Joseph Beuys at Cmay Gallery
By Genie Davis
Through March 17th
Joseph Beuys: An Exhibition, through March 17th at Cmay Gallery, is as inclusive as it is absorbing. Taking what could be viewed as completely ordinary objects, Beuys compiled a body of work that serves as a criticism of capitalist consumption as well as a revelatory nod to the culture of Pop Art. Considered one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, the inclusive show here features works created in the twenty year period from 1968 to to 1986 by the influential artist, using mixed media, sculptures, multiples – a.k.a. limited editions, and works on paper to express Beauys’ own philosophy. That philosophy could be summed up in what was to be the original title of this gallery show, Everybody is an Artist. Beuys believed that the artistic freedom inherently a part of every person would help to determine freedom in society as a whole.
The German-born Beuys began his career at the Monumental Sculpture Program in Duseeldorf following World War II. He served as a major player in the German avant garde movement, viewing art as the impetus for social change. He was renowned for his perfromance art that incorporated both sound and movement, utilizing materials that were not for the squeamish, such as dead animals and blood. Although well known for this subversive live art, the late Beuys was above all else an artist interested in expressing his ideas about the functioning of the natural and social world. For this artist, art was not about creating objects of beauty, but rather a powerful way to express a message of communication and freedom. He contested the idea of elitism in art, using found materials that he felt were basic to life itself rather than art, staples that could lead to a transformative future. He called these found art pieces “social sculpture,” a fitting name from the artist and activist who was also the co-founder of the Free International University and the German Green Party.
Filzanzug or “Felt Suit” (Felt Suit), created in 1970, is felt sewn as a suit, and is also one of an edition of his “multiples,” in this case of one hundred such works. Starting in 1965, Beuys began producing these multiple replications of his works to make art more accessible and available to the public rather than only to wealthy collectors. With this in mind, Beuys made many editioned pieces of his works, installations that he found the most evocative representation of his ideas. With “Felt Suit,” the idea is that the suit itself represents a kind of armor against intimacy, a garment as a “shell” of sorts; an empty carapace that serves to protect and isolate.
The exhibition here is packed with standouts. His “Capri-Batterie” is a yellow lightbulb with a socket and a lemon. The yellow is as bright as radiant sunlight or electric light, and the piece seems to serve as a tribute to the power of electricity and the hope of mental, moral, and emotional illumination. It is also an insightful piece on an ecologically balanced source of energy. Thought of as one of the artist’s last great works, Beuys created over 200 multiples of this piece. Plugged into a fresh lemon, the yellow light bulb gets energy from the fruit, creating a faint yellow glow. The name of the work comes from the island of Capri, where Beuys conceived and created it, and the brightness of the lemon yellow color is reminiscent of the island’s bright sunshine.
Created from butter and wax, and placed in a plastic box on perforated grey cardboard, “Fingernail Impression in Hardened Butter” is one of a signed and numbered edition of 150. The sculpture speaks to the impermanence of the human experience – we are all, realistically, as transitory as an impression of a fingernail in hardened butter. And yet in Beuys’ work, such an impression is preserved and lives on.
Regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Beuys’ work is fascinating for a number of reasons, including the found objects he so often utilized, the elegance and precision of his installations, and the creation of limited edition multiples. The comprehensive exhibition at Cmay – made possible through a collaboration with “alerie Thomas Modern in Munich, Germany – is a must-see, a museum-quality show that quietly and comprehensively presents ideas more vital than ever about the power of artistic expression and the inclusiveness of art.
The gallery is located at 8687 Melrose Ave, Space B226