Play 17 consists of a single sheet of cream writing paper onto which has been typed the title, stage directions and cast list for a play in German. It is dated 1963 by the artist Joseph Beuys on the verso; on the recto there are no handwritten elements or a signature, only a small brown triangle in the top right corner of the page. The brown substance used for the triangle is Beuys’s Braunkreuz, a type of common household oil paint first used by the artist in 1958, the name ‘Brown cross’ deriving from the motif onto which he first applied the paint (Seymour 1983, p.21). Its reddish-brown hue is reminiscent of rust, dried blood, and dirt, while the name evokes symbols associated with such far-ranging ideologies as Christianity, Nazism, and occultism. It is featured in many of Beuys’s drawings of the 1960s, from small interventions such as this triangle, to flat opaque coatings such as those seen on top of newspapers in Untitled 1963–4 (Tate AR00660) and gestural painterly sweeps, for example the main element in the drawing Felt Action 1963 (Tate AR00700). In Play 17, the slightly irregular hand-drawn triangle points downwards towards the ‘action’ of the play. Its shape relates to the recurrence in Beuys’s sculptural work of the triangle, particularly triangular wedges of various materials that were installed in the corners of rooms, such as Fat Corner 1960 and Felt Corner 1963, which combined the rigours of geometry with the incessant physicality of the artist’s signature materials.
Play 17 begins with the two-line description ‘in a room with / 4 fat corners acting together’. This is followed by a long list of characters in various numbers. As the curator Ann Temkin has explained: ‘A variety of animals, insects, birds, and fish make up the company of actors, dominated by nine stags and five Easter rabbits.’ (Temkin and Rose 1993, p.51.) Within the list, the animals do not appear to be arranged in any logical way such as by size or geography; for example the mussel precedes the sheep and the lion is followed by the housefly and dung beetle. The accumulation of this fantastic menagerie evokes an imaginative world that belies the pared-down aesthetic of typewritten script. The writer and curator Ann Seymour has explored such complexities in the artist’s works on paper, writing:
Beuys’s drawings may look like drawings or watercolours in the conventional sense … but can also look rather different. They may take the form of lists, for example of fascinating groups of things botanical, medicinal, even of the materials we throw away … Another use of this listing approach has been in Beuys’s scores for plays or actions such as One Second Play 1961 and Play 17 1963.
(Seymour 1983, p.7.)
By situating these list-format plays within Beuys’s drawing oeuvre, Seymour highlights the heterogeneity of the artist’s practice. Play 17 certainly explores the boundaries between language, drawing and performance in its conceptual approach to a play too fantastical ever to be performed.
Although Play 17 is an unique work on paper, the text and formatting of this original sheet was used to produce several handwritten and further print versions in multiple editions many years later, for example Play 17 1972, offset on brown paper (Korff Collection, Ilmmünster, reproduced in Malz and Ackermaan 2010, p.128). The sparse yet poetic stage directions of Play 17 conclude with an elliptical statement: ‘The animals vanish as soon as / the Western man enters / simultaneously projected on / the room’s north wall / the Eastern man.’ Ann Temkin has also interpreted this final segment:
Play 17, which takes the terms Western and Eastern man from Rudolf Steiner, exemplifies Beuys’s belief that European culture has divorced itself from the world of nature; it holds up a mythic East as an alternative model. Beuys uses animals both metonymically and metaphorically here. They stand for the natural environment as a whole but also signal the animal aspect of human nature: the instinctual or sensory capacities not related to intellect or conscious will.
(Temkin and Rose 1993, pp.51–2.)
Play 17 therefore aligns Beuys’s poetic and metaphorical interest in nature to a tentatively political agenda that was only just beginning to emerge in his artistic practice. As Temkin goes on to say: ‘Play 17 demonstrates Beuys’s ongoing concern with the spiritual and social links between humans and animals. When he founded the German Student Party at the Düsseldorf Academy in 1967, Beuys described it as the largest party in the world, admitting that most of its members were animals.’ (Temkin and Rose 1993, p.52.) There are further works on paper from the latter half of the 1960s belonging to ARTIST ROOMS that relate to the political concerns first alluded to in Play 17, in particular A Party for Animals 1969 (Tate AR00680) and German Student Party 1967 (Tate AR00677) which are direct manifestations of Beuys’s new political direction in his art.
Anne Seymour, ‘The Drawings of Joseph Beuys’, in Joseph Beuys Drawings, exhibition catalogue, City Art Galleries, Leeds 1983, pp.7–26, reproduced pl.92.
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.50–2, reproduced p.195.
Marion Ackermann and Isabelle Malz (eds.), Joseph Beuys, Parallel Processes, exhibition catalogue, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf 2010.