Minneapolis, Minnesota is an anomaly among American cities: home to eminent Democratic politicians; solidly middle class and intensely liberal. It is also home to the Walker Art Center—an island of avant-garde, often difficult, postwar art in the middle of the Midwest.
Not surprisingly, the Walker contains America’s best collection of Joseph Beuys (1921-86), thanks to their 1992 purchase of the Alfred and Marie Greisinger collection of over 400 multiples, on show for the first time in “Joseph Beuys Multiples” (until 4 January, 1998).
The museum has concentrated on multiples because “Conceptually the multiples can take you everywhere you need to go with Beuys,” says associate curator Joan Rothfuss, who organised the show. “He considered them vehicles for his ideas, body doubles to be where he was not."
These pieces are not just relics of Beuys’ own presence, Ms Rothfuss argues. “The ultimate goal of his art was not personal glorification. He truly wanted to change the world—to infiltrate it with his art objects—so quantity was important. He made over 600.”
Most visitors to the Walker, however, have never have heard of Beuys’ concept of his life as a Gesamtkunstwerk (“total artwork”), into which he poured all his energy. “My objects,” said Beuys, “should provoke thoughts about what sculpture can be and how the concept of sculpting can be extended to the invisible materials used by everyone: thinking forms; spoken forms; social sculpture—how we move and shape the world.”
Beuys’ work is ubiquitous in his native Germany, where it is displayed without explanation, only labels such as “Sled, 1969, wooden sled, felt, fabric, straps, flashlight, fat, paint” on the assumption that everyone instinctively understands. By contrast, the Walker will have “lots of labels,” says Ms Rothfuss. “When I spoke to his widow, Eva, she said interpretation was unnecessary—the objects should speak for themselves. This may be true for Germans familiar with the myths of Beuys, but he is unknown to most Americans. So we organised the material to address his key concerns, such as nature, healing, teaching, and political activism.” Educational programmes even include a tree-planting by local students, in homage to Beuys’ “7000 Oaks” project at Documenta.
The new catalogue raisonnée of Beuys’ multiples in English is important, since hitherto 90% of the information on the artist has been in German. The exhibition will then travel to the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska; the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin and two additional European venues.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Beuys will be Beuys will be Beuys . . .'