Felt Sculptures 1964 is a study on paper by the German artist Joseph Beuys that relates to an important group of sculptures, Felt Objects 1964–67, begun in the same year. The artist used preparatory pencil marks and dark grey oil paint to roughly sketch a series of shapes on a small, scored piece of cream coloured paper, previously folded into eighths. A line of four triangles of different sizes dominate the composition in the centre of the paper, which also includes a large angular shape with one irregular curved edge that borders the very top of the sheet, and a long streak of paint in the bottom half of the page. The curator Ann Temkin, writing of the artist’s 1966 performance action Manresa (see Score for MANRESA 1966, Tate AR00124), noted that:
The importance of angles extends throughout Beuys’s sculptures and actions; particularly in the context of Manresa, they bring to mind Kandinsky’s exposition of the triangle in his book of 1911, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Another artist powerfully influenced by the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, Kandinsky used the triangle to represent ‘the spirit of life’. He described this triangle as one that moves steadily upward, following the path of the visionary artist.
(Temkin 1993, p.55.)
The triangle also appears repeatedly in Beuys’s sculptural work of the time, for example the triangular wedges of various materials that were installed in the corners of rooms, such as Fat Corner 1960 and Felt Corner 1963 (reproduced in Tisdall 1979, p.75), which combined the rigours of geometry with the incessant physicality of the artist’s signature materials. The two smallest triangles in the Felt Sculptures drawing have a line connecting their apexes – this could signify a metal rod (a conductor of electricity), which the artist often used in his sculptural assemblages to offset the insulating qualities of felt and fat.
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 most fully 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.
Discussing the Felt Objects 1964–67, which were brought together from various actions to form a single installation at the Guggenheim retrospective of 1979, the artist explained:
These are the tools from different actions which have passed through several conditions. The aim of such an arrangement is to concentrate the meaning of felt in one space. While the various elements illustrate different principles, they share common meanings and intentions, both physical and symbolic: felt as an insulator, as a protective covering against other influences, or conversely as a material that permits infiltration from outside influences. Then there is the warmth character, the greyness which serves to emphasize the colours that exist in the world by a psychological after-image effect, and the silence as every sound is absorbed and muffled.
(Quoted in Tisdall 1979, p.120.)
As the art historian Gene Ray claims:
Felt has an even more specific historical referent that has nothing to do with the plane crash. It is a gruesome and unpleasant fact, but one that is not acknowledged in the published Beuys reception, that after 1942 the hair of Holocaust victims was shorn and collected at the killing centres and shipped to German-owned factories, where it was processed into felt … Whatever Beuys’ personal experience of this pressed material may have been, and whatever its sculptural properties may be, felt has a place in the history of the Holocaust that cannot be erased or avoided.
(Ray 2001, pp.63–4.)
Ray’s comment points to an important undercurrent of Beuys’s work with felt, which inflects his apparently wholly abstract works such as this one, with a pressing socio-historical dimension that cannot be overlooked.
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.
Gene Ray, ‘Joseph Beuys and the After-Auschwitz Sublime’, in Gene Ray (ed.), Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy, New York and Sarasota, Florida 2001, pp.55–74.