The German sculptor, conceptual artist and performance artist Joseph Beuys once secured Japanese funding and legions of volunteers to help him plant “7000 Oaks,” each with a rough-hewn basalt obelisk at its base, in Kassel, Germany.
He wanted to contrast the unchanging permanence of the stones with the growing trees, “a living form of sculpture.”
Adding to the “Situationist” art of this years-long process, the basalt stones were kept in a pile in front of the city’s ornate, gilded-age Museum Fridericianum. Over those years, the pile shrank with each planting, and each planting, the artist proclaimed, was an act of “parking lot wrecking.”
Whatever you think of the various incarnations of modern art, that piece — combining invention, creation, organization, performance and politics — stands out, even if it is little known outside of serious art circles. At least part of that is because of the genius, showman/raconteur who created it.
Filmmaker Andres Veiel uses decades of Beuys TV interviews, profiles and good-natured if combative public debates for “Beuys,” his somewhat meandering and diffuse but still fascinating portrait of the unconventional artist, who died in 1986.
Professor Joseph Beuys was a World War II Luftwaffe veteran whose major combat wounds came when the Stuka dive-bomber he was tail-gunner in was shot down over Crimea. “A screw came loose,” he joked. “I was SHOT into shape.”
And with that, his myth began and he used to say, his art. The artist as poseur was not invented in the 20th century, but artists like Picasso, Warhol and Beuys, who created a fanciful tale of his survival from that crash involving Tartar healing, fat and felt, turned that into a lifetime of art, once this philosopher, lecturer, political activist and sculptor became famous.
He used felt in installation after installation — felt curtains surrounding a piano, weathered board and thermometer in “Plight,” rolls of felt lashed to 40 tiny sleds tumbling out the back of a VW Microbus in “The Pack.”
And rarely was the man photographed or seen without a felt fedora or porkpie hat, part of a uniform that included a white shirt and ever-present vest, making him easy to pick out at his assorted “happenings.”
Not that you’d miss him. A practioner of the Picasso-perfected “Artist as a Character” school of branding, Beuys came to America for a show at the Guggenheim. For his “I Like America, and America Likes Me” piece, he showed up at an exhibition-space in an ambulance, rolled up in felt, which he unraveled to then interact, on camera (on film) with a coyote.
In the scads of interviews sampled here (the only modern interview is with the British newspaper art critic who became his champion and his lover, Caroline Tisdall), Beuys, speaking German and occasionally English, resisted labels of every type, including “artist” but also more pointed jabs like “Don Quixote.”
If we think of “art” as more than “something you hang on your living room walls” today, it has a lot to do with Joseph Beuys. So his influence is undeniable.
If we think of “modern conceptual art” as mostly hype, filled with a lot of artistic explanation for “What I am really saying here,” we can thank Beuys for that, too.
“Beuys” isn’t a film that lays out, in simple, clear terms, what he and his work are about. But Veiel does manage to refresh our memories of Beuys, and let the man — in his own (subtitled) words, re-make the case that art is “a blow against the enemy,” a revolution.
And as he was the first to joke, back in the day, “I want to get my money’s worth out of this revolution.”
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Joseph Beuys, Caroline Tisdall
Credits:Directed by Andres Veiel. A KinoLorber release.
Running time: 1:46