I’ve admired the work of Joseph Beuys for many years, ever since seeing an exhibition of his drawings at the Whitechapel Gallery in the early 80s. An art student at the time, I found these works on paper enthralling; scratchy pencil marks, dense, organic forms in brown ink, curious signs and notations scribbled over the paper surface, with titles like Nights in the Rafters
and The Shaman’s Hat
. I always find I stop and look whenever I come across one of his pieces, be that a felt suit, a battery filled with fat, or video footage of the artist sharing a cage with a wary-looking coyote.
Beuys is widely admired as an artist. I remember seeing a television programme in which Arthur Scargil, fiery leader of the miner’s union during the disputes of the 1980s, spoke in hushed, reverent tones about visiting one of Beuys’ installations.
Beuys cut a charismatic figure. He was known for his wide-brimmed hats and cadaverous features, for his reputation-making performance, ‘Telling Stories to a Dead Hare’ (in which he did just that), and for the tale he told of his wartime experience as a Luftwaffe pilot on the Eastern front. Shot down and left for dead in sub-zero temperatures he was rescued by wandering Tarter tribesmen, who saved him from exposure by coating his body in fat and wrapping him in felt, materials he came to see as having life-giving properties.
I was at the Tate Modern a few weeks ago and there I saw a vast room-sized installation by Beuys, called ‘Lightening with Stag in its Glare’. The piece includes a huge triangle of puckered bronze suspended from a beam, an ironing board cast in aluminium, hanks of turd-like brown metal scattered about the floor, and, on top of a box on a tall stand, a small compass.