Felt Action 1963 is an abstract work on paper made with brown oil paint the artist called Braunkreuz or ‘Brown cross’ (its name referring to both its colour and the shape of a cross onto which Beuys first applied the paint) and a neatly-cut rectangle of grey felt. The ground of this drawing consists of two irregular sheets of overlapping cream paper, the slightly smaller of which sits on top. The felt is positioned in the top right corner of this sheet of paper, and contrasts with the wildly expressive and biomorphic shape of the Braunkreuz paint, which occupies two-thirds of the sheet. The movement of the brush is the ‘action’ referred to by the work’s title, along with the artist’s gestures and the direction in which the paint spreads across the paper. The oil-based brown house paint was both brushed on in repetitive strokes to build up the opaque, curved mass, and splattered on in drips and splodges from a distance to create the feathered energy around its edges. The curator Ann Temkin has explained the connection between the two materials of this drawing, writing:
In Beuys’s universe, the role of the warming, sculptural nature of Braunkreuz closely relates to that of felt, an analogy made clear in many of the Braunkreuz drawings that evoke large fuzzy masses of that material, as well as in works such as Felt Action, of 1963, that incorporate into the Braunkreuz drawing an actual felt fragment. Many of the works sharing the spirit of Braunkreuz employ an opaque gray paint more suggestive of felt.
(Temkin 1993, p.40.)
The texture and materiality of the felt and of Braunkreuz therefore situates collages such as Felt Action within Beuys’s wider sculptural practice as experiments in two-dimensional layering. Felt played a central role in the imposing narrative and mythology of the artist’s life and work, stemming from one, possibly apocryphal, event of 1943: Beuys’s German fighter plane crash landing in the Crimea, and his subsequent rescue by the nomadic Tartar people of the region. The plane crash was detailed in the catalogue for his 1979 retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Beuys recounted: ‘I remember voices saying “Voda” (Water), then the felt of their tents, and the dense pungent smell of cheese, fat and milk. They covered my body in fat to help it regenerate warmth, and wrapped it in felt as an insulator to keep the warmth in.’ (Quoted in Tisdall 1979, pp.16–17.) Whether an embellished account or not, this origin story for felt places the material in direct and insistent contact with the body. The protective properties of felt can be seen more explicitly in a vitrine work from the following year, Model for a Felt Environment 1964 (Tate AR00619), which displays coiled strips of grey felt in preparation for some unknown, potentially calamitous, event. Felt Action, while more abstract, also alludes to the body through the very physical mass of Braunkreuz paint, and the title’s connection to Beuys’s performances, for which he used the term ‘action’. Like felt, Braunkreuz is a material very much related to the difficult relationship between Beuys, his past and his country’s past. The curator Jane Alison has suggested that:
Braunkreuz is an expression of both that which Beuys aspired to and that which he wanted to exorcise. The Christian cross, The Red Cross and the “Rosy Cross” of Mystic Rosicrucianism … are all referenced, whilst militaristic and Nazi symbolism is suggested too … the German context meant that for Beuys, colour was one way of addressing the personal and collective trauma, loss and shame of the war and its horrors. It was impossible for Beuys to make a simple gesture toward the immaterial without first addressing the reality of the German situation.
(Alison 2005, p.17.)
Beuys began performing his actions through an association with the experimental anti-art movement Fluxus in 1963 – the year Felt Action was produced. The term ‘action’ also appears in the titles of many of Beuys’s works on paper, including Tunnel (Cathode Rays) Felt Room Action 1964 (Tate AR00118), further strengthening the links between his paper output and his three-dimensional works. Felt Action does not relate to a specific action event; rather, it reflects the artist’s conviction that energy and movement – matter in a state of flux – could transfer between mediums and create a cohesive, integrated artistic practice.
Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1979.
Ann Temkin, ‘Joseph Beuys: Life Drawing’, in Ann Temkin and Bernice Rose (eds.), Thinking is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art, New York 1993, pp.27–71, reproduced p.199.
Jane Alison (ed.), Colour After Klein: Rethinking Colour in Modern and Contemporary Art, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 2005, reproduced p.59.