Joseph Beuys

The End of the Twentieth Century


Not on display

Joseph Beuys 1921–1986
Basalt, clay and felt
Displayed: 900 × 7000 × 12000 mm
Purchased with assistance from Edwin C. Cohen and Echoing Green 1991


The End of the Twentieth Century is a large installation consisting of thirty-one rough, bulky basalt rocks, which are strewn across the floor in a seemingly random manner. The stones are all a muted beige colour, mottled with patches of grey. Each rock measures between one and two and a half metres in length and has a cone-shaped hole drilled into the upper side of one of its ends. These cone-shaped cavities have been smoothed down and lined with clay and felt, and the pieces of basalt that were removed from the stones have been polished before being placed back into their holes. The rocks lie in loose, haphazard clusters that resemble piles of debris. However, they are broadly arranged in two groups, leaving a long gap down the centre so that viewers can walk among them.

This installation was made by the German artist Joseph Beuys in 1985. It is the third in a series of works that all have the same title and were produced in roughly the same way. The first of these, which comprises twenty-one stones, was conceived in 1983 for the exhibition Tending Towards the Total Work of Art at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf after its curator, Harald Szeeman (1933–2005), asked Beuys to make a new work for the show. While producing this first version of the work, Beuys also prepared another, which includes forty-four stones. The Tate installation is the final large-scale version of this work that Beuys oversaw. The artist was involved in selecting and preparing its stones in 1985, but he died in January 1986, before the work was installed.

Although Beuys made some initial sketches that illustrate possible ways of arranging the stones, there are no fixed rules for installing The End of the Twentieth Century. This poses a challenge for curators, who must decide how to display the installation and whether to base their decision on previous displays of other versions that the artist helped to install. After Tate purchased this work in 1991, Tate curator Sean Rainbird and Beuys’s former Munich gallerist Bernd Klüser devised a composition for displaying the piece that drew on previous arrangements and the artist’s drawings. The work was first shown according to their plans at the Tate Gallery in 1992 and, aside from very minor alterations, it has been displayed in the same way since.

The title of this installation makes reference to what was at the time the impending end of the twentieth century, and the art historian Mark Rosenthal has suggested that the work expresses a pessimistic view of this by evoking ‘the haphazard aftermath of a calamity’ (Mark Rosenthal, ‘Joseph Beuys: Staging Sculpture’, in Menil Collection 2005, p.84). Furthermore, this work could be seen as a reflection on the physical effects of the passage of time: clay, felt and basalt are materials that were used frequently by Beuys, who often stated that he was interested in basalt’s status as a volcanic rock, and the art historian Victoria Walters has argued that he associated it with ‘a very long-term, geological notion of time’ (Victoria Walters, Joseph Beuys and the Celtic Wor(l)d, Zürich 2012, p.248). In 1984 Beuys claimed that he wanted this installation to allegorise a relationship between the past and the near future to which its title refers:

This is the end of the twentieth century. This is the old world, on which I press the stamp of the new world. Take a look at the plugs, they look like plants coming from the stone age. I took great pains to drill them out of the basalt in a funnel shape and then set them back into the hollows using felt and clay so they cannot do each other harm, and can keep warm. It is something agile, eruptive, lively in this solidified mass – in the same way that the basalt itself was once pressed out of the earth’s interior.
(Quoted in Willisch and Heimberg 2007, p.7.)

Beuys’s suggestion that this installation produces a harmonious relationship between ancient, natural forces and the ‘new world’ may have been linked with his commitment to the ecological movement in this period, which led him to found the German Green Party in 1980. The End of the Twentieth Century is also directly connected with another of his major late works, 7000 Oaks: city forestation instead of city administration 1982, which was produced by Beuys for Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany. To make this work, Beuys placed seven thousand stones on the square in front of the Museum Fridericianum, Documenta 7’s central exhibition space. Over the next five years the rocks were gradually removed and each was placed next to a newly-planted oak tree elsewhere in Kassel. In 1983 forty-four of the stones were moved from the square to Düsseldorf for the 1983 Galerie Schema installation of The End of the Twentieth Century, before being replaced. Beuys stated that he wanted 7000 Oaks: city forestation instead of city administration ‘to initiate the gradual “straightening process”, the “enlivening process” of nature as well as of the social–ecological, that is, social organism’ (quoted in Eckart Förster, ‘“Gentleness, Indirectness, Imperceptibility, and often ‘Anti-Technics’ are my choices”: on Joseph Beuys’ The End of the 20th Century’, in Menil Collection 2007, pp.62–3.)

Further reading
Joseph Beuys: actions, vitrines, environments, exhibition catalogue, Menil Collection, Houston 2005, pp.84, 136–49.
Susanne Willisch and Bruno Heimberg (eds.), Joseph Beuys – Das Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts / The End of the Twentieth Century, Munich 2007.
The End of the Twentieth Century: The Best is Yet To Come: A Dialogue with the Marx Collection, exhibition catalogue, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin 2013, pp.11–21.

Lucy Watling
January 2014

Supported by Christie’s.

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Display caption

Joseph Beuys’s The End of the Twentieth Century addresses themes of finality and death, but also ideas of regeneration through nature. Blocks of basalt are arranged across the floor. Basalt is volcanic in origin, and Beuys associated it with the earth’s ancient energy and geological time. Beuys cut a conical hole in each of the slabs. He then ‘treated’ this ‘wound’ by lining the hollow with insulating clay and felt, before re-inserting the stone plugs. These filled cavities imply the potential for healing, suggesting the possibility of renewal at the end of a violent and destructive century.

Gallery label, May 2021

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