+ – is a small work by the German artist Joseph Beuys in oil paint on two pieces of stained, cream-coloured card. The two sheets of portrait-orientated card are placed side by side: the card on the left contains the positive ‘plus’ symbol while the card on the right contains the negative ‘minus’ symbol. These titular symbols were painted in light grey-blue oil paint against roughly painted background images in a darker black-grey colour. The image on the left appears to be a silhouette of a leaping female figure, bent over with her legs outstretched. The cross symbol is positioned beneath the figure, on top of a swirling mass of dark paint. The image on the right is more detailed, but also more ambiguous. It could represent a horse drawing a carriage along at high speed, with part of the drawing recalling a horse in profile. However, the exact content is impossible to ascertain as the bottom left section of the card is completely covered by an opaque, undifferentiated mass of paint that creeps out to form linear tendrils towards the top of the image. The minus shape is placed against the middle of this dark form, and its presence in this image suggests it is meant to stand in opposition to the accompanying positive, female half as a depiction of masculinity, however vague. The approximately symmetrical positioning of the two symbols suggests that the artist intended to imply a state of equilibrium within the drawing.
Plus and minus signs can be found on opposite ends of a battery to indicate the positive and negative poles of a dry cell electric circuit. This work, with its equal balance of positive and negative, suggests energy is present but held in check – contained, as it is in a battery. Batteries are an important and recurring concept within Beuys’s interdisciplinary practice, appearing as elements or motifs in his drawings, sculptures, installations and performance ‘actions’, for example in the collage Battery 1959 (Tate AR00110) and the sculpture Fat Battery 1963 (Tate T03919). As the writer Caroline Tisdall explained in her catalogue essay for Beuys’s major retrospective exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1979:
When elements of science and technology appear, in large sculptures or in small objects, their presence is always intended as a reminder of the wider significance of ‘energy’. Terms like ‘insulator’, ‘battery’, ‘transmitter’, ‘receiver’, are all derived from the passage and storage of physical energy, but are drawn into spiritual and anthropological levels by Beuys so that they become symbols and metaphors of transformation and generate a new concept of energy.
(Tisdall 1979, p.80, 83.)
+ – thus appears to be part of a larger body of work by Beuys concerned with expressing, storing and transmitting energy, with the ultimate aim of achieving a synthesis of life and work. This reached its apotheosis in 1973 with Beuys’s lecture tour of America entitled ‘Energy Plan for Western Man’ which posited language as the great transformer, able to bring about social and political change. As the curator Jeannot Simmen writes of Beuys’s drawings: ‘Seldom are they sketches for an “action” in the sense of studies; many more are like fleeting records of ideas; yet they do not represent or illustrate a thought so much as evoke an emotion, a new unknown quality approximated in diagram.’ (Simmen 1979, p.86.) This ambiguity is apparent in the combination of expressive painterly forms and clearly-coded symbols in + –, which together convey not one idea but point to many interlinked concepts. As the artist himself stated in 1973, reflecting upon his vast body of works on paper spanning the preceding three decades:
I can only say that if I had not done all these drawings, I could not have done my political work. I think I’d also be carrying around completely wrong ideas in my head if I hadn’t done this work. I still consider these drawings to be one of the most important things I’ve ever done, for these entire attempts at, or experiments in, drawing are incredibly important apparatus for me. They’re something that’s certainly not finished, not even for me. Whenever I see any of my older drawings now, I think they’re not done, not worked out, not even begun. There’s an incredible lot in them. So they’re an important element in my life.
(Quoted in Adriani 1995, p.10.)
Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1979.
Jeannot Simmen, ‘Shadows of Reality’ in Heiner Bastian and Jeannot Simmen (eds.), Joseph Beuys – Zeichnungen, Tekeningen, Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Nationalgalerie, Berlin 1979, pp.85–90.
Götz Adriani (ed.), Joseph Beuys: Drawings, Objects and Prints, exhibition catalogue, Ludwig Muzeum, Budapest 1995.