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Pink Sugar

Everyday Artist ---- Joesph Beuys

"Every man is an artist." He said.

Joseph Beuys, We Won’t Do It without the Rose, 1972 (Collection Walker Art Center)


The 20th century is an era of global reform in art. Many artists and critics this time innovated new techniques and art concepts. Among them, German artist Joseph Beuys stood out, who created the “concept” in art and revised the identity of artists. His works aroused reflective thinking in contemporary society and the audience; his core concept influences generations and generations. Of course, he didn’t fight alone, he was just a member of the whole generation that arose in the mid-20th century.

Joseph Beuys, The Pack 1969

Art Life

Compare to the earlier artists, Joseph Beuys and his generation were rebels. Throughout art history, Art was only for the high class and aristocracy; nobody ever challenged that. The arrival of World War Two broke their dream, and people began to reflect on themselves and the real world they live in. A circle of artists who had been through or witnessed the war and the war trauma believed it was the time to give Art back to people. Joseph Beuys was one of them.

1. One of a kind: " Fat Chair"

In his artworks, this concept was fully expressed. Such as the famous “Fat chair”, constitutes a nicely cut fat placed above a normal chair, showing the commonness of the art attribution. “Fat chair” intensely ruined the divinity and mystery of art. From all the masterpieces in the classicism period or early, art was placed in the distance and applied with precious hue, serving exclusively to those upper-class patrons——this was the rule in the art industry and the tradition of it. Making people believe art was something unapproachable and expensive, all the artists could maintain the specialist of their job and earn money.

But ever since Duchamp created the readymade “ fountain” in the 40s, the divinity of the art had been challenged, and as the followers of Duchamp ( Beuys has made a recreated graffiti about Duchamp’s concept), Beuys exaggerated this quality and made artwork even more offensive and unattractive: art was just some leftover fat and an old chair. We now know that Beuys wasn't trying to create beauty or harmony through the “ Fat chair”, instead, he was discussing the concepts behind the artwork. When people saw this artwork and learned about the background story, they would begin to “feel” the artwork, including empathizing with Beuys’ experience or recalling memory they had lost for years or arising some considerations on industrialization. No matter which way, Beuys provides a space for the audiences to communicate with the artworks and popularise the “concepts” behind the art.

Joseph Beuys ‘Fat Chair’ (1964–1985).

However, his art didn't start in this way.

Before he entered the army, he mostly created some small exhibitions locally and the artworks were normal and plain. Everything changed after World War Two when he crushed the plane and was rescued by Tartars in a felt coat and fat. And that was the turning point in his career; first, he got personal symbols—fat and felt—which laid a solid foundation for his later works and concept; second, he began to sense the world more gently and focused himself on healing the world. For that, he discovered the meaning behind the artworks and simply used artwork as a medium to carry the words. Since there weren’t any explicit clues in the works, people can’t tell what exactly the artist was trying to talk about, so they will interpret and understand in their ways. Beuys’ works were always telling some sort of story, like murmuring around the audience about its past, building a comfortable thus private environment for the audience to communicate with the artwork alone, either exploring what artists trying to express or how will we interpret it. Because of Joesph Beuys and his artistic concepts, everyone could build a connection with the “fat chair” and interpret it from our perspectives.

Felt Suit, 1970

Fat Chair, 1964

source from slide player

2. Iconic Performance: " I like America and America likes Me"

Another typical work is called “ I Like America and America likes me”, in which he stayed with a wolf face to face for twenty-four hours.

The main concept of this work is to call for peace and love in the current American society, and so as the world. The deep and solemn idea hidden in this performance aroused widespread discussion in society. Even today, people still can find some inspiration in this work. For the audience from everywhere over the globe, " I like America and America likes me" was a sincere hope for the desperate world during the cold war. Once again, Beuys embedded his 'concept' into a visual art form; even after he died, the concept of his work will never fade away, every topic he indicates in this performance ----“environment”, “peace”, and “ love” ---- are not problems exclusively for his era, so as for people from 21st century. These 'concepts' he mentioned are eternal topics accompanying human history.

Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974.

Nevertheless, there is one thing that changes between then and now, the way people express these ideas and concepts. In the 70s', no one could imagine an artist jumping out of the studio and creating such explicit artwork. Just like many elder people can’t understand why there are artists who walked around the street totally naked with oil paintings from top to bottom. He was the " naked artist' at that time. "I like America and America likes me" not only challenged the identity of artists but also accused the American government of being unresponsible and corrupted. In fact, he had been invited to America once, by two art American dealers in 1973. Not that surprising, Beuys turned down this request. The reason is simple, America was at the time involved in the unethical Vietnam War. It wasn’t until 1974 when American troops retreated from the front line that Beuys agreed to fly to America. But instead of bringing artworks as all other foreign artists did, he planned to 'perform' his art, of course, implicitly delivering his political opinions.

Despite his fame in his hometown in Germany, Joesph Beuys is not popular in America. American art lovers simply knew that there is a Europe artist who was going to fly here and exhibit his work in New York. They never thought that what they were welcoming is a coyote and an empty exhibiting room( since the only exhibition here is Beuys and his coyote, along with a blanket). This is how Beuys greets America, in a way that both reinforces his profile as a pioneer artist and expresses his political opinions as a socialist as well as an environmentalist. As Andy Warhol, the father of pop art once said: “I like the politics of Beuys. He should come to the US and be politically active there. That would be great..." "He should be President. " " I like America and America likes me" earned Beuys a huge reputation in North America.

The interpretation of the artwork is a hot debate.

The coyote represents Native America, but can also be thought of as the human spirit that America was indeed denying. On one hand, Beuys was probably trying to evoke people’s original ideas about unity and patriotism. The changes in Coyote's behaviour tell people a lot about morality and benevolence: at the beginning of the performance, the coyote was hostile, regularly tearing the felt blanket that Beuys was holding, coyote is in its wild; after a couple of days, as they sleep, eat, live together all the time, the coyote began to show traces of kindness, leaving food to Beuys, lying beside him or even play with him. There are times in a day when they sit side-by-side and enjoy the peaceful sunset. It is the best proof of the power of humanity, as Beuys was trying to say in this performance. "I Like America and America likes me" is more than visual aesthetics, it is mind-blowing.

Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974

Other than the forms and concept of this work, "I Like America and America likes me" creates huge controversy. For most art critics at that time, this performance was rude and unacceptable. It was commented as "too raw to call it art."

For the rest of the people at that time, this work was truly consequential. Not just for the global environment but also for the revolution of art. People were weary of the same perfect artwork in museums or private collections. The world needs something new and inspiring. Especially America, which, in the late 70s, was in the decline of economic and political power. For them, the coming of Joseph Beuys, along with his unusual work, brings different voices and diversity to their country. Influenced by the concept of "I like America and America likes me", many started to engage in social activities, speak out against wrongdoings, and embrace diversity.

Nature or modernity? peace or protest? division or cooperation? Beuys left an opening ending to America besides the sweet witness of love between humans and nature. After the 70s, more western artists brought conceptual art into their works, continuing to today.

Untitled (Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys)

Gelatin silver 23 7/8 × 20 in | 60.6 × 50.8 cm Edition 36/50

Coyote source from Britannica

© slowmotiongli—iStock/Getty Images

End words

Partly affected by Nietzsche and Steiner, Beuys always believed art was about nature and people. He spent his life doing art that shows the connection between the two and how our world is run by these two.

Foto: Meerbusch-Ilverich: Galerie Ilverich, 1986

"Truly iconic." I said.

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