Doing the right thing in the right place and at the right time. That is art.
Joseph Beuys (Krefeld 1921–Düsseldorf 1986)
Joseph Beuys is one of the most prominent—and one of the most controversial—artists of the twentieth century. His work has always elicited a wide variety of responses. Some believe that Beuys was a great visionary who pushed the limits of what art can be, while others see him as embodying an authoritarian idea of the artist that younger generations, in particular, regard with baffled skepticism. His significance, however, is beyond doubt, as his continuing influence on today’s art makes manifest. The exhibition Joseph Beuys: Installations, Actions & Vitrines explores the collection’s holdings of Beuys and the ways in which they have been interpreted in the past. It complements these works, primarily installations, with films on loan that show Beuys during his actions.
Past presentations of the works in the collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel | Gegenwart have not included films or other documentary materials illustrating Joseph Beuys’s actions. The exhibition Joseph Beuys: Installations, Actions & Vitrines closes this gap: it is the first show to complement the works at the Kunstmuseum Basel | Gegenwart, primarily installations, with films on loan. How do the actions themselves relate to their translation into film? And how can art based on the live actions of a performer be shared with distant and posthumous audiences?
There is no universal answer to these questions. In Transsibirische Bahn, a film created in 1970, Beuys performed for the camera, or for the film that would be made out of the footage. In I Like America and America Likes Me, by contrast, he was aware of the camera’s presence, but his focus was on the action itself.
Despite the contentious status of this filmic material, we present it in dialogue with the other works on display rather than in the isolation of a screening program. In this regard, the exhibition also aims to reflect a transformative shift of the meaning of art initiated by Beuys and many other protagonists of action, happening, performance, land, and conceptual art: these formats called the established distinctions between process and object, original and documentation, and the production and reception of art in question.
The contemporary response to Beuys’s actions and public appearances is essential to an understanding of the complexity of his artistic position. Only the films of his actions allow us to grasp the artist’s multifaceted engagement with the role models he quotes—the healer, the Messiah, the shaman. Beuys, after all, was never only the healer, he was ailing as well; he was never a pure medium of illumination, but also a seeker as wracked by doubt as his skeptics. This ambivalence is especially palpable in the actions, which are alive with the tension between the authority embodied by the artist and his ambition to inspire people to self-determined and creative action. Beuys no doubt mystified his own activities and often wrapped his messages in the rhetoric of universal truths. But he also participated in political debates and talk shows, took to the stage to sing against a military buildup, helped found a political party, and conceived communication in all registers as a medium of art.
The fact that the complexity of Beuys’s oeuvre is in part a product of these very inconsistencies has sometimes been disregarded in the response to his art: both by his critics, who have found it easier to pigeonhole him, and by admirers who have insisted on an orthodox interpretation. If the public engagement with his work has remained polarized, that is due to attempts to resolve these manifest contradictions. Our exhibition, by contrast, explores the idea that such unresolved contradictions in an artist’s oeuvre are crucial to its presentation: they are what keep his work alive.