Cross 1961 is a two-part collage with cream coloured backing card as its support. A rectangular piece of grey, oil-painted card is affixed to its centre, with another vertically orientated rectangle positioned on top of it to compose a roughly symmetrical cross. This top piece of card is a similar cream colour to the support, with patchy russet watercolour covering two-thirds of its surface, with a splodge of grey oil in the top-right corner. The colouring appears semi-transparent on the vertical strip, in contrast to the opacity of the grey oil paint on the horizontal strip underneath. The left and bottom edges of the top rectangle are lined with grey to heighten the sense of layering and relief. While the design of the cross is geometric, the application of paint on the vertical strip is gestural.
The art historian Christina Demele explains that: ‘The cross made its first appearance in Joseph Beuys’ work in 1943 in connection with his war experiences [in the artist’s Crimean Notebook] … Beuys produced various works on the subject of the cross as well as sketches and three-dimensional realisations of sacred objects. Beuys’ goal was to express Christian thought in a contemporary form.’ (Demele 2010, p.86.) The curator Ann Temkin has investigated the many interpretative layers of Beuys’s use of the cross, writing:
Whereas the cross operates in terms of Beuys’s central metaphor of energy production for the making of art, and the living of life, the choice of the cross as a symbol brings with it inherent spiritual references. The particular significance of the cross within the system of Beuys’s theory of sculpture joins with the artist’s deep and longstanding interest in its traditional iconographies.
(Temkin and Rose 1993, p.42.)
The symmetrical Greek cross formation also informed Beuys’s use of materials, in particular the brown, household oil paint the artist termed Braunkreuz or ‘Brown cross’ after the form on which he first experimented with the paint. Its reddish-brown hue (similar to the watercolour used in Cross) is reminiscent of rust, dried blood, and dirt, while the name evokes associations from Christianity to Nazism to occultism. It features in many of Beuys’s drawings of the 1960s, ranging from small interventions such as the triangle in Play 17 1963 (Tate AR00115) to grand painterly sweeps, for example the main element in the drawing Felt Action 1963 (Tate AR00700).
In addition to the more obvious religious and spiritual interpretations of the cross, Beuys also took an interest in the secular concepts inherent in its design. Temkin further explains:
the idea of the cross acquires meaning as a general symbol of unification. Beuys’s vision of social change, like that of many other artists during the 1960s, centered on repairing a divided world and a divided self. The political bisection of Germany exemplified the wide gap between Eastern and Western philosophy, religion, economy, and government. The cross suggested for Beuys the unification of East and West necessary for a healthy society, as much as inner integration was required for a fully realized human being.
(Temkin and Rose 1993, p.43.)
This interest in the potentially transformative unification of East and West, for which the cross stands as a potent symbol, forms the basis for certain performative ‘actions’ by Beuys which took place in 1966: Eurasia and Manresa (see the drawing in ARTIST ROOMS, Score for Manresa 1966, Tate AR00124). Both actions involved the physical splitting of a handmade cross used in the performance, for which the artist was the sole participant surrounded by various props, tools and symbolic materials. Appearing in Beuys’s single-page work Play 17 are the personifications of this bifurcated condition: the Eastern and Western Man. These later conceptual developments give a greater resonance to the artist’s apparently simple decision to construct the form in Cross from two separate and physically distinct pieces of card.
The artist’s personal secretary, Heiner Bastian, wrote in 1979: ‘The cross stands for a possible society, for an infinite guilt indefinitely in need of absolution; for silence, but not the silence of death; for morality, but not that felt in the face of death.’ (Bastian 1979, p.83.) This reflection upon the moral, social and religious complexities of the cross formation points to the weighty consequences of using such a motif as the basis for a collage, and as a recurring presence across Beuys’s artistic practice, which is saturated in religious and mystical allusions and iconography – for example, Halved Felt Cross over Cologne 1977 (Tate P07600).
Heiner Bastian, ‘Signs are Senses’, in Heiner Bastian and Jeannot Simmen (eds.), Joseph Beuys – Zeichnungen, Tekeningen, Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Nationalgalerie, Berlin 1979, pp.73–84, reproduced pl.70.
Ann Temkin and Bernice Rose, Thinking is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art, New York 1993.
Christian Demele, ‘Crosses’, in Marion Ackermann and Isabelle Malz (eds.), Joseph Beuys, Parallel Processes, exhibition catalogue, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf 2010, p.86.