was begun informally in 1971 by the three artists who made up General Idea: Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson. Art Metropole was legally incorporated in 1972 as an artist-run centre devoted to collecting and distributing art images, including artist books, videos and other multiples. The collection was donated to the National Gallery in 1999 by Jay Smith. The Library and Archives exhibition draws upon the 207 items in the collection that reference Beuys, with an emphasis on those produced during the artist’s lifetime, reflecting the career of a true original, and a man whose influence on the contemporary art world can still be felt today.


Joseph Beuys (1921–1986) — The Man and His Multiples, curated by Ian C. Ferguson, is on view at the NGC Library and Archives until January 1, 2017. The main sculptural exhibition, Joseph Beuys, is on view until November 26, 2017.

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