Joseph Beuys at the Whitechapel Gallery

(Nov 23 2003)

Egad! The cult of Joseph Beuys lives! Today’s so-called “symposium” on the late artist was pure hagiography. Three of the office-bearers of the JB Fan Club were up on stage, and there was no shutting them up, nor was it possible to get through to them with an even slightly uncelebratory remark (let alone critical). Richard DeMarco, Robert McDowell, and Ken McMullen released so much hot air it seemed for a moment that they meant to exhort the young audience to march en-masse and exhume Beuys from his grave (wherever that may be).


(Excuse some of the following, as I can't remember which of the experts said what. Sheesh. I am trying to find out for the purposes of not appearing sloppy). – see below for comment about the 3 "experts"…

(?) was the director of the ICA during the 1970s, and also ran the Edinburgh festival, organising several Beuys shows during that time. (?) was a gallerist who now runs the Royal Academy Gallery, and (?), an artist who was involved with setting up the International Free University together with Beuys and others in the early 1970s. All three speakers reported at length on their personal relationships with the artist, emphasising his charisma, his inspirational presence and his ability and willingness to teach, as an integral part of his art practice. All agreed in one way or another that he was a genius, a Da Vinci of the 20th century (in fact, one of the speakers even claimed that Beuys was “the first artist of the 21st century”, whatever that could mean, given that he died in the 1980s).


With all this eulogising, you might expect that the discussion might eventually turn to the work itself, or even his teachings, or exactly what influence or impact that he has proved to make on the (art)world. But despite obvious and insistent interest from the audience, and an evident desire to dwell upon more critical responses to Beuys’ ouvre and aura, those with the microphones constantly returned to focus upon just how much “LOVE” this man had for the world. Jesus Christ himself hasn’t had such a glowing review as this, possibly since Vatican II.


And as for the show itself, which was a temporary installation set up in the Whitechapel gallery downstairs, it consisted of “performance relics” such as blackboards mounted behind perspex, as works of art, seized and “fixed” the moment that Beuys’ various lectures were over, as well as video and film documents of discussions between the artist and various audiences between 1972 and 1980. Only the videos yielded actual information about Beuys’ work of teaching, for they showed him in intense and earnest discussion with students and artists, genuinely trying to answer questions and nut-out a way forward, developing as he went, his now-famous notion of the “social sculpture”. The preserved blackboards, I must say, nauseated me – contrary to what (which one of the "experts"?) had said in his speech, I did not find them to be “fascinating drawings in themselves”, nor did I find them to yield any but the most rudimentary information that may assist us to pursue Beuys’ arguments further. By being encased in plastic glass, they were converted to the status of religious relics, and (worst of all) lost their very nature as blackboards, that is, as mutable surfaces for the transmission of information. Certainly, it can be argued, that Beuys cleverly exploited the fetishising nature of the artworld, in selling the blackboards (and other relics) in order to fund his more expensive, and progressive projects (such as the 7000 oaks in Kassel) – however, we must not be fooled by this into granting them more importance than they would have had at the moment of inscription – that is, they are as useful as any filled blackboard from a previous lesson, upon entering the lecture theatre (ie not very useful).


One astute audience member pointed out that, until 1983, the Tate Gallery's Beuys Lecture Blackboards had been in the archive of the gallery, whereas, in that year, they were transferred to the “art collection storage area”. What change had occurred, she asked, in respect to these objects, that they were suddenly transfigured from one category of object into another? No answer from the fanclub.


Full respect to Whitechapel director Iwona Blazwick, who chaired the discussion, for her attempts to bring some critical points to bear in relation to Beuys, and whose voice was ignored and drowned out by the fan club. Both she and Gustav Metzger, a contemporary and friend of Beuys, urged caution when considering the charisma of the artist, for it was a charisma, they argued, that he cultivated and nurtured, and which ultimately took control of him. Blazwick referred to two texts, critical of Beuys and his aura, and they were by Benjamin Buchloch, and Kristine Stiles. I have not read either of their arguments, but after today’s love-in, am keen to get my hands on both of the essays.

3 thoughts on “Joseph Beuys at the Whitechapel Gallery

  1. Lucas Post author

    Tom Nicholson sets me straight. He emailed:

    “In terms of the Beuys-glory-by-association-fest, the three wise monkeys were Richard DiMarco (the Scot who brought Beuys to Edinburgh in 1970, and many times subsequently), Robert McDowell (the artist who established Free International University with Beuys and others), and Norman Rosenthal (the guy who said fate had made him a member of the Establishment, and who curated Beuys into a show at the ICA in the 1970s). Ken McMullen (who made the Tate film of the Lecture action that was screened at the Whitechapel) was listed on the programme but didn’t end up being there.”

    Thanks to Tom for that.
    It’s really not that important, but I thought that it was actually Richard DiMarco who said “fate has made me a member of the Establishment”, his jowels wobbling against the collar of his navy blue suit, just before he left the “symposium” to go off to some other pressing function. Or am I wrong? x

  2. Kristine Stiles Post author

    Please correct the spelling of my name (from Christine to Kristine) in the above article. Many thanks. My highly critical essay on Beuys will come out in my book “Concerning Consequences of Trauma in Art & Culture” by the University of Chicago Press in either 2007 or 2008. This essay is a synopsis of my book-length manuscript, “Props for the Memory, Joseph Beuys and Doing Wrong,” solicited by the University of Minnesota Press. I will not complete the manuscript in 2007. Thank you. Kristine Stiles


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