Beuys Will Be Beuys
Show Your Wound
The Death and Times of Joseph Beuys at Track 16
by Bruce Bauman
In my recent travels though LA and New York art venues the most arousing and enflaming work I saw was Tom Patchettıs "stagewerk," which is built around the life of the late artist and cult celebrity Joseph Beuys. It is a work for those who do not know much about Beuys and for those who do; for those who believe there is a crisis in the arts and for those who do not. It should be seen by those who are Beuys fans and even more so by those who are not. I am one who did not know much, believes there is a crisis, and who was not a fan.
My opinion of Beuys, the celebrity artist, previous to this was formed by, I admit, my own prejudice against Germans who enlisted in the Nazi Luftwaffe. When Beuysı plane was shot down, according to the self-generated myth, he was nursed to health by use of felt and fat by his Tartar rescuers. I didnıt and still donıt buy the idea that 18 or 19 years old should not be held accountable for their actions. Thatıs bullshit. But, and this is where I was wrong, I should not hold this service against someone for their entire life. It seems that many held this against Beuys (including himself), and he knew it.
My opinion of Beuys, the artist was ambivalent, more than that, somewhat ignorant. As I walked around the gallery before the show I recognized his signature felt hat and pictures of him glaring out at me. I had seen his suits and was haunted by them and by his own tormented gaze. When I visited the old temple in Prague and saw the rows of empty shoes, not so oddly I now know, I recalled Beuysı suits. Yet, I also felt an emptiness in his work-- I did not know why.
I took my seat not having a clue as to what was to come. Iıd never met Patchett and knew little about him except that he owns Track 16 Gallery. Patchett cleverly introduced us to his main character by beginning with two actors playing and quoting from the works of Frederick Nietzsche and the educator Rudolph Steiner. These two pillars, ghosts awaiting the figure of Beuys, serve as guides to the basic Beuys theory that education and art are the only possibilities for the hope of humanity.
As the wooden casket sits on the stage as the main set piece, Patchett incorporates actors and film into the narrative that is Beuysı life. The actors, who were all superb, recreated some of Beuys performances. "Total War," spurred by Joseph Goeblesı speech and a scene where two actors simultaneously recite the crimes of Germany and The U.S are especially riveting. We follow Beuys through his years with Fluxus. His struggles to open the Free International School to all (a policy that got him fired), and through his travails in the U.S. and Germany. The play hits a crescendo with two taped performances. First, Jerry Stahl as the near-rabid critic Benjamin Buchloh, who despised Beuys. Then Charles Cioffi as Dr. Gene Ray unveils the canard that caused so much consternation: the felt and fat rescue story is just that- a story. According to Ray, these materials represent the hair of the burned Jews which The Nazis sold and used as felt. And the fat represented the decaying corpses of the Jews. The emptiness I once felt found its place and it is a larger, sadder sense of loss.
As much as this work instigates a reevaluation of Beuys, it forces one to confront the present situation of art. I thought of the good work Iıd recently seen: Paul Hoskins at Karen Lovegrove, Soojong Park at Ruth Bachhofner, The White on White Show at Patricia Faure, The Identity show at Highways and the best work at The Whitney Biennial. It also naturally raises the specter of so much mediocre and awful work-- much either directly or indirectly influenced by Beuys. And comes the conundrum that neither Beuys nor Patchett solve. Beuys believed in art. But his idea that everyone is an artist is basically hooey. (Nietzsche, who is often sited here, did not by my reading believe that everyone is or could be an artist.) I believe that the world would be a better place if everyone tapped into their innate creativity and became art lovers and appreciators. The idea of a university of artists open to all is appealing and idealistic. It also seems foolish. Our whole system, where so many universities and museums serve as the clogged arteries in this World Art-Corp, is on creative life support and needs reevaluation. Personally, I feel caught between without an answer. What is needed is a renewed dialogue to challenge the corporate system. Beuys was pressing for a new definition of art; one represented by his "social sculptures," which he held up as the future of humankind. Does that mean everyoneıs life is interesting enough to be art? No, it is not. Not everyone has the gifts of great talent. Or the dedication. We may desire a democracy of artists, but how to achieve this noble goal remains a mystery. Pachettıs intelligence, hard work and passion are obvious in every phase of this work. And so I respectfully propose one presumptuous reservation. Despite Patchettıs use of many primary texts, this is a work of fiction and imagination. I wish that that he had taken the license and risk to go deeper into the mystery of Joseph Beuys; to use Beuysı writings and performances to delve into Beuysı secret conversations, which, when alone, he must have had; where the echoes of "total war" were seared into his soul; where he lived the ceaseless nightmare of his anguished journey; where he searched for answers and made his choices; for why he chose to remain silent on the true meaning of his own art.
No matter this small reservation, what Patchett has given us needs to be seen. To be seen at REDCAT in LA and The Whitney in New York. And in Berlin. The questions it raises are essential ones that seem to be going largely unasked. No one placed them to the forefront any better than Beuys did 30 years ago when it seemed art mattered and filled one with possibility, and the goal was more than a spread in People and retrospective show by the age of 35. Today, when serious art is threatened by the insatiable swell of an obese yet malnourished conglomerate culture, and war threatens to destroy us from the inside as well as the outside, we need this discussion more than ever.