Joseph Beuys

Four Blackboards


In Tate Modern

Joseph Beuys 1921–1986
Original title
Ohne Titel
4 works on blackboard, chalk
Unconfirmed: 1216 × 914 × 18 mm
Transferred from the Archive 1983

Display caption

Three of these boards were used by Beuys in his Information Action at the Tate Gallery in 1972, at which he spoke and answered questions uninterruptedly for six and a half hours. The fourth was used the following day at the Whitechapel Gallery. The text on the third board reads: ‘He who in 1972 can live carefree and sleep peacefully despite knowing that two thirds of humanity are hungry or dying of starvation while a large proportion of the well-fed third must take slimming cures in order to stay alive should ask himself what kind of man one is and whether, moreover, he is a man at all.’

Gallery label, December 2020

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Catalogue entry

Joseph Beuys 1921-1986

T03594 Four Blackboards 1972

Chalk on four blackboards each 1216 x 914 x 18 (47 7/8 x 36 x 18)
Inscribed with numerous expository words and diagrams on blackboard (see below)
Presented by the artist to the Tate Gallery Archive 1972 (72-25); transferred from the Archive 1983
Exh: Seven Exhibitions, Tate Gallery, Feb.-March 1972 (see below)
Lit: Caroline Tisdall, 'Joseph Beuys', Guardian, 28 Feb. 1972 p.8; Guy Brett, 'Live action pieces at the Tate', Times, 29 Feb. 1972, p.9; Anthony Everitt, 'Four artists at the Tate Gallery London', Birmingham Post, 2 March 1972, p.2; Richard Cork, 'A new starting point for the Tate', Evening Standard, 9 March 1972, p.22; Andrew Forge, 'Joseph Beuys', Listener, 16 March 1972, pp.352-3; Simon Field, 'Curiouser and curiouser', Director, March 1972; Götz Adriani, Winfried Konnertz and Karin Thomas, Joseph Beuys, Cologne 1973, p.155; Götz Adriani, Winfried Konnertz and Karin Thomas, Joseph Beuys Life and Works, New York 1979, p.242.

Beuys's manifestation as the Tate Gallery in 1972 was one of seven exhibitions arranged at short notice to fill a gap in the Gallery's exhibition programme caused by further building delays to the new extension, which finally opened in 1979. Seven artists doing unconventional, experimental work exhibited or performed under the curatorship of Michael Compton. With the exception of Beuys all were British. The text of a flysheet introducing the exhibitions emphasised that each artist was quite autonomous and that the choice of artists was not an attempt to define a group or movement. It continued, 'the pieces in the show will have in common only the fact that they will not be conventional paintings or sculptures. They will comprise a variety of media including sound, videotape and the written word. Most will involve, in one way or another, time' (Michael Compton, Seven Exhibitions, 1972). The other artists involved were Keith Arnatt, Michael Craig-Martin, Bob Law, Bruce McClean, David Tremlett and Hamish Fulton.

Beuy's contribution ran from 24 February to 6 March. Videos and recordings of previous actions were played and the main event, an action entitled Information Action, took place on 26 February (with a similar action the following day as the Whitechapel Art Gallery). Three of the blackboards were used for the Tate event, while the fourth (on the right of the photograph [see concise catalogue page illustration for T03594]) was used during the Whitechapel event. For six and a half hours Beuys lectured and discussed his 'blend of art, politics, personal charisma, paradox and Utopian proposition' (Tisdall 1972, p.8). The whole event was recorded on video (now in the Education Department of the Gallery), while a photographic record has been preserved in the Tate Gallery Archive.

In the Tate event, themes were explored and discussed which recurred in Beuys's many lectures and events throughout the 1970s. On 1 June 1971 Beuys founded the 'Organization for Direct Democracy through Referendum', based on ideas for a tripartite structure of state, economy and intellectual existence expounded earlier in the century by Rudolf Steiner:

The milieu in which creativity can be developed is principally the field of culture, and Beuys starts his sociopolitical program in the area of culture, in order to develop from this special angle the concept of equality as well as of democracy and socialism as a genetic process. The intellectual life, which education must should be structured, stands most definitely at the beginning of this evolutionary process of development. Next to it is equality as the democratic principle of law, meaning concrete socialism and fraternity in relation to the economic area. Within these three areas there is no qualitative ranking system. The primary necessity in Beuys' concept of direct democracy is freedom, meaning that every man should be able to completely realize his liberty, for example, his right to a free and equal unfolding of his personality, as is firmly established as a fundamental law in the organization's statutes (Götz Adriani, Winfried Konnertz and Karin Thomas, Joseph Beuys: Life and Works, New York 1979, pp.221-2)

This theme was further explored in the 'Art = Man' lecture and discussion Beuys held at the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Krefeld, on 18 December 1971:

In his introductory lecture Beuys gave as the key to his life and work the following equation: Art is equal to man, is equal to creativity, is equal to freedom. Every man is creative, and hence he is free. Freedom and creativity principally place him in the position to determine, to form, and to change. This is valid for the field of art as well as for society (ibid., pp.240-1).

Tisdall quotes Beuys in a long passage where the general aims of the Organization for Direct Democracy are described. The ideas of the teacher - pupil relationship as well as the more general socio-political and cultural relationships constitute the main themes explored during the Tate manifestation and correspond with inscriptions on the blackboards used during the event.

We must probe (theory of knowledge) the origin of free individual productive potency (creativity). We then reach the threshold where the human being experiences himself primarily as a spiritual being, where his supreme achievements (work of art), his active thinking, his active feeling, his active will, and their higher forms, can be apprehended as sculptural generative means, corresponding to the exploded concepts of sculpture divided into its elements - indefinite - movement - definite (see Theory of Sculpture), and are then recognized as flowing in the direction that is shaping the content of the world right through into the future.

This is the concept of art that carries within itself the revolutionizing not only of the historic bourgeois concept of knowledge (materialism, positivism) but also of religious activity.

EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST who - from his state of freedom - the position of freedom that he experiences at first hand - learns to determine the other positions in the TOTAL ART WORK OF THE FUTURE SOCIAL ORDER. Self-determination and participation in the cultural sphere (freedom); in the structuring of laws (democracy); and in the sphere of economics (socialism). Self-administration and decentralization (threefold structure) occurs: FREE DEMOCRATIC SOCIALISM.

is born

Communication occurs in reciprocity: it must never be a one-way flow from the teacher to the taught. The teacher takes equally from the taught. And thus - at all times and everywhere, in any conceivable internal and external circumstance, between all degrees of ability, in the work place, institutions, the street, work circles, research groups, schools - the master/pupil, transmitter/receiver, relationship oscillates. The ways of achieving this are manifold, corresponding to the varying gifts of individuals and groups (Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys,, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1979, pp.268-9).

Tisdall writes of the role played by blackboards in Beuys's work:

From the earliest days of his Fluxus concerts [dating from the mid 196os], Beuys had been using blackboards as carriers of information that could be changed during the course of an action ... But the often elaborate drawings which emerge during the course of lectures and dialogues are as far from standard lecture notations as the lectures themselves are from standard academic practice. While some remain as drawings after the event, in much the same way as sculptures emerge as relics of actions, other blackboards have been given a definitely sculptural status (Tisdall 1979, pp.204-7).

During the early 1970s Beuys began lecturing more extensively and blackboards remained an important part of his didactic method. The role of artist as pedagogue was expanded throughout the 1970s by Beuys in a series of exhibitions and actions aimed at understanding the creative forces in human nature. The 'Free International University' ('FlU'), a university without walls founded by Beuys, was held during the hundred days of Documenta 6 from 24 June to 1 October 1977 in Kassel. Thirteen consecutive workshops were held in which a wide range of people addressed themselves to problems such as 'Nuclear Energy and Alternatives' and 'Urban Decay and Institutionalization'. The spirit of involvement and releasing of creative energies in all people are contained in the manifesto published by Beuys and the author Heinrich Böll in 1972, in which the principles of the FlU are stated:

Creativity is not limited to people practising one of the traditional forms of art, and even in the case of artists creativity is not confined to the exercise of their art. Each one of us has a creative potential which is hidden by competitiveness and success-aggression. To recognize, explore and develop this is the task of the school. Creation - whether it be a painting, sculpture, symphony or novel - involves not merely talent, intuition, powers of imagination and application, but also the ability to shape material that could be expanded to other socially relevant spheres (quoted in Tisdall 1979, p.278).

The effectiveness of art as a force for change within society was an essential aspect of Beuys's thinking.

Beuys's largest work involving blackboards is 'Directional Forces', 1974/77 (Nationalgalerie, Berlin, repr. Heiner Bastian (ed.), Joseph Beuys: Skulpturen und Objekte,, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin 1988, p.282-5), which was begun during the month-long discussion on the occasion of the exhibition Art and Society as the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (Nov. 1974). It was subsequently shown at the René Block Gallery, New York (April 1975) and the Venice Bienale (July 1976) before Beuys installed it in Berlin in its final form. The huge range of subjects covered during the extended discussions is reflected in the contents of the many blackboards Beuys used. The Tate action, in contrast, was shorter and its theme of a participatory democracy is indicated by the inscriptions and directional arrows on the blackboards.

A poster, part of the envelope catalogue to mark the seven exhibitions, contained a number of texts and diagrams on the back. In one of these Beuys called upon all people to shape their own lives and determine the kind of system in which to live. The text, 'Organisation for Direct Democracy through Referenda', called for a democracy of the grass roots, determined from below, not above. Among the ten 'essential traits of a truly democratic society' Beuys included: 1) The formation of political opinion at grass roots. 2) Absolute sovereignty of the people ... 4) A constitution enacted by the people ... 8) Popular control of the administration at all levels. 9) Referenda on all important issues'. All these issues formed part of the wider debate in Germany at the time, which accompanied the emergence of the Green movement.

The three blackboards were hung in the Octagon of the Tate. Upon the right-hand board (as photographs of the event depict) Beuys had written a statement which runs: 'He who in 1972 can live carefree and sleep peacefully despite knowing that two-thirds of humanity are hungry or dying of starvation while a large proportion of the well-fed must take slimming cures to stay alive, should ask himself what sort of man he is, and whether, moreover, he is a man at all.' The contents of the other two boards are illustrated by the diagrams on pp.492-3 [not reproduced here].

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.489-94

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