Blackboards 1972 and 1978
Beuys regarded teaching as an essential element of his work as an artist. He was a profoundly charismatic and inspirational professor at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, where he taught a generation of German artists. Beuys’s relationship with the authorities at the academy was always stormy, and he was dismissed in 1972. However, by then he was expounding his theories of sculpture, democracy and green politics at conferences and art galleries around the world. These lectures were closer in spirit to Actions than to traditional academic practice, and the blackboards that he invariably covered in idiosyncratic diagrams and Beuysian slogans have come to be regarded as works in their own right. Several of the blackboards shown here are preserved from Beuys’s lectures at the Tate Gallery in 1972, which were described by the critic Caroline Tisdall as ‘a blend of art, politics, personal charisma, paradox and Utopian proposition’.
I Like America and America Likes Me 1974
Beuys’s most famous Action took place in May 1974, when he spent three days in a room with a coyote. After flying into New York, he was swathed in felt and loaded into an ambulance, then driven to the gallery where the Action took place, without having once touched American soil. As Beuys later explained: ‘I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote.’ The title of the work is filled with irony. Beuys opposed American military actions in Vietnam, and his work as an artist was a challenge to the hegemony of American art.
Beuys’s felt blankets, walking stick and gloves became sculptural props throughout the Action. In addition, fifty new copies of the Wall Street Journal were introduced each day, which the coyote acknowledged by urinating on them. Beuys regularly performed the same series of actions with his eyes continuously fixed on the coyote. At other times he would rest or gather the felt around him to suggest the figure of a shepherd with his crook. The coyote’s behaviour shifted throughout the three days, becoming cautious, detached, aggressive and sometimes companionable. At the end of the Action, Beuys was again wrapped in felt and returned to the airport.
For Native Americans, the coyote had been a powerful god, with the power to move between the physical and the spiritual world. After the coming of European settlers, it was seen merely as a pest, to be exterminated. Beuys saw the debasement of the coyote as a symbol of the damage done by white men to the American continent and its native cultures. His action was an attempt to heal some of those wounds. ‘You could say that a reckoning has to be made with the coyote, and only then can this trauma be lifted’, he said. Beuys believed that performance art could evoke a spiritual response in the audience, ultimately providing a healing process. He sometimes compared his role to that of a shaman. His performances, or ‘Actions’ were ritualistic, incorporating powerful symbols of birth, death and transformation. The objects that he used were often exhibited later as works in their own right.
As a child, Beuys was fascinated by nature, obsessively cataloguing all the plants and wildlife in his area. At the same time, he was enthralled by northern myths and folklore, in which creatures are endowed with mystical power. This reverence for the natural world persisted throughout his life and his art. He identified closely with certain animals, seeing them as guardian spirits: ‘The figures of the horse, the stag, the swan and the hare constantly come and go: figures which pass freely from one level of existence to another, which represent the incarnation of the soul…’ In the 1970s, Beuys became involved with environmental politics and was one of the founders of the Green Party.