Film Review: Beuys

One could easily hate Joseph Beuys for what the art world became in his passionately innovative wake, but this at times diffuse doc offers some glowing revelations about this most influential of artists.
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Andres Veiel’s documentary attempts to explain Joseph Beuys (1921-86), one of the most influential artists of the last century, whose innovations, especially in the realm of performance art, are responsible for the work of today’s big names like Ai Wei Wei and Marina Abramovic. Through interviews, period footage and photographs, something of a clear picture of this complex artist-as-shaman emerges, but you have to sit through an awful lot of self-indulgence—much on the part of the posturing artist himself—to get that.

The artist himself is not entirely to blame, however, for what else can one do when repeatedly asked for decades that most inane of questions, “What is art?” but jaw away, all the while further empowering your brand? Beuys agreed with Picasso’s statement that art should not be merely decorative but used as a weapon against society, and this warlike metaphor is something of a leitmotif here. A seminal occurence in Beuys’ life was the 1944 plane crash that happened while he was a Luftwaffe rear-gunner, and it would seem like his entire subsequent life and work were both heavily marked by severe PTSD. His controversial use of animal fat stemmed, he said, from his need to keep warm while wounded by wrapping himself in it. Actually true, or merely a case of “Print the legend”? Beuys reveled in such mystification, and a satirical pre-Warhol narcissism as well, with his trademark hat, vest and Ichabod Crane toothy-rictus mien.

Always self-directed, he grew up in Cleves, Germany, the son of a margarine factory merchant, firmly rejecting going into anything as bourgeois as that. He was neglected by both parents, which, in his typical veer-left kind of way, he saw as an advantage rather than a deprivation, allowing him—so much on his own—to develop his persona and aesthetic. Early drawings display an obvious, deep and quite delicately beautiful talent at complete odds with the in-your-face shenanigans which were to come.

Those moments provide the real core of Beuys, as you see much period footage of his shows like “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare,” which posited him holding such a dead beast, his head covered in gold gilt, wandering through a gallery; “I Like America and America Likes Me,” which had him locked in a room with a coyote, or “7,000 Oaks,” his masterpiece according to some interviewed art experts here, which predated provocations like those Christo Gates. Pressing crowds of severely dressed, sunglasses-sporting German art fanatics who surround the works, intent with seriousness, add their own fitful amusement, as you are made aware once more of the layman’s eternal desire to be culturally hip. (Art is forever changing, but at least not that aspect of it.) As his nova and notoriety swelled, Beuys’ work became more political, with him publicly and loudly denouncing money as a power that must be broken, an urge ever more relevant today.

Controversy dogged him his entire life, from testy critics to his own once-friendly faction of avant-garde artists who voted him out of the institutions and world over which he had shortly before held sway. (“Go play with your fat!” he was told.) As to his adult family life, little is revealed, for although his wife and sons are acknowledged for their help with this film, none actually appear in it.

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