Joseph Beuys



Not on display

Joseph Beuys 1921–1986
Graphite and fat on paper
Support: 209 × 297 mm
frame: 680 × 525 × 33 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008


Untitled 1965 by the German artist Joseph Beuys is a small drawing on a single sheet of writing paper, the right edge of which has been dipped into melted fat so that a vertical stain covers approximately a third of the paper surface. Five columns of crossed-out numbers written in pencil occupy the unstained side of the sheet, which is pale cream in colour, while two similar columns of crossed-out numbers are covered by the vivid yellow hue of the fat-stained section. This drawing is signed and dated 1965 on its reverse by the artist. The fat is likely to darken further with age, thereby increasing the tonal contrast within the drawing. Fat is one of the key recurring materials used by the artist in his performances, drawings, sculptures and installations, such as Fat Chair 1964–85 (Tate AR00088) and Fat Battery 1963 (Tate T03919). The artist’s use of fat stems from a possibly apocryphal wartime encounter with the nomadic Tartar people, who wrapped Beuys in fat and felt to keep him insulated after his German warplane crashed in the Crimea in 1943. The artist was interested in the transformative and nourishing potency of fat, and made use of the substance in both its liquid and solid states. Beuys used fat as a drawing material in many other works on paper, such as 2 Sheep’s Heads 1961–75 (Tate AR00647).

When asked about his approach to drawing in a 1984 interview, Beuys explained:

There are a lot of things which I call drawings, nevertheless they are mostly – what is the term? It’s not a line, it is a surface, it’s a full surface, or at least big complexes of this stuff. I call all those things drawings because I do not have such a specialized understanding of a drawing, that a drawing mostly exists of line or scribbling or making shadowy effects with the pencil.
(Quoted in Rose 1993, p.22.)

This description illuminates the artist’s expansive and experimental approach to undertaking work on paper: it is not the rendering of skilful graphic techniques that interests him, but rather the overall accumulation of data and surface qualities. All of the numbers in this drawing have been scored out, to suggest a process of counting down or cancellation, even though it is unclear what these numbers refer to. The numbers get bigger in size as they increase in value. On the fat-coated section of the paper the numbers start with 4 and finish with 74. The list is then started again in the top left corner of the sheet, starting with number 75, then 78, then 84, to finish with 322 just below the mid-point of the paper. Across the list the gaps between the numbers are irregular. The curator Ann Temkin has considered Beuys’s habit of list-making, as seen in the methodical counting down of this work and in many other drawings:

The activity of list-making can be traced to Beuys’s early studies in natural science and would continue throughout his life. Beuys began to make work lists in quantity at the time of his interest in Fluxus, when he painted over such lists with images or several brown crosses … Lists, as tools for organizing one’s world, tap into the thought patterns fundamental to daily existence … In their reordering of typical classifications, Beuys’s early lists already anticipate his work of the 1960s, which would address the heart of Western assumptions about order and disorder, sameness and otherness. The obsession with indexing and list-making shared by all the Fluxus artists reflects similar motivations.
(Temkin and Rose 1993, pp.42, 50.)

Fluxus-Name List 1963 (Tate AR00658) is another list drawing in ARTIST ROOMS that dates from a slightly earlier period during the height of Beuys’s involvement with Fluxus. In conversation with his private secretary Heiner Bastian and the curator Jeannot Simmen in 1979, Beuys offered perhaps the most cogent articulation of his drawing practice, saying: ‘My drawings make a kind of reservoir for me, that I can get important impulses from. In other words, they’re a kind of basic source material that I can draw from again and again.’ (Quoted in Bastian and Simmen 1979, p.94.)

Further reading
Heiner Bastian and Jeannot Simmen, Joseph Beuys – Zeichnungen, Tekeningen, Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Nationalgalerie, Berlin 1979, reproduced pl.89.
Bernice Rose, ‘Thinking is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys’, MoMA, no.13, Winter 1993, pp.16–23.
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.

Stephanie Straine
June 2011

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Online caption

Thick wedges of fat are a distinctive material used in Beuys's sculptures, but he also made use of fat in his works on paper. The yellowed edge of the paper here shows where it has been dipped in liquid fat, smearing some of the pencil. Fat is a material with numerous associations for the artist, and one which is not traditionally associated with art. The fact it can be used in both its solid and liquid states represents its ability for chemical and physical change. The significance of the carefully crossed out list of numbers is unknown, but suggests a methodical process or countdown.

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