Curated by Kara Rooney
January 8 – February 9 2014
By Jonathan Beer
The Joseph Beuys: Process 1971-1985 exhibition affords gallery goers a rare opportunity to see some of the quintessential Beuys pieces all in one place. The objects, drawings, and vitrines made during the last decade of his life centered around “process,” essentially the action of materializing a thought by manifesting chaotic and indeterminate material into determinate matter. Earlier in his career Beuys focused on object making outright, but in the last years of his life the artist devoted himself to linking his objects with the “origin of matter, the thought behind it.” His works (or as he termed them to be mere “demonstrations” in comparison to his work as a teacher) were ideas incarnate. Nearly all of the time, art works that seek to represent an idea outright are destined for a difficult path, the complexity of an idea of is often unreproducable in a single medium – yet Beuys does exactly that.
From L’arte è una zanzara dale mille ali, (1981) and Bonzenbunker (1981) to Capri Batterie (1985) Beuys accomplishes this across mediums. Bonzenbunker, a multiple of 16 photocopied drawings, each with a unique handwritten text jotted across the center, are excellent examples of how Beuys combines expressive draftsmanship with an alchemical schematics. It is his prodigious output of such works that makes this a language and not just a style. They are diagrams, instructional images and visual philosophy. Herein lies a common problem with Beuys: if you can’t read German his writing is incomprehensible, which perpetually denies the viewer’s access to the heart of a work. Instead we rely on what might be gleaned from the familiar alchemical lexicon of sun and lunar discs and trademark mythological symbology like the hare, stag and bee.
In Capri Batterie we see a bright yellow light bulb plugged into a lemon. Hilarious and self contained, it is rare to find such outright humor coupled with seriousness in his works. Light fueled by organic matter, as curator Kara Rooney put it “the theoretical premise of Beuysian process, boiled down to its essence.” L’arte è una zanzara dale mille ali (Art is a mosquito with a thousand wings) is a suite of four photo etchings that are strikingly similar to his chalkboard drawings and are to say the least cryptic. They are magical and magnetic in their unintelligibility; like lost diagrams of an alchemical secret. Looking back at Beuys at this point in time I cannot help but wonder 1. What do these mean? And 2. What was he after in each piece? If Beuys is the teacher, I wonder what are we to learn? When you look long enough the diagrams and scribbled notes begin to make sense or even seem instructive. Because they are so cryptic and not forthcoming the speed at which we perceive them is controlled. As clarity emerges in the diagrams, contemplation emerges in the viewer. It is fitting that to experience the full effect you must become a pupil. To fully understand Beuys and for this show, you must slow down and absorb. The inherent enigmatic qualities of Beuys’ works are countered by the intimacy of the exhibition. Rooney clearly took great pains to place the variety of objects, ;prints, and multiples so that the works do not just stand as inert relics but amplifiers for his voice. Viewing the pieces in their assembled entirety reawakens and stirs up a discernable (and chronological) conversation about his ideas. This is a rare moment; often Beuys’ ouvere is represented by a single, disparate seeming piece. Even at the MoMA the context necessary to appreciate Beuys is limited to one of two works. Until Febuary 9th, this show is a small museum containing some of Beuys’ most important late works.
Note: On Saturday February 8th from 3-5pm Rooster Gallery will be hosting a conversation on the work of Joseph Beuys, conducted by curator Kara L. Rooney with artist Joan Waltemath. Saturday, February 8th from 3-5pm.
Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer and critic working in performance, sculpture and new media installation. She is an Associate Art Editor for The Brooklyn Rail and contributing critic for various publications, including Art in America, Hyperallergic, G.A.G. and the collaborative writing group, Open Dialogues.
Joan Waltemath is an artist and a writer. She has written extensively on art and served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She taught at the IS Chanin School of Architecture at the Cooper Union and Princeton University. In 2010, she was appointed Director of MICA’s Le Roy E. Hoffberger School of Painting. Waltemath was named a Creative Capital grantee in 2012.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jonathan Beer is a New York-based artist and writer. He began to write critically in 2010 while attending the New York Academy of Art for his MFA in Painting. His paintings have been exhibited at Miami Dade Museum of Art & Design, Tripoli Patterson Gallery, Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts, Flowers Gallery, Boltax Gallery and Sotheby’s in New York. Jon is also a contributing writer for The Brooklyn Rail, ArtWrit and for Art Observed. www.JonathanBeer.com