Tunnel (Cathode Rays) Felt-Room Action is a small work on paper by the German artist Joseph Beuys that combines sketches and handwritten notes with paint. The piece of paper appears to have been torn from a sketchbook as it has a rough and ridged left edge. The discoloured and stained cream paper contains a jumble of the artist’s notes, written in both pencil and ink, with a large mass of dark grey oil paint obscuring the majority of the page. This defacement leaves no coherent or complete trace of the artist’s thoughts visible on the page. The oil paint, which is almost black in appearance, has been applied in very thick, swirling brushstrokes, so that it has clumped on the paper surface, accumulating little bubbles and dried paint particles. Remaining visible at the margins of the sheet is the title word ‘Tunnel’, written in English at the very top of the drawing, while beneath the painted mass is written in ink the German word ‘die Wahrheit’, meaning ‘truth’. In pencil in the bottom section of the sheet there are little drawings, possibly of roots and branches. Underneath the paint there are two horizontal pencil lines that seem to indicate that the space of the page was initially organised. The gesture of obscuring a page of notations and diagrams appears to be an act of concealment by the artist. The covering up and cancellation of this kind of raw information could suggest that these notes were for an action that never took place or that, except for a few intriguing drawings, the artist wished to delete.
The mention of ‘cathode rays’ in the work’s title suggests a link to television sets, which use cathode ray tubes to create the onscreen image. (Beuys would perform an action in Copenhagen in 1966 entitled Felt TV, later re-staged and broadcast on German television in 1970.) The type of dark grey oil paint in this work has been used elsewhere in Beuys’s drawing practice to suggest felt, one of the artist’s signature materials (see for example Felt Sculptures 1964, Tate AR00661). The paint essentially encases the artist’s words, diagrams and notations and, like felt’s noise-cancelling properties, ‘muffles’ the page’s contents to achieve a state of mute cancellation. The artist’s materially inventive approach to drawing links the works on paper to every other aspect of Beuys’s art, including sculpture, installation, performance, or his political actions, teaching and lecturing, which all feature an interrelated set of materials and gestures developed by the artist over many decades. Beuys explained in a 1984 interview that: ‘My thinking on drawing as a special form of materialized thought is this: they are the beginning of changing the material condition of the world, through sculpture, architecture, mechanics, or engineering, for instance, where drawing ends not only with the traditional artist’s concept.’ (Quoted in Rose 1993, p.17.)
While Tunnel (Cathode Rays) Felt-Room Action has a very specific and detailed title, in fact this drawing has no obvious or direct connection to any documented ‘action’ performed by the artist. Despite this, 1964 was a crucial year for Beuys’s development of his public performances, with his action Kukei/Akopee-nein/Brown Cross/Fat Corners/Model Fat Corners at the Festival for New Art in Aachen, West Germany on 20 July 1964 marking the beginning of his ascendancy to worldwide fame as an artist. This event is notorious for the interruption of Beuys’s performance by right-wing students, and its descent into violence with police arrests at the scene.
The curator Anne Seymour has clarified the artist’s approach to drawing, writing: ‘Although the appearance of a drawing is not of first importance to Beuys, its colour or substance are likely to have some sort of relationship with its subject or meaning. Beuys uses materials in drawing very much as substance, and in ways comparable to how he would use them on a much larger three-dimensional scale.’ (Seymour 1983, p.20.) Related to this observation is the art historian Maja Naef’s statement that: ‘With Beuys, the space of drawing in his oeuvre is larger than the corpus of his drawings in the strict sense in that it also encompasses archives, broadcasts, performances and installations, which belonged to the scene of drawing as Beuys understood it.’ (Naef 2010, p.337.) Acknowledging this conceptual overlap between different media is crucial to understanding many of the artist’s works on paper, including this work, that appear as wilfully impenetrable and mysterious objects, while nonetheless hinting at multiple influences and interpretative possibilities.
Anne Seymour, ‘The Drawings of Joseph Beuys’, in Joseph Beuys Drawings, exhibition catalogue, City Art Galleries, Leeds 1983, pp.7–26, reproduced pl.99.
Bernice Rose, ‘Thinking is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys’, MoMA, no.13, Winter 1993, pp.16–23.
Maja Naef, ‘Beuys, Drawing’, in Marion Ackermann and Isabelle Malz (eds.), Joseph Beuys, Parallel Processes, exhibition catalogue, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf 2010, pp.336–48.