Joseph Beuys

Untitled (Vitrine)


Not on display

Joseph Beuys 1921–1986
Original title
Ohne Titel (Vitrine)
Wood, glass, steel, copper, iron and felt
Object: 2060 × 2200 × 500 mm
Purchased 1984

Display caption

These objects reflect Beuys’s concern with the generation and storage of energy. Many include iron, which Beuys associated with slowness and the gradual accumulation of energy; copper, which he associated with lightning conductivity and speed; or felt, which insulates and absorbs. On the left are two pieces of felt with a razor blade attached, and Samurai Sword, a knife sheathed in felt. On the right are a piece of tram rail, relating to Beuys’s childhood memories of the tram stop near his home; Magnetic Rubbish, a razor blade held upright on a magnetised plate; and a battery.

Gallery label, May 2008

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

Joseph Beuys 1921-1986

T03826 Untitled (Vitrine) 1983

Nine items, untitled unless titles given below, two irregularly shaped pieces of felt with razor blades 470 x 325 x 68 (18 1/2 x 12 3/4 x 2 3/4); 'Samurai Sword': felt and iron 75 x 540 x 85 (3 x 21 1/4 x 3 3/4) in an edition of 30; 'Felt Wedge': felt wedge 85 x 250 x 55 (3 3/8 x 9 7/8 x 2 1/8) in an edition of 47 (and 9 artist's proofs); 'Element': copper and steel 20 x 455 x 340 (3/4 x 18 x 13 3/8) in an edition of 50; 'Magnetic Rubbish': magnetized iron and razor blade 32 x 148 x 105 (1 1/4 x 5 7/8 x 4 1/8) in an edition of 80 (and 15 with Roman numerals); hammer and iron rail 168 x 500 x 195 (6 6 5/8 x 19 3/4 x 7 3/4); pig iron 53 x 85 x 150 (2 1/8 x 3 3/8 x 5 7/8); pig iron 63 x 90 x 215 (2 1/2 x 3 1/2 x 8 1/2); copper and electrical insulating tape 65 x 155 x 110 (2 1/2 x 6 1/8 x 4 3/8) in glass, plywood and wood cabinet on steel framework 2060 x 2200 x 500 (81 1/8 x 86 5/8 x 19 3/4)
Not inscribed
Purchased from Anthony d'Offay Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1984
Exh: Joseph Beuys Vitrines: Forms from the Sixties, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, Sept.- Oct. 1983 as ('Rail'); Forty Years of Modern Art 1945-1985, Tate Gallery, Feb-April 1986 (not numbered, repr. p.112 in col.)

One of the most influential figures in post-war European art was the German sculptor Joseph Beuys, whose belief in the artist's social role led him into the fields of education and, later in his life, radical politics. Although he began his career after the war as a sculptor in the traditional sense, Beuys's main achievement dates from the 1960s, when he succeeded in widening the definition of sculpture to include multi-media actions and environments. Beuys has also restored to German art a sense of identity by constructing a myth around his own biography, that of the survivor endowed with almost magical powers.

The vitrines [T03825 and T03826] are part of a set of thirteen which all contain objects made between 1949 and 1983. The objects inside were chosen and arranged by the artist. Each explores a different Beuys theme. These include illness, survival, magic agriculture, Russia, energy, healing and religion. A number of works, some unique, others multiples, have been collected and installed in vitrines. The vitrines are made of white, painted wood with horizontally hinged windows and are fitted with puttied glass. They are supported on a simple, steel framework. The design of the vitrines is Beuys's own and dates from 1964 (although the dating of the vitrines spans the earliest and most recent objects in the vitrines). With its connotations of an antiseptic cupboard or museum display case, the vitrine is a particularly appropriate vehicle for presenting Beuys's preoccupations with science, medicine and death.

The two vitrines, or showcases, contain small sculptures or symbolic objects covering the whole of Beuys's career, from the early 1950s to the present. Some of them, such as the 'Fat Corner' made of lard, are relics from actions or performances.

The two vitrines present striking contrasts of form, colour and material. While the one containing fat is predominantly soft and pale in tone, the other is darker and includes hard shapes with cutting edges such as a length of sramrail. The other vitrine explores different kinds of energy (another theme much-explored by Beuys) and juxtaposes ideas of conduction and insulation. Objects in it are sometimes duplicated, reflecting an interest on Beuys's part in different or opposite meanings attached to the same form. When the vitrines were exhibited as the Anthony d'Offay Gallery they were given loose nicknames, 'Fat' and 'Rail', derived from their consents. It is difficult to convey in words the unique flavour of Beuys's work with its basis in elemental human experience, its multiple associations, sense of tragedy and peculiarly old or used quality.

When the vitrines were being set up for exhibition in 1983 (their first exhibition as a group), Beuys spoke about them with Judy Adam and Anthony d'Offay, while walking around the Anthony d'Offay Gallery: each made notes of Beuys's comments. Details of the contents of the vitrines come from this conversation.

T03825 contains a group of five items. These include, from left to right: an irregular, upright block of wax-like material with an emblematic impression on the forward, exhibited, face. The impression has probably been achieved by a simple direct moulding technique. It is one of two versions of the subject made in 1950-51 and is made half of butter and half of wax. (Tisdall writes that a multiple of this work was subsequently made in 1978 in an edition of 10, entitled Cuprum O.3% Unguentum Metallicum Praeparatum; repr. Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys,, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1979, pl.372). Secondly, there is a larger slab of similar material to the first block. It dates from the period of the 'Queen Bees' (1947-52). Its shape is of a rough form with a cutter on top and a small piece of copper wire embedded in the block takes the shape of a queen bee. The cutter is a small, rectangular sheet of metal with another narrow piece of metal wrapped over one of the edges and riveted to form a handle. Tisdall writes of the importance of this theme:

The bee first appears in a sculpture of 1947, the first of the three Queen Bees, the other two following in 1952, all made of beeswax on wood, the first two incorporating small female figures. Bees are the subject of drawings in the 1950s, beeswax becomes a sculptural material, and later honey too appears when in How to explain pictures to a dead hare in 1965 Beuys anointed his head with honey and gold. Finally in 1977 the Honey Pump kept two tons of the warm mysterious substance in movement round a public space. Beuys' involvement is not specifically in bees themselves, nor in descriptive representation of them, although he acknowledges their importance throughout history, from the pagan and Christian bee cults to Bakunin's nineteenth-century analogy and the working co-operatives, set up at La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, as the Republic of the Bees. Beuys' interest is closest to the complex relationships between natural structures described by Rudolf Steiner in his nine lectures 'On Bees' to the workers of the Goetheanum in 1923. Steiner described the mysteries of flowing honey, hexagonal wax cells, pollen gathering, absorption of honey by other bodies, similarities of cell structure in nature, and processes of wax, bone and blood (Tisdall 1979, p.44).

The queen bee drawings and sculptures are closely related to the theme of warmth emerging from 1947 onwards in Beuys's work. Tisdall quotes Beuys who said, 'what interested me was the general warmth character which forms an important part of the Theory of Sculpture and extends even to social and political concepts. This warmth character is to be found in honey, in wax, and even in the pollen and nectar gathered from plants. In mythology honey was regarded as a spiritual substance, and bees were godly' (Tisdall 1979, p.44). Trickle marks across the surface point to the pouring techniques used in its making.

In the middle of the vitrine is a common glass preserve jar with a glass lid and rubber seal. It has a metal catch to provide an airtight seal. It contains pork dripping and the work was made in 1980. On top sits a small thermometer with its mercury tip. Thermometers appear several times in Beuys's work and always in work where medicinal themes are important to the works' content, most notably in 'Show your Wound' 1976, an environment made for a pedestrian underpass in Munich (Maximilianstraáe) and then bought by the Lenbachhaus, Munich, where the artist installed the work in January 1980 (repr. Joseph Beuys: Skulpturen und Objekte,, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin 1988, pp.278-81). Other works which use thermometers are 'Plight' 1985 (Anthony d'Offay Gallery, repr. ibid., pp.314-7) and 'Stag Hunt' 1961 (Landesmuseum, Darmstadt, repr. ibid., pp.96-7), 'which impresses us like a shrine, and in which empty syringes, ampuls, medicinal boxes, pills and apothecary bottles are accumulated. In the great mass of things stored here, the dominating elements come from the area of medicine. Also visible in this cult object is a toy ambulance with a glowing red cross. It was ingeniously placed next to a bath thermometer' (Axel Hinrich Murken, Joseph Beuys und die Medizin, Münster 1979, p.539).

Next to the jar is a square zinc box, the fourth item in the vitrine. This box, rather like an old-fashioned biscuit box, has a sliding lid, which is half open. The inside is filled with tallow from mutton. It was called 'Depression' by Beuys, who called it 'a kind of landscape in a box'. It relates, in particular, to Plateau Central 1962 (repr. Tisdall 1979, p.206). The flat level of the tallow is to emphasize the depression. The 'Fat Corner' in the right hand corner is made of pork dripping and dates from 1964. It was used in an action as the Technical University in Aachen on 20 July: 'Beuys took part in a series of actions organized by Valdis Abolins, the Asta (student government) cultural advisers, and Tomas Schmit, entitled 'Kukei', 'akopee No!', 'Brown Cross', 'Corners of Fat', and 'Model Corners of Fat' (Gösz Adriani, Winfried Konnertz and Karin Thomas, Joseph Beuys: Life and Works, New York 1979, p.105).

The use of fat is one of the hallmarks of Beuys's work. It was one of the most easily applicable to his theory of sculpture. Tisdall writes:

This Theory of Sculpture describes the passage of everything in the world, physical or psychological, from a chaotic, undetermined state to a determined or ordered statae. Chaotic is the state of raw material and unchannelled will power, characterized as WARM. Ordered is the state of material that has been processed or formed, symbolized by the heart sign of movement at the centre. Here it acquires form and definition and appears in a crystalline state ... If the process goes too far the crystal becomes a burnt-up, over-intellectualized 'clinker', and falls out of the system (Tisdall 1979, p.72).

In the same passage she quotes Beuys explaining his choice of material:

my initial intention in using fat was to stimulate discussion. The flexibility of the material appealed to me particularly in its reactions to temperature changes. This flexibility is psychologically effective - people instinctively feel it relates to inner processes and feelings. The discussion I wanted was what language is about, what human production and creativity are about. So I took an extreme position in sculpture, and a material that was very basic to life and not associated with art (Tisdall 1979, p.72).

Tisdall suggests that corners comprise the essence of our mechanistic civilization. Corners are, she writes:

the cornerstone of our present society, as manifested in our square rooms, square buildings and square cities, all built on combinations of the right angle. Extended in meaning, it represents the mineralized co-ordinating system of our culture, science and living processes. The placing in a corner of a material as potentially chaotic as fat challenges this mineralization (Tisdall 1979, pp.73-4).

Felt, copper and iron - the contents of T03826 - are materials with quite different associations:

felt absorbs anything with which is comes into contact - fat, dirt, dust, water or sound - and is therefore quickly integrated into its environment. Unlike the filter, it does not let things pass through is but soaks them up into its centre, becoming tighter and denser in the process, and therefore even more effective as an insulator: 'FAT expands and soaks into its surroundings. FELT attracts and absorbs what surrounds it' (Tisdall 1979, p.74).

Iron and copper contain qualities of slow accumulation of energy and lightning conductivity respectively in Beuys's work. The functions of iron and copper extend to other symbolic polarities in Beuys's work: between male and female, Mars and Venus. Beuys relates, 'the sheer heaviness of iron is brought together with the fleetness of a copper lightning conductor ... The function of the iron is to accumulate energy slowly, with gravity and heaviness' (Tisdall 1979, p.28). Moreover, 'Mars for instance represents the iron family ... Iron is often present in my work as the male element, sometimes balanced by the female element copper' (Tisdall 1979, p.26).

Along with felt, they comprise the main components of T03826. Four objects in this vitrine are multiples: on the left of the vitrine, is 'Element', the combination of a copper and a steel plate 1982 (in an edition of 50, repr. Jörg Schellmann, Joseph Beuys Multiples: Catalogue Raisonné of Multiples and Prints 1965-1 985, Munich and New York 1985, pl.339). Behind it is the 'Felt Wedge' 1984 (in an edition of 47 plus 9 artist's proofs, repr. ibid., pl.388). The third multiple is the 'Samurai Sword' 1983 (in an edition of 30, repr., ibid., p.363), a roll of felt wrapped around a steel knife blade. The fourth multiple is 'Magnetic Rubbish' 1975, a razor held upright on a magnetized plate (in an edition of 80 plus 15 with Roman numerals, repr. ibid., pl.139).

The twin, irregularly-shaped felt pieces at the back on the left each have a razor blade attached to them. In the middle of the vitrine, are objects relating to energy sources and, in particular, to 'Tramstop' 1976 (two versions, one in the Kröller-Müller-Museum, Otterlo, and the other in the Marx Collection, on loan to the Städtisches Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach, repr. Joseph Beuys Skulpturen und Objekte 1988, pp.286-9). The rail and hammer relate to an action in Munich with the rail embodying two directions of energy. Tisdall writes, 'the location of energy sources is a leitmotiv of Beuys's work. Energies are sought or suggested in familiar objects ... like the hammer, knife or axe, or in common materials like fat' (Tisdall 1979, p.534). The two lumps of pig iron are metal proofs, remnants of the first casting of 'Tramstop', first shown at the Venice Biennale of 1976. The final item in the vitrine, on the right, is a battery (fuller discussion on Beuys's batteries is in the entry for T03919, 'Fat Battery'). It consists of several sheets of copper bound together a either end with insulating tape.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.494-7

You might like