Art Basel Switzerland 2015 reports




Inside Art Basel With Independent Curator Christine Messineo

Artist Sam Falls installing Untitled (Books for Jamie), 2014, in the Unlimited section of Art Basel.
Photo: Christine Messineo

Arriving in Basel—let me make this clear—there is no leisurely adjustment to the time zone. Sharing an airport taxi with the crew from Marian Goodman Gallery (themselves recovering from a London opening the night before), I was swiftly dropped off at the Messeplatz. Already streaming with people—mostly gallery insiders who are setting up their booths in the convention center—this plaza will be where the action happens all week.

Luggage still in hand, I ran to meet Los Angeles-based artist Sam Falls as he put the finishing touches on his Unlimited project. Unlimited is a section of Art Basel curated by Gianni Jetzer that exhibits ambitious work and is always a favorite. Rirkrit Tiravanija was also in the midst of his installation in the center of Messeplatz, and I was fortunate to be an early participant, sampling curries that would be a culinary highlight of Basel. This was just the beginning of a week of great art, dinners, reunions with friends, and stunningly beautiful sunsets—and one sunrise!

Basel is a go-to fair for fantastic blue-chip finds, but I focused on hunting down the odd work. I found a fantastic series of black-and-white photographs by Tom Burr from the 1990s titled Unearthing the Public Restrooms. There isn’t much work available by Burr from that time period, but it’s a critical juncture in his career. It was a gem of a find. I felt the same way about a Haim Steinbach work from the 1980s in Tanya Bonakdar’s booth.

See Christine Messineo’s Art Basel highlights in the slideshow above.

Artist Sam Falls installing Untitled (Books for Jamie), 2014, in the Unlimited section of Art Basel.
Photo: Christine Messineo

AO Preview – Basel, Switzerland: Art Basel Art Fair, June 18th-21st, 2015

June 15th, 2015

Outside Art Basel, via Art Basel
Outside Art Basel, via Art Basel

The doors are set to open at Messeplatz in Basel, Switzerland this week, for the 46th edition of the Art Basel art fair, the massive fair exhibition that has come to define the early summer months in Europe.  Bringing the massively international scope of the world’s elite galleries, this year’s Art Basel promises another strong outing. 


Zander Blom at Galerie Hans Mayer

As expected, the world’s top galleries will return to the sprawling floor plans of the exhibition center for another dizzyingly large exhibition, bringing world-class collections of work with them.  Skarstedt will be presenting a series of works from Mike Kelley, Martin Kippenberger and Richard Prince, among others, while Team Gallery will bring a selection of works by Cory Arcangel, Alex Bag, Andrew Gbur, Ryan McGinley, and Tabor Robak.  Gagosian will also present a strong group booth, featuring works by John Currin, Richard Prince and Georg Baselitz.  At Metro Pictures, works by Nina BeierOlaf Breuning, and a score of other artists should also prove a strong booth.

Kader Attia Untitled (Detail) (2014), via Lehmann Maupin
Kader Attia, Untitled (Detail) (2014), via Lehmann Maupin

The fair’s Parcours section will continue its exploration of the capital’s urban landscapes, bringing works by Nate LowmanAlicja Kwade and Jonathan Monk to contend with the history and architecture of Basel itself.  Also popular is Basel’s massive Unlimited section, where a number of large-scale projects, installations and sculptural works will take over one of the Messe Basel’s massive exhibition halls.  Early highlights include an installation of Robert Irwin’s Black, a series of overlapping scrims focusing pale grey squares into a zone of absolute blackness.  In a more audience-focused installation, David Shrigley is presenting Life Model, a figure drawing class in which visitors are welcome to draw a bizarrely proportioned animatronic figure.

Teresa Burga at Galerie Barbara Thumm

Gerhard Richter at Dominique Levy

The fair will also feature a new performance installation by Rikrit Tiravanija, architects Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Müller, and chef Antto Melasniemi, titled DO WE DREAM UNDER THE SAME SKY, a site-based work where visitors are invited to enjoy a meal prepared in the space, with compensation determined by labor within the site, or contributions to the functioning of the work (washing dishes, etc.).

David Shrigley, Life Model, via Anton Kern
David Shrigley, Life Model, via Anton Kern

Art Basel ‘s satellite fair, Liste, also returns this year, bringing a group of smaller galleries and project spaces to offer a more grounded counterpoint to Art Basel’s blue-chip firepower.  This year, 47 Canal will take part, bringing a series of new works by Stewart Uoo and Anicka Yi.  Clearing Gallery will also be on site, presenting new works by Calvin Marcus.

Anicka Yi, Best Friend's Arm (2015), via 47 Canal
Anicka Yi, Best Friend’s Arm (2015), via 47 Canal

Other exhibitions will also be taking place throughout the city, with particular attention paid to Fondation Beyeler, where a major Paul Gauguin exhibition is underway, prominently featuring the work When Will You Marry? now the world’s most expensive work of art following its reported $300 million sale.  The touring Marlene Dumas retrospective, which has commanded attention and critical praise in Europe these past months, is also on view currently at the Fondation.

The events kick off this week, with the fair opening its doors on June 18th.


Constant at Borzo Gallery

Alicja Kwade at 303 Gallery

Wwi-Liu-via-Aye-GalleryWei Liu at Aye Gallery

Atul-Dodiya-via-Chemould-Prescott-RoadAtul Dodiva at Chemould Prescott Road

A.R.-Penck-via-Daniel-BlauA.R. Penck at Daniel Blau

Lesley-Vance-via-David-KordanskyLesley Vance at David Kordansky

Oscar-Murillo-via-David-ZwirnerOscar Murillo at David Zwirner

George-Grosz-Galerie-St.-EtienneGeorge Grosz at Galerie St. Etienne

Joan-Miro-Galerie-ThomasJoan Miro at Galerie Thomas

Michelangelo-Pistoletto-Galleria-ContinuaMichelangelo Pistoletto at Galleria Continua

Magnus-Plessen-Gerhardsen-GernerMagnus Plessen at Gerhardsen Gerner

Pail-McCarthy-Hauser-&-WirthPaul McCarthy at Hauser & Wirth

Sarah-Lucas-Sadie-ColesSarah Lucas at Sadie Coles

Shinro-Ohtake-Take-NinagawaShinro Ohtake at Take Ninagawa

Caio-Reisewitz-Luciana-Brito-GaleriaCaio Reisewitz at Luciano Brito Galeria

Ai Weiwei at Galerie Urs Meile

Olafur Eliasson, Your solar nebula (2015), via Neugerriemschneider
Olafur Eliasson, Your solar nebula (2015), via Neugerriemschneider

Robert Irwin, Black (2008), via White Cube
Robert Irwin, Black (2008), via White Cube

— D. Creahan

– See more at:




“Untitled,” by Teresa Burga, an 80-year-old Peruvian artist, will be shown at Art Basel this year. Credit Teresa Burga/Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin/Photo by Nici Wegener

Fresh on the heels of the New York auctions that gave the art market its first-ever $2 billion week, Art Basel, the original high-end art fair, opens its doors for the 46th time from June 18 to June 21 in the Swiss city.

Some 284 dealers from 33 countries will gather in the exhibition hall on Messeplatz, in the center of Basel, for the last springtime stop on what the New York dealer Jack Shainman has called “the art world’s moveable feast.”

For those wowed by the recent headline-grabbing records, Marc Spiegler, Art Basel’s director, pointed out that the artists in question — Picasso, Rothko and Giacometti — represented only a tiny sector of the market, and of the fair’s offerings.


An artist’s rendering of “Do We Dream Under the Same Sky,” an installation by the conceptual artist Rirkit Tiranvanija outside the main Art Basel building.  The work mixes the functions of both farm and restaurant and will eventually form part of “the land,” a self-sustaining artistic community in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Credit Rirkrit Tiravanija, Nikolaus Hirsch, Michel Müller and Antto Melasniemi

Dealers are certainly betting on continued buoyancy. Marc Glimcher, the president of Pace Gallery, said the atmosphere at Basel generally was “no holds barred,” even when compared to the fair’s notoriously revved-up Miami edition.

“You don’t worry about something being too expensive there,” Mr. Glimcher said. “You can sell a $20 million painting in Basel.”

The Pace booth features several works by the Pop Art icon Robert Rauschenberg, a longtime star in the Pace stable, in addition to pieces by Brice Marden and Louise Nevelson. “Bob was like family to us,” Mr. Glimcher said.

The works, which come from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, will be priced from $500,000 to $1 million, Mr. Glimcher said, and include the painting “Porcelain (Salvage)” from 1984.

The big news in Basel this year comes in the fair’s layout. Even veteran collectors will need to study the map before entering with checkbook or credit card in hand.

“We have done a fairly radical reconfiguration of the floor plan,” Mr. Spiegler said of the fair’s main section, Galleries. “It’s pretty big. We’ve moved dozens of galleries.”


“Retina #21” (1990) by Shinro Ohtake.  Some 284 deaders from 33 countries will be present at the Art Basel fair. Credit Shinro Ohtake, courtesy of Take Ninagawa, Tokyo/Photo by: Kei Okano

The rearrangement was not capricious. Over the years, dealers trading in similar artworks had ended up at opposite ends of the fair.

“It didn’t have the kind of coherence that we have in our Hong Kong and in our Miami shows,” Mr. Spiegler said. “What we’ve really done is to put all the galleries that deal exclusively or partially in work from pre-1970 on one side of the hall.”

Another change is that the Feature section, for focused presentations, has been expanded to 30 galleries from 24.

“It allows us to work with a broader range of galleries,” Mr. Spiegler said. “It also allows us to have more precise curation, because the Feature projects are chosen specifically based on a proposal.”

He added that Feature was “extremely popular with connoisseur collectors, museum directors and curators.”

In this year’s section, the Berlin-based dealer Barbara Thumm is showing the work of the 80-year-old Peruvian artist Teresa Burga, who merges the figurative and the conceptual in her self-portraits and images of other women. Some of her past work has incorporated analysis of own blood and other medical data.


“I Looked and Looked but Failed to See What so Terrified You,” a 2003 photograph by the American artist Carrie Mae Weems. Credit Carrie Mae Weems/Jack Shainman Gallery, New York/Photo by Jeremy Lawson

“She asks what is it that comprises a person,” Ms. Thumm said. “Is the data a person?”

Although self-portraits are an age-old artistic tradition, the practice is not encouraged for fair-goers. Mr. Spiegler noted that selfie sticks were banned from the fair. “And if I could ban selfies, I would,” he said, because of the “million close calls” that have involved visitors backing up precariously close to valuable artworks.

Ms. Thumm said Basel was the right place to have Ms. Burga’s works on display, since “it’s the top fair worldwide, and all the museum curators go there.”

She added, “There are so many gaps in museum collections for fantastic female artists.”

Also in Feature, Mr. Shainman will be showing works by the American artist Carrie Mae Weems, a MacArthur fellow best known for her work in photography, including the image “Untitled (Woman Brushing Hair),” from 1990.

“It’s so fast-forward at an art fair,” Mr. Shainman said. “But when you have the chance to present just one artist, you can really take something away from the experience.”


“Bananas,”  2013, a watercolor by Alexis Rockman, one of several works on the theme of food that are sprinkled throughout the fair. Credit Alexis Rockman/Sperone Westwater, New York

Food-themed pieces are sprinkled throughout the fair this year. The New York gallery Sperone Westwater will be showing Bruce Nauman’s neon work “EAT DEATH” from 1972 and Alexis Rockman’s watercolor “Bananas” from 2013.

In the Statements section, the New York gallery Wallspace is presenting Nancy Lupo’s mixed-media installation “One, Two, One and Toe,” which tackles fad diets and alternate sources of nourishment, among other topics. “‘Green’ is often a technique to sell you something,” Ms. Lupo said.

Perhaps the fair’s most ambitious project also deals with food, but will take place outside the walls of the exhibition hall. The fair organizers asked the conceptual artist Rirkrit Tiravanija to do a project on the Messeplatz, and he has enlisted an international team to help recreate part of “the land,” a self-sustaining artistic community he created in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with the artist Kamin Lertchaiprasert.

“Do We Dream Under the Same Sky,” as the work is known, will mix the functions of both farm and restaurant, and will have a purpose-built structure that will get shipped to Thailand to be part of “the land” once Art Basel is over. His collaborators on “Do We Dream” are the German architects Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Müller and the Finnish chef Antto Melasniemi.

“We will serve food, and it’s free — but it’s not catered,” said Mr. Tiravanija, who said he was influenced by the activist food writer Michael Pollan. “It’s a lab for growing it, preparing it, serving and talking about it.” Some of the cooking will involve produce from a Swiss supermarket chain that would normally have been thrown away.

Mr. Tiravanija said that he liked doing something outside the confines of the red-hot art market.

“Art fairs are always a bit problematic: It’s a commercial space, and trying to do public art is a little battle,” he said, adding, “We are a bridge between these two spaces.”

Cohen, Marron Descend on ‘Riotous’ Art Basel Shopping Spree
by Katya Kazakina
June 16, 2015 — 9:00 PM PDT

Skarstedt gallery sold a 1992 Oehlen painting of oil on fabric for $1 million. Source: The artist and Skarstedt New York/London via Bloomberg

Skarstedt gallery sold a 1992 Oehlen painting of oil on fabric for $1 million. Source: The artist and Skarstedt New York/London via Bloomberg

It’s like Black Friday shopping at Art Basel, where mega-rich collectors jostle each other.

Donald Marron, chairman of Lightyear Capital, said he was interested in a Cy Twombly drawing at the fair’s VIP preview on Tuesday but it was sold by the time he arrived at the booth of Xavier Hufkens gallery.

Still, attending the world’s largest modern and contemporary art fair is important “to adjust your eye and to keep up-to-date with the market,” Marron said.

Billionaires Daniel Loeb, Steven Cohen and Laurence Graff were among the throng of collectors shopping at the fair in the quiet Swiss city on the Rhine River. Many booths were so packed it was hard to move around and see the art. The fair showcases 284 galleries representing 4,000 artists. The value of the works on view is $3.4 billion, according to insurer Axa Art.

“It’s been riotous,” said David Zwirner, whose gallery empire includes spaces in New York and London. “It’s probably the strongest start we’ve ever had.”

Cohen said he admired what he called a “beautiful” white 1961 painting by Robert Ryman at Dominique Levy’s booth. Its asking price was about $18 million, the gallery said. It was still available Tuesday afternoon.

Plenty of other works sold within the first hours of the opening.
Seven Silkscreens

Pace gallery sold seven silkscreens by Robert Rauschenberg priced at $450,000 to $1 million. Luhring Augustine said it sold a 2004 painting by Albert Oehlen, the subject of a solo exhibition at the New Museum in New York, for 600,000 euros ($675,000). Skarstedt gallery sold a 1992 Oehlen painting of oil on fabric for $1 million.

Works by Christopher Wool were popular with collectors. Luhring Augustine sold a 14-foot-tall sculpture priced at $2 million. Van de Weghe Fine Art sold a 2009 Wool painting with an asking price of $5.5 million.

“The first half hour of Art Basel is the most exciting time in the art season,” said Jeffrey Deitch, an art dealer and former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. “There really is the joy of the chase.”

As the doors opened at 11 a.m. on a rainy morning, Deitch rushed to the booth of JTT gallery, a first-time Art Basel participant, where Borna Sammak’s electronic paintings on high definition television screens pulsated with color and energy.

Deitch said he purchased two works, priced at $25,000 each, for a private museum of billionaire Indonesian collector Budi Tek, for whom he advises on art acquisitions.
First People

“It’s something completely fresh,” Deitch said of the work, which includes armature and coiled power chords in bright pink and yellow. “Young artists go very quickly. We wanted to be the first people at the booth.”

Zwirner’s booth sold a $1 million painting by Yayoi Kusama and a $250,000 abstract painting by Oscar Murillo. A painting depicting a young woman by Marlene Dumas, who has a solo exhibition at the Beyeler Foundation, sold for $3.5 million.

Murillo, whose works were priced at less than $10,000 just four years ago, was an example of how much some markets have moved. While his painting sold at Zwirner, a $400,000 sprawling installation featuring 53 placards and 15 mannequin heads with wigs went unsold at the preview at Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie.
Trend Line

“When prices start to exceed their trend lines, you have to ask yourself: Why?” Marron said about rising art prices. “Is this a new trend line? Or is it a bubble?”

Beirut-based collectors Tony and Elham Salame purchased at least a dozen works including those by Tauba Auerbach and John Armleder, as well as an Oehlen painting for 280,000 euros. They will join the couple’s collection of more than 2,000 contemporary pieces.

“It’s an addiction,” said Tony Salame, who is a fashion entrepreneur. “We don’t count. Otherwise you don’t come to Art Basel.”

Some expensive art didn’t fly off the shelves while more modestly priced works moved faster.

At Pace, a 1971 painting by Brice Marden, priced at $7 million to $8 million, was unsold by the end of the day.

Mark Rothko’s 1955 “Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange),” which had belonged to Paul and Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, was priced at $50 million at Helly Nahmad’s booth, 37 percent more than the $36.6 million the painting fetched at Sotheby’s in November. There were no immediate takers, the gallery said.
Murakami Paintings

A 5-inch-tall red and black mobile by Alexander Calder sold for $450,000 at Van de Weghe.

“When good things are priced well there’s business,” said gallery owner Christophe Van de Weghe.

Galerie Perrotin said it sold seven paintings by the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, including two priced at $1.1 million each. The gallery hosted a dinner for the artist on a moored boat Tuesday night with 200 people, including Cohen, who drank sake and sat beside women dressed as traditional Japanese female entertainers known as geishas.

Art fair fatigue was setting in for some collectors.

“I really don’t like to buy art at a fair,” jeweler Graff said earlier. “It’s too much pressure. You keep hearing, ‘This is reserved. This has sold.’”


Pablo Picasso's Les Dormeurs. Source: Landau Fine Art via Bloomberg

Pablo Picasso’s Les Dormeurs. Source: Landau Fine Art via Bloomberg

Gilded Age of Art Draws Billionaires to Basel Fair
by Katya Kazakina
June 14, 2015 — 9:00 PM PDT

Billionaire hedge fund manager Dan Loeb and Lightyear Capital Chairman Don Marron are among the collectors who will head to the Swiss city of Basel to check out the world’s largest modern and contemporary art fair.

Art Basel opens to invited guests on June 16 in the quiet Swiss city on the Rhine River. The fair’s 46th edition includes 284 galleries from 33 countries showing works by 4,000 artists. Insurer AXA Art estimates there’s 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion) of art on view, about the same as last year.

Last month’s New York auctions set new records as $2.7 billion of art changed hands — up 23 percent from a year earlier — and a Picasso painting fetched $179.4 million.

“Interest rates are so low that people have so much money they don’t know what to do with it,” said Robert Landau, owner of Landau Fine Art, which is offering a $30 million Pablo Picasso painting. He said one of his clients is a 37-year-old man who retired after earning a fortune and is “sailing around the world and buying paintings to put on the boat.”

Warren Buffett’s NetJets Inc., a sponsor of the fair for the 12th year, said it has booked about 110 private flights in and out of Basel, a 10 percent increase from a year ago.
Important Shows

Loeb, who owns hedge fund Third Point, and Marron are planning to attend, along with Warren Eisenberg, Bed, Bath & Beyond’s co-chairman, according to people briefed on their plans. Tad Smith and Patricia Barbizet, the recently appointed chief executive officers of rivals Sotheby’s and Christie’s, respectively, are set to attend as well, the companies said.

“It’s another gilded age,” said New York collector Lenore Schorr. “A lot of people have a lot of money.”

Many galleries are bringing works by artists who had strong performance at auctions in May, and those who are featured at important current exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale.

Pablo Picasso’s $30 million painting of two lovers — a 2-meter-wide (6.5 feet) 1965 painting “Les Dormeurs,” depicting the artist and his second wife Jacqueline Roque — will be the star of Landau’s booth.

“When people see auction prices they think everything we have is very cheap,” said Landau, owner of the Montreal and Meggen, Switzerland-based gallery. “The auctions are helping us. They are raising prices on everything.”
Dubuffet Group

Landau is also bringing eight paintings by Jean Dubuffet. Leading the group by price is a $15 million work from the French artist’s Paris Circus series.

A larger painting from the group, “Paris Polka” fetched $24.8 million at auction in May, more than three times the artist’s previous record of $7.4 million.

Dominique Levy gallery will show Alberto Giacometti’s $6 million sculpture of his brother. At Christie’s, Giacometti’s bronze pointing man fetched $141.3 million, a record for a sculpture at auction.

Good material is getting harder to find as galleries have to compete with the auction houses and stock their booths at dozens of fairs each year.

“I’ve been through at least 25 packing lists and I have seen very few ‘Oh my God’ pieces,” said Todd Levin, director of Levin Art Group, whose clients have included Leonardo DiCaprio and hedge fund manager Adam Sender. “It seems harder to fill the booths.”
Neon Sculpture

One work that has caught his eye was Bruce Nauman’s 1972 neon sculpture, “Eat Death,” offered by Sperone Westwater gallery from New York. Another piece from the edition of six is currently on view at the Venice Biennale.

The price is in the seven figures, the gallery said, declining to be more specific. The auction record for a neon sculpture by Nauman is $4 million, reached in 2009, according to Artnet.

“I’ve been asked about this work more than anything else,” said Angela Westwater, a co-owner of the gallery. “It’s an eye-catching piece with a lot of wall power.”

Don’t look for a $179 million Picasso at Art Basel — most works are priced under $5 million, dealers said.

“People who are buying at auction are unlikely to buy through galleries,” said Paul Gray, director of Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago and New York. Asian collectors, who have been big buyers at recent auctions, are particularly finicky, he said.

“They are extremely brand conscious,” Gray said. “It’s not just the artists. It’s also the Sotheby’s and Christie’s provenance.”

Last year, one of the top prices at Art Basel was an Andy Warhol painting with the asking price of $32 million at Skarstedt gallery’s booth. It sold on the fair’s first day. This year, the New York- and London-based gallery doesn’t have an artwork of that value. It will show a large torso sculpture by Willem de Kooning, priced at $6.5 million.

“It’s a hard one to repeat,” said the owner Per Skarstedt.



A Warhol “fright wig” self-portrait sold at Art Basel last year for around $34 million. Credit Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

The hundreds of gallery owners who apply each year to secure a coveted booth at Art Basel, the Swiss art fair, spend weeks on their admission applications. They describe the evolution of their galleries, track the history of their exhibitions and list the biographies of their artists. Then there is the matter of the “mock booths,” intricate sketches, miniature models, even virtual tours, of their planned exhibition spaces, complete with tiny reproductions of the exact works they hope toexhibit.

All to impress the fair’s selection jury, six fellow dealers who have become among the most powerful gatekeepers — and tastemakers — in the art world.

“It is like the Olympics,” said the New York dealer Fergus McCaffrey, “or the European Champions League, and every good gallery and their artists wants desperately to compete.”

As the art market explodes in value and collecting becomes a global treasure hunt, the importance of showing at art fairs has soared, too. Fairs now account for about 40 percent of gallery sales by value, and as collectors flock to destination bazaars in places like Paris, London, New York, Miami and Maastricht in the Netherlands, dealers, museum curators and art-world groupies follow.

Interactive Graphic

The Art Basel Fair: A Tough Club to Crack

Galleries seeking to exhibit at Art Basel encounter an intense, juried competition. While the fair says it works to find new faces, prime selling space on the ground floor is dominated by a roster of established dealers.

OPEN Interactive Graphic

And perhaps no fair, dealers say, is harder to get into than Basel, where for the privilege of paying $50,000 to $80,000, galleries get to sell to the highest of high-end collectors, build relationships and burnish their reputations by sharing space with the best dealers in the world.

“It is like getting admitted to a club,” said Jeffrey Deitch, a private art dealer and former museum director and gallerist who waited seven years before the doors opened to him in 2006.

At first glance, the chances of being selected for the fair, which begins on Tuesday, don’t seem so slim, with about 900 galleries from around the world vying for the nearly 300 booths. But a look at the last seven years of the Basel lineup reveals a reality of much longer odds for newcomers, as a roster of veteran galleries end up dominating the fair year after year.

The result for Basel aspirants can be a regimen of yearly disappointment, even for well-established names.

Anke Kempkes, a respected Manhattan dealer, has applied unsuccessfully at least five times. Dorsey Waxter, who is president of the Art Dealers Association of America and helps organize the popular New York Art Show, has failed for years to get in.

“I have been with the in-crowd at the Art Show but I am not in Basel,” Ms. Waxter said.


Lucy Mitchell-Innes, a gallery owner and an Art Basel juror. Credit Misha Friedman for The New York Times

A Little Fair Grows Bigger

It wasn’t always this way. When Art Basel began 45 years ago in a staid Swiss town best known for banking regulations, it was primarily a fair for European galleries hoping to sell Modern and contemporary art to the growing ranks of mainly European collectors.

Galleries were usually invited back year after year. But a jury system, introduced later in the 1970s to screen applicants, gradually became more rigorous as Basel leveraged its Swiss efficiency, convenient location and five-star service to attract and cultivate an ever wealthier and more demanding clientele.

Today, V.I.P. collectors are lavished with Champagne breakfasts, lectures, tours, BMW car service, and most important, early access to the fair so they can buy the best art first.

These days Basel draws about 92,000 visitors to its six days of connoisseurship, selling and schmoozing. Many attendees are just window shoppers paying $50 for a day pass to watch the world’s richest people buy the planet’s most expensive art, like the person who paid around $34 million last year to walk away with a Warhol “fright wig” self-portrait (sold by Skarstedt, of New York and London). Axa, an insurance company that is one of the fair’s sponsors, estimates that more than $3 billion worth of art will be put up for sale at the fair this year.

As Art Basel’s influence has grown, so too has the power of its jurors, each of whom typically serves for five to 10 years.


The fair draws about 92,000 visitors to its six days of connoisseurship, selling and schmoozing. Credit Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

“I imagine,” said Amy Cappellazzo, an art adviser, with perhaps a touch of understatement, “being a member of this committee would make you popular among your peer group.”

Marc Spiegler, the director of Art Basel, a Swiss company that also runs art fairs in Miami and Hong Kong, said he chooses the committee for Basel with an eye to balancing geography and taste, seeking experienced jurors of such standing that other dealers will accept being judged by them. Because five of the six votes are needed to readmit an existing gallery and four of six to put a new gallery into contention for the remaining slots, he said there was no way for a single juror to torpedo a gallery’s chances.

The jurors, who separately operate German, Swiss, Italian and American galleries, begin their work about 11 months before the fair. In a series of gatherings, they and their advisers discuss their selections, vote, consider appeals and ponder larger questions: Should they include contemporary Chinese artists? Yes. Art by artists coming of age in the digital era? Definitely.

Once the fair starts, jurors arrive each morning at 8 to make sure that galleries that have sold items the day before do not replace the empty spaces on their walls with inferior art. If they have, dealers could be shown the door.

For their efforts, jurors are paid a small honorarium and expenses, and they routinely have their ears chewed by eager supplicants.

“Someone is trying to kiss you somewhere — metaphorically speaking,” a former juror, Claes Nordenhake, said of the lobbying. “And you know that the reason is not because they love or respect you but because they want to come close to the fair.”


The jurors, clockwise from top left: Tim Neuger, Eva Presenhuber, Jochen Meyer, Marc Blondeau, Lucy Mitchell-Innes, and Franco Noero. Credit Mr. Neuger: J. Pat Carter/Associated Press; Presenhuber: Mr. Lorenzo Nencioni for The New York Times; and Ms. Mitchell-Innes: Misha Friedman for The New York Times

The process has its critics.

Gerd Harry Lybke, director of a German gallery, Eigen +Art, a frequent Basel exhibitor who was denied admission in 2011 but readmitted the next year and now regularly shows, said the selection panel should consist of museum directors and curators rather than rival dealers.

“If it were a car fair, would the judges be other car companies?” he said.

Dealers have sued (unsuccessfully), and in the late 1990s the Swiss authorities, reacting to the fair’s market power, reviewed whether the fair violated the country’s antitrust provisions. No violations were found, but the authorities convinced the fair to create an appeals process for rejected galleries. (About 50 galleries a year appeal; about five eventually get in, after the fair asks them to up their games.)

“We bend over backwards to be fair,” said Lucy Mitchell-Innes, a juror, who formerly ran Sotheby’s contemporary art department and co-owns the New York gallery Mitchell-Innes & Nash.

The committee looks for galleries that, among other things, are cutting edge, reflect geographic diversity in the art market and can demonstrate they have developed an artist’s career.


A Virtual Tour of an Art Basel Booth

The Sean Kelly Gallery’s proposed booth for the 2014 fair. The gallery was admitted.

Publish Date June 12, 2015. Photo by Sean Kelly Gallery.

“They have to evolve,” Mr. Spiegler said of the galleries.

He said he travels the world encouraging emerging galleries to apply.

“There is no tenure at Art Basel,” Mr. Spiegler said. “There is no seniority.”

But that depends on how you define tenure and seniority.

Try, Try, Try Again

Most galleries admitted for the first time, or after at least one year’s absence, end up in second-tier locations at the fair, according to six years of fair data. And most are not invited back the next year. More established dealers — the Gagosians, Paces and Zwirners, who derive power from their superstar clients and artists — dominate the inner aisles of the ground and second floors of the main hall, considered by many the most sought-after real estate in the art fair world.


The gallerist Dorsey Waxter has failed for years to break into Art Basel. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

On the ground floor, home to more than 100 galleries, typically about 90 percent were in the fair the prior year.

Mr. Spiegler said the fair had reconfigured the ground floor layout this year to place booths exhibiting similar art next to one another, a decision that meant lots of galleries had to switch places. And the lineup of roughly 220 dealers in the fair’s main section, known as the Galleries sector, will feature a host of faces not present five years ago, he said.

“We feel that a turnover of 60 galleries in five years in the Galleries sector is a reflection of the development and changes within the art market,” he said.

Newcomers do break into the elite ranks and stick around, sometimes replacing veteran galleries. Consider Mr. McCaffrey, the New York dealer, who first applied for the 2011 fair, was admitted in 2012 and has returned every year since. He described his selection as “one of the most memorable moments of my life.”

Commercially, it makes sense to favor galleries whose status and drawing power is part of the fair’s appeal. “These galleries make the whole fair stronger to the benefit of everyone,” said Sam Keller, Mr. Spiegler’s predecessor in directing the fair. “You think twice before you kick any of them out.”

And the veterans do not approach the fair lightly. A representative for the Manhattan gallery David Zwirner said that it saves its best material for Basel. A glossy catalog of Zwirner artists goes out to 1,500 buyers on the eve of the fair.

Smaller galleries keep trying for Basel, and its alluring imprimatur. “It confers legitimacy,” said Cristin Tierney, a New York gallerist who failed to win entry this year but still plans to visit Basel.

Mr. Spiegler says the fair’s power sits heavily with those who make the decisions. “We know it is an existential issue for some galleries,” he said.

Ms. Waxter, who was rejected again this year, said she had no hard feelings. “That is what happens,” she said. “That’s life.”

Correction: June 14, 2015
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misspelled the surname of a juror. He is Tim Neuger, not Euger.

Articles on Joseph Beuys



Joseph Beuys on the cover of Der Spiegel 5 November 1979
Joseph Beuys, on the cover of Der Spiegel, 5 November 1979

Joseph Beuys is considered by some as the most important of the post-war period – a sculptor, performance artist, teacher and political activist who shifted the emphasis away from the artist as ‘object maker’ to focus on his opinions, his personality and his actions. To others he was a conman and a showman. Francesco Bonami explores how contemporary artists have both borrowed from and developed his approach

Mechanical failures have often inadvertently shaped art history. Jackson Pollock’s fatal car crash in 1956 and Pino Pascali’s death in a motorcycle accident in 1968 immortalised the two artists. When Joseph Beuys’s Stuka plane crashed in the Crimea in 1944, he survived. A group of nomadic Tartars found him and wrapped him in fat and felt to keep him warm. It was a story that not only defined the source of his artistic materials, but also one that became an integral and enduring part of Beuys’s legend.

However, the creation of a personal mythology is not without its dangers. One of the most melancholic images in the history of modern art is the Joseph Beuys two-part multiple Enterprise 1973. The right-hand section is a photograph set in a metal box that shows the artist and his three children at home watching an episode of Star Trek on TV. The room is bare: they could be in any nondescript American motel. Despite that, they look relaxed and comfortable – except Beuys, who sits uneasily behind them, his gaze not fixed on the TV, his thoughts elsewhere, perhaps ruminating on how the future would judge his own contribution to the world.

Even after his death in 1986, at the age of 64, Beuys remains an influential and complicated figure. He used the framework of artistic practice to build a style that mixed politics, anthropology and Celtic and Christian mythology, through which he presented a loose philosophy manifested in his many installations, performances, lectures and sculptures. As a result, by the end of his career he emerged as an activist, a ‘social sculptor’ intent on sociopolitical reform.

Joseph Beuys talking to Richard Hamilton at Tate 1972

Joseph Beuys talking to Richard Hamilton at Tate 1972

© Tate 2005

His methods were never conventional. The most poignant example of this was his work as a political activist. He was involved in establishing the German Student Party in 1967 and later, with Joschka Fisher, the Green Party. Both groups were very active and highly visible, and in line with this Beuys felt the need to construct a powerful aesthetic around his actions and his performances, so that they would be remembered – a sensibility that he wanted people to regard as almost spiritual in nature. He believed he could single-handedly change the world, as well as influence the entire future of art.

Over the decades, Beuys’s ‘religion’ and his political goals never had the impact he would have wished. But his approach to art did have an effect. Breaking the boundaries of artistic practice, he allowed a more fluid definition of what an artist was and what an artist did. Today, a wide number of artists, working in a variety of ways, have inherited – if that is possible – aspects of the Beuys sensibility, though in each case for very different ends.

Thomas Hirschhorn’s work often has a social agenda with a political undertone. His 2002 Bataille Monument at documenta 11, the international exhibition in Kassel, saw residents of a German suburb build, install and invigilate a series of eight makeshift shacks, including a library with a topography of Bataille’s work, a television studio and a snack bar. Like many of his team-based projects, the emphasis was on social investigation, leading an audience beyond that of the gallery-attending public to find out about art for themselves, using Hirschhorn’s ideas as a framework. He has said that his approach to the political within his work is ‘a tool by which to experience the time in which I am living’. There are echoes of his predecessor’s practice, but Beuys favoured the tactics of loud, visible campaigning and protestation, hoping to attract a type of following normally enjoyed by influential political leaders. Hirschhorn’s preferred modus operandi is explicitly as an artist: rather than promote himself, he promotes the work. As he said recently: ‘I am an artist, not a social worker.’

While Hirschhorn’s stance works as a form of social participation, Maurizio Cattelan upturns the Beuys myth of the artist shaman and plays games with his legacy. The clearest example is Cattelan’s sculpture La rivoluzione siamo (We Are the Revolution) of 2000, in which a cast of himself, wearing a shrunken grey, felt suit, hangs from a coat hanger. It is a simple and witty reference to one of Beuys’s iconic works – Felt Suit 1970. Cattelan’s suit sad-looking figure suggests, somewhat contentiously, that Beuys has become a footnote in art history.

Beuys’s ambition to play a larger role in society is seen by Cattelan, and many of his colleagues, as delusional. As director and screenplay writer David Mamet suggested, art cannot really change the world, but it can prompt you to think about the world from a different angle, which, once you step out of the fiction of art, may help to make some changes in your life and eventually to the world. That’s a view today’s artists seem to share, which is perhaps why Beuys appears more as a conservative character than an innovative one: a born-again artist, we could say; someone who trusts only his own strong interpretation of his faith and his language, and holds on to the notion that his art could and would directly change the world.

Cattelan has made a career out of lampooning the behaviour of the art world, and his work thrives on account of his humour – in this case, at the expense of Beuys. In contrast, Beuys was a serious artist, who took himself very seriously, and whose work (unlike that of his contemporary Marcel Broodthaers) certainly lacked a sense of humour. He concentrated, perhaps too much, on spreading his word and on his Salvation Army-like strategy within an art world that in the 1970s was crippled by political schizophrenia. And his relentless self-promotion and determined politicisation of his words and actions became inseparable. For Beuys, the politics surrounding his work were much more clearly designated and driven by the difficulties inherent in post-war Germany.

When Beuys was alive, there was a belief that people could change things. He believed, somewhat paradoxically, in the idea that ‘everybody is an artist’, while his art was a one-man show. Succeeding generations have been very careful to clarify their positions as artists. For example, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Gabriel Orozco (both of whom have borrowed his focus on the active involvement of the viewer) are very clear in their minds that their role in society is one of an artist not political activist.

Beuys knew that he was an artist (and in some ways a very conventional one), who used his materials in a very classical way. Yet he understood, ahead of time, that the political storm and social transformation that arrived with the 1960s student revolutions would not have allowed him to play the artist any longer. As a member of an elite – the art world – Beuys did not see any possible survival in a political mood that was going to crush any kind of elite, be it economic, political, or religious. In a proactive move, he transformed himself into something else: a creative conman, a visual preacher, a political candidate – whatever was necessary to cross that moment in history and to emerge with a charismatic aura. And he succeeded by disguising himself as a man of economics. Under his new persona he tried to theorise an economic system by which to regulate the world through art. He knew it was not possible, but in the 1970s, an age delusionally attempting to subvert the economic rules of the Western game, he understood that he could utilise his gimmicks to perform an ambiguous role within his own defined community.

It is questionable whether any artist today could try the same approach – particularly the political preaching – without being ridiculed. And his physical appearance – the trademark hat, the fishing waistcoat – now looks like part of a strategy that belongs in the past. Integrating with the rest of society is now a better way for artists to infiltrate the communication channels, open up a dialogue and define their identity through the specificity of their artistic language.

The Polish artist Pawel Althamer, who we could name as a Beuys of the twenty-first century, has diluted the heroic and epic mood of Beuys’s days. A sculptor, performance and action artist and creator of installations and video art, he reflects upon the role and place of art, in particular in large cities. Himself a resident of a vast housing block in the Bródno district of Warsaw, he observed, collected and documented examples of the spontaneous artistic activities of his neighbours. He has also organised projects in co-operation with them, including the action Bródno 2000, during which the people living at 13 Krasnobrodzka Street created a vast ‘2000’ sign by turning on lights in specific windows. If Beuys’s ambition was to move through the darkness of life with a full-blown torch, today’s artists, such as Althamer, seem to be more interested in looking into the simple, but mysterious corners of daily life with the help of just a light bulb.

Pawel Althamer, The Dancers 1997 Video still

Pawel Althamer,
The Dancers 1997
Video still

© Courtesy Foksal Gallery Foundation

Beuys’s spectacular myth-making addressed a powerfully charged historical moment. He showed great contempt towards post-war Germany’s concentration on monetary recovery by adopting an artistic language of signs and symbols, characterised by his deliberate use of earthy, organic materials, including fat, felt, coal, olive oil and blood. He used these with precision to give grave symbolic meaning to his many vitrine installations and actions – and to provide his art with an enduring and immediately recognisable signature for which he would be remembered.

If there is one artist today who embraces Beuys’s love of myth and symbols, then it is Matthew Barney. In his cycle of films, the Cremaster series, he creates a parallel world of signs and actions, with a myriad of seemingly unconnected events taking place in strange, architecturally spectacular and surreal environments. As with Beuys, there is a strong focus on the physicality of the materials, often unspecified – such as the seeping white liquid mess (perhaps a descendent of Beuys’s fat?) that one of the protagonists finds himself stuck in. But Barney’s personal mythology is so opaque that we are not given any clues as to where he is going with his imagery. While Beuys deliberately ensured his art had the aura of a shrine, Barney uses the moving image to keep his work away from any semblance of reality.

The public role that Beuys played in his life seems less effective as a way of working in the twenty-first century. He liked the action and the polemics. He liked gigantic projects. His 7000 Oaks in 1982 at documenta 7, for example, took five years to complete, and saw him planning and implementing the planting of 7,000 trees, each paired with a columnar basalt stone throughout the city of Kassel. He intended this to be the first stage in an ongoing scheme of tree planting to extend across the world, as part of a global mission to effect environmental and social change.

Francis Alys When Faith Moves Mountains 2002 Video still

Francis Alýs
When Faith Moves Mountains 2002
Video still

© Courtesy Galerie Peter Kilchman, Zurich

Many of today’s artists seem more tame, if no less convinced that their role in society is as seminal and pivotal as that of their predecessor. They are more likely to respond with a symphony of whispers, a concert of hushed proclamations. Francis Alÿs’s Peruvian project When Faith Moves Mountains 2002, in which 500 people supplied with shovels moved a 1,600ft long sand dune four inches from its original position, was the kind of work, however grand in scale, that didn’t necessarily demand that anyone actually witness it.

Beuys’s sense of the physical belongs more to a modern sensibility than to a contemporary one. He is maybe the last member of a Brancusian family tree, rather than the first in a contemporary art lineage. The energy he talked about was that burned by the body in order to survive the effort of living. The Italian student movement of the time called for the harnessing of the power of the imagination, but that was never really an option for Beuys. Now artists such as Carsten Höller, Olafur Eliasson, Suchan Kinoshita or Koo Jeong-a have learned they cannot rely on the physical experience of our reality, and have chosen to search for the alternative energy of the mind, soul and feelings; to activate the power of our imagination to survive and succeed, maybe not in the Caucasian tundra, but more safely and peacefully in our no less uncertain times.

The Fat is on the Table
Maurizio Cattelan on Joseph Beuys

beuys is dead
beuys is also uniting love and knowledge
beuys is more present in a desert freak
beuys is sponsored by museum für moderne kunst
beuys is appointed professor of sculpture at the düsseldorf academy of art
beuys extends ulysses by two chapters at the request of james joyce
beuys is surely not a sartre follower, but of course there are many parallels
beuys is mentioned next to steiner
beuys is back in town
beuys is back in belgium, in berlin, US, active in germany
beuys is the contemporary artist responsible for the popular notion that politics is an aesthetic activity that anyone can engage in
beuys is inspired by steiner
beuys is not so reactionary as to deny the existence of the entire art history repertoire
beuys is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential post-war german artists
beuys is the identification with everything from mythological figures and historical personages to writers and artists
beuys is a mythical figure in the art world, however
beuys is particularly significant in the light of his introspective research on the possible reunification of human and natural life
beuys is in the creation of the social sculpture
beuys is either loved or hated
beuys is considered one of the most
beuys is widely regarded as one of the most important german artists since world war II
beuys is demanding sun instead of rain/reagan
beuys is more like an evangelist
beuys is famous for an extraordinary body of drawings
beuys is such an obvious candidate; he started making art following a breakdown that was a result of his experiences in world war II
beuys is represented in depth in dia’s permanent collection
beuys is
beuys is among the most famous of today’s artists
beuys is one of the most famous performance artists
beuys is valid because wolfgang laib shares his belief in the transcendent power of art
beuys is another sculptor that
beuys is one of the major figures in post-war german art
beuys is known for his shamanistic artist’s persona
beuys is among the world’s most comprehensive
beuys is in these digital photographs represented not by him directly
beuys is a real people’s artist understood by a professor
beuys is megjelent a kövek mellett és hamarosan heves vita bontakozott ki közte és a közönség között
beuys is a 1972 lithograph in which the essential feature is that of beuys as everyman
beuys is elvesztette
beuys is átvett és ami interszubjektiv jellege miatt nem volt
beuys is called to account by his presumptive offspring
beuys is veel materiaal verdwenen
beuys is questioned by the activities of maclennan
beuys is instructive
beuys is very important in mail art
beuys is understandable
beuys is known to
beuys is not completed by his death
beuys is i was never secure and happy in the world of galleries from the very beginning
beuys is and how it is pronounced
beuys is cleverly recontextualised in
beuys is of course enormously interesting
beuys is l’eminence grise of community building as an art form
beuys is interested in the proportions between crystal and amorphous states
beuys is able to evoke the experience of the past
beuys is a magnificent
beuys is based on three stages
beuys is a special case because of the build-up of a curious sense of obligation to respond positively
beuys is the generation of my father
beuys is talking about the much wider concept of creative potential
beuys is regarded as one of the most significant personalities of the past
beuys is steeped in the struggle of world war II
beuys is a big influence right now
beuys is unavoidable
beuys is purely a decorative artist
beuys is hype
beuys is cited as the great collaborator of the twentieth century because
beuys believed everybody was a potential artist
beuys is on e-bay
beuys is a mythical figure in
beuys is one artist i wanted to ask you about
beuys is one of the biggest art world phonies of recent years
beuys is probably unique in the history of art
beuys is supposed
beuys is a very controversial sculptor
beuys is grounded in a tradition of narrative sources that is often absent in american art of the same period
beuys is hardly a household name in the history of twentieth-century art
beuys is the great shaman of twentieth-century art
beuys is represented with his monumental work created shortly before his death, lightning with stag in its glare
beuys is best known for declaring “everyone an artist”; koons seems to declare that everyone is a consumer

Für Joseph Beuys
Tag seines Todes –
Von Rebecca Horn

Als Gegebenheit
die ewige Wunde
sie schützen bedecken sie isolieren
den Tropfenfluß in einem selbstgewählten Pumpsystem bewahren
daraus die Energie gewinnen
sie leiten
die bläulich gewonnene Materie
in einen Kreislauf binden
und ihm in einem gegenläufigen Konzert
zum Tanz des Sternenregens folgen

For Joseph Beuys
The Day of his Death –
By Rebecca Horn

As a fact
the eternal wound
protecting covering isolating
collecting the drip flow in his chosen pump system
extracting the energy out of it
the bluely extracted matter
connecting into a circulation
following him into a concert in reverse
to the dance of showering stars

Translation: Fiona Elliott with Rebecca Horn

The Spirit of Change
By Keith Tyson

When I first came across Joseph Beuys’s work, I thought it was impenetrable, because I was looking for something specific. But to fetishise his work, to see it as relics, seems like a sin to me, considering that’s not where his primary activity was. He was a polymath, who was interested in everything from language to physical energy systems. He saw the world as one homogeneous soup, one big whole through which we have to navigate the most compassionate route. Ultimately, I think an artist can do no more than that. He had a primitive view of being an artist, in that he was a shaman, a visionary. He was the same person who would walk in and say: ‘We need to build a huge new church in this clearing, so we need to invent a new type of buttress, so we can get a massive spire.’ It is nutters like that who can change society.

The idea that things are both real and symbolic, while part of a wider system, and that all that thought and action has a consequence, is the best form of consciousness to assume. Although I may fumble in my steps, that is what I try to do. I’m trying to look at a wider picture. When people criticise my work, it’s usually because they want to see some beautiful painting or amazing sculpture, but really all my work is a signpost to something else. So I have a lot of time for Beuys in that respect.

He called society a ‘sculptural structure’, one that needs healing from itself. He was trying to cause a change and give a gift back to his fellowman through the action of a lecture or an artwork. I do find some of it problematic though, such as the deep mythology he invented, which becomes more of an adoration of the freakish than being a truly communicative vehicle. Then again, it was necessary because he was trying to tap into something essential. I realise it’s a nebulous idea. Marina Warner got it just right when she was contrasting Warhol and Beuys. She said: ‘While Andy Warhol copied things, saying he wanted to be like a machine, Beuys intervened, communicated his dreams, and wanted to change the world.’ But for some reason the art world seems to have taken the other path, the Pop art Warhol path, just reflecting back culture’s mechanics, and not questioning them, not talking about them, not investing them with any power, choosing instead to act in irony and with cynicism, and using those things to instigate change. But those things don’t produce change; they are just a narcissistic response to culture.

Beuys, on the other hand, no matter how bizarre his methodology, was essentially a positive artist, which is interesting when you remember that, at the time when he was working, people were extremely jaded – what with the Second World War and Vietnam. He didn’t have an optimistic environment in which to act: people looked to the empowerment of the 1960s and the failure of the associated movements, and thought that there was no point.

The notion that he believed his actions and those of any one man could transform the world is a misreading of him. His was not the idea of an individual Übermensch striding out into the landscape. He understood that the activity he was contributing was catalytic. It required everybody to make changes. He offered the possibilities, and tried to do it in the most expansive way. He understood that it had to be an integrated, group effort.

frieze magazine

Issue 101 September 2006 RSS

Class Action

Joseph Beuys set up more educational institutions and political parties than most people know jokes. Was he, as has been claimed, aspiring to be the last Modernist visionary or seeking to undermine the role of authority figures by becoming one himself?

image‘To be a teacher is my greatest work of art’, said Beuys in 1969.1 He had a point. Beuys’ persona has arguably come to be perceived as one of the most iconic embodiments of the artist as teacher in postwar art. As a professor at the Dusseldorf Academy in the 1960s, in his political activism of the 1970s and in his performances and lectures Beuys incorporated the role of the teacher to great public effect and in various guises, ranging from progressive art instructor to political agitator to self-styled spiritual educator and messianic healer.

One major consequence of the way Beuys foregrounded teaching in his artistic practice was that his work has come to be interpreted predominantly on the basis of the theories that he himself taught. It seems no coincidence, however, that Minimal and Conceptual artists in the US at the same time were also discovering critical writing as a means of preparing the ground for the reception of their work. In fact a certain ‘pedagogical turn’ seems to mark the historical developments of the 1960s as artists, through teaching and writing, increasingly began to integrate theory into their practice as a tool to produce their own discourse and effectively also steer the interpretation of their work.

The nature of these theories is, of course, where the similarity between Beuys and his American contemporaries ends. While the lesson of Minimal and Conceptual art is analytical in essence and implies that art should reflect and change its material conditions, the teachings of Beuys are a syncretic brew of Modernist myths and endorse art as the cure for alienated humanity through the release of its primordial creativity. As a result of this disparity, the generation of American critics then writing for Artforum and later for October succeeded in developing the analytical momentum of Minimal and Conceptual art into a fully fledged contemporary art history, whereas Beuys’ interpreters and disciples never really managed to unravel the murky belief system underpinning his teachings. What makes it so difficult to engage with Beuys today, therefore, is that the work is still wrapped in a thick cocoon of ideology just as his pedagogical practice continues to be overshadowed by the mythical persona of spiritual guide that he later assumed. Yet just as new perspectives on Minimal and Conceptual art have in recent years been opened up through the highlighting of aspects and positions that had previously been sidelined by the canonical self-interpretation of these movements, so it could now be productive to penetrate the Beuysian ideology and perhaps uncover some of the complexity, irreverence and even humour of his artistic and pedagogical work.2

An alternative approach to reading Beuys as the ultimate authority when it comes to the interpretation of his work could be to look closely at how he dealt with the issue of authority itself in his work and teaching. In effect, I want to argue that Beuys’ historical relevance lies not, as has often been said, in the fact that he was the last to claim the authoritative position of the Modernist visionary (before Pop and Postmodernism rendered such a position obsolete), but that, on the contrary, in his work and teaching he subjected this model of authority to a process of scrutiny and gradual erosion. This is not to suggest that Beuys ever fully crossed that threshold and abandoned the myths of Modernism as Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter did – both of whom were students in the Dusseldorf academy in the 1960s while Beuys was teaching there, albeit in a different class. Nevertheless there can be no doubt that Beuys was not only affected by, but played a very active role in, the political and cultural upheavals that the Fluxus and student movements instigated at that time. One of the most pivotal issues at stake in these upheavals, particularly in postwar Germany, was precisely the critique of the old models of authority that had remained in place in everyday life and institutional routines throughout the 1950s despite the official ‘de-Nazification’ of the country. In the light of these struggles Beuys’ performances and approach to pedagogy could indeed be seen as a purposeful if largely intuitive attempt to performatively dismantle the role of artist and teacher as a figure of mythic authority in the process of staging it.

The accounts of Beuys’ students collected in Petra Richter’s study Mit, neben, gegen: Die Schüler von Joseph Beuys (with, next to, against: the students of Joseph Beuys, 2000) confirm that a highly ambivalent attitude to his authority as a professor marked Beuys’ teaching style from the moment he took over the sculpture class at the Dusseldorf academy in 1961. On the one hand his approach was radically anti-authoritarian; he rejected teaching art according to a curriculum (which most of his colleagues still did) and instead helped students to develop their work individually, spending up to ten hours a day in the classroom. On the other hand, his critiques of students’ work are reported to have been (at times) uncompromising and delivered with the full force of his professorial authority. In fact Beuys’ reputation for being both too progressive and too provocative initially led every student bar one, Hede Bühl, to leave the class when he took over. The second student to enter the deserted class was my father, Walter Verwoert. My mother, Elfi Weimar, joined some time later as one of a generation of students that included Blinky Palermo, Jörg Immendorff and Rainer Ruthenbeck. So I am writing from the implicated position of being quite literally a child of the idealist spirit of that moment.

My father remembers many situations in which Beuys’ critique of students’ works was highly confrontational. He told me about the time Beuys physically attacked a well-executed realist ceramic sculpture of a monk, slapping its face flat with a broad knife and then drawing a smiley in the flat clay. On another occasion, when the same student, Bonifatius Stirnberg, had sculpted a Crucifixion scene, Beuys put a wooden board in front of it, hiding everything but the heads of the figures, before explaining that religion was after all about mystery. In the same way my father recollects having learnt about the effects of negative volume through Beuys simply carving a big chunk out of the clay sculpture he had just finished. Yet my father says he found these interventions very liberating and in tune with the spirit of the moment. The rough but precise treatment of material that Beuys taught was the same approach he found inspiring in, for instance, Arman’s Accumulations, glass boxes crammed full of numerous identical everyday objects (shown at that time in the Dusseldorf gallery Schmela) or in the performances staged by Yvonne Rainer and Robert Morris at the academy in 1964 (an event financed by Schmela but hosted by the Beuys class). On the whole, my father recounts, the break with the conventions of craft that the materialist aesthetics of Beuys, Nouveau Réalisme and American Minimalism all implied, created an overwhelming sense of, as he puts it, ‘Anything goes. Just go for it.’

However, this sensation of potentiality, my mother tells me, was at times also mixed with an oppressive feeling of turmoil. For instance, she recounts Beuys locking the doors during a performance at the academy by John Cage, thereby granting the students no release from the experience. She describes this physical sense of being locked in a space full of people and forced to undergo an event of an utterly unpredictable nature and duration as the closest she ever came to reliving the nights she spent in a bomb shelter during air raids as a child. Probably the best-known example of actual violence erupting in such a situation is the Fluxus event ‘Festival der neuen Kunst’ at the College of Advanced Technology in Aachen in 1964, when local students were so upset by the onslaught of absurdity unleashed by the performers that they stormed the stage and started a fight. What survived from this clash is the iconic portrait of Beuys with a bloody nose and a commanding stare, one arm raised in a Roman salute and the other stretched out, holding a cruxifix.3 What makes this image so fascinating is that it epitomizes precisely Beuys’ ambivalent relation to authority in this historical moment of change. One the one hand he instigates a provocation that results in chaos; on the other he contains that chaos in a dramatic pose of authority. This pose contains chaos in both senses of the word. It stops the violence through a powerful gesture, yet it also incorporates the clash of forces since Beuys is simultaneously hailing the victor and displaying the martyr in a disturbingly contradictory pose that casts him as both perpetrator and victim.

Beuys indeed had a talent for striking poses that contain chaos. In the performance ÖÖ-Programm (1967), for instance, he staged his public persona as a professor in just such an ambivalent manner. During an official matriculation ceremony at the academy he greeted the new students carrying an axe and uttering inarticulate sounds into the microphone for ten minutes. Beuys adepts will tell you that these noises are supposed to symbolize the secret nature of the creative act – namely, the gradual transformation of the formless into the formed. Be that as it may, I believe the local tabloid Express was nearer to the mark when it reported, ‘Professor barks into microphone!’ This is what happened. Beuys intentionally turned his professorial authority into a laughing stock, but in doing so he pushed humour to the point where it becomes painful. By holding an axe he in fact posed as a lictor, the guard of the Roman magistrates, who, as a symbol of authority, carried an axe wrapped in a bundle of sticks – the so-called fasces. This is where the term ‘fascism’ comes from. It has been observed that Beuys never really addressed the Nazi past in his talks and teachings. I would argue, however, that it was precisely on the level of how he both staged and dismantled mythic authority in his performances that he continuously brought it into play.

A compelling example of this is the performance Der Chef / The Chief. Fluxus Gesang (Fluxus Song), put on in the basement of the René Block gallery in Berlin in 1964. As the entrance to the space was blocked, people could only watch the event through the door. Beuys spent eight hours wrapped in a felt blanket, making inarticulate noises into a microphone linked to a PA system. On each side of the blanket lay one dead rabbit. Among other paraphernalia a copper rod wrapped in felt and patches of margarine and fat were installed in the space. At times a tape of a composition by Danish Fluxus musicians Henning Christiansen and Eric Andersen would be played. After the working day of eight hours was over, Beuys got up and, as my father recounts, took everyone to Block’s flat to cook the rabbits for dinner.5 With laconic directness the title pinpoints the subject of the performance to be authority. In German Chef means ‘boss’, but in colloquial use the word can also serve as a cheery form of address, just as the Spanish jefe or the American ‘boss’ can just mean ‘dude’. In performing the Chef Beuys surely plays the boss by commanding the attention of the viewer and showing off how heroically he gets a tough job done. But by doing the shitty work of grunting into a blanket for half a day Beuys also plays a dude, the fellow worker you sympathize with, and the dude, the man of the moment you admire for putting on quite a show with only a few crappy props.

Walter Benjamin observed that aura is produced through the simultaneous suggestion of distance and proximity. This is the trick Beuys pulls off here. By at once casting himself as the boss and the fellow sufferer, the hero and the martyr, the invisible figure at the centre of attention, he generates an aura around his authority. The auratic Chef therefore is also the Führer, the Duce, the fascist leader. Beuys taps into the mythic source of authority and mobilizes the energies of fascination that constitute auratic leadership. But in so doing he also exorcizes them by exposing the material workings of the ceremony of their invocation. In the process of the performance the auratic effect of Beuys’ theatrical presence is constantly set against the sheer absurdity of a guy in a blanket making inarticulate sounds for hours. Through these noises and the grungy artefacts littering the space the performance produces an excess of physicality that is similar in its effect to an illusionist destroying the illusion by fiddling around with too many props. Der Chef is not about the triumph of auratic authority; rather, it dramatizes the futile desire to make its magic work. It casts the mythic leader as a tragically comic magician not entirely unlike the one played by Tommy Cooper.

It’s hard to say if this deconstructive drive in Beuys’ actions is the manifestation of a conscious effort or of a more intuitive need to work through the mythic grounds of authority. There clearly is an almost compulsive dynamic in the way Beuys returns to, and in his very own way repeats, the ritual of staging auratic leadership that had put Germany, Italy and Spain under its spell. Looking at ÖÖ-Programm, however, you also cannot deny the humour if not glee with which Beuys publicly pushes the ciphers of authority to the point of absurdity. He seems provocatively to incorporate the crisis of authority to act it out. Yet, it is equally clear that he also remains spellbound by its myth and neither as a teacher nor artist ever entirely abandons it. Allegedly because of this, Fluxus pioneer George Macunias, for instance, broke with Beuys as early as 1964 and tried to exclude him from the Fluxus circuit.4 Likewise, Petra Richter observes that Beuys’ position towards the anarchy that his students began to create with increasing intensity towards the end of the 1960s was also ambivalent. He supported the political agitation of Jörg Immendorff and Chris Reinicke, whose activities with the ‘Lidl-academy’ led to a police intervention and the temporary closure of the Dusseldorf academy in 1969. But apparently he strongly disapproved of actions by students who sought cathartic release through pure destruction.

Still, there can be no doubt that his relation to the institution of the academy remained antagonistic. Tensions came to a head in 1971, when Beuys repudiated the official routine of entrance exams and instead offered the rejected applicants unconditional access to his class for a one-year probationary period. As a consequence he was sacked the following year. The postcard multiple Demokratie ist lustig (Democracy is Fun, 1973) shows a photo of his eviction from the academy. Beuys is leaving the school framed by policemen, wearing an old army coat and a broad, knowing smile on his face, again never at a loss for a good pose. Beuys’ dismissal happened only days after the end of Documenta 5, where he had spent the 100 days of the exhibition talking politics with the visitors in the office of the ‘Organization for Direct Democracy by Referendum’ he co-founded in 1971. This organization grew out of two others Beuys had set up previously: the ‘German Student Party’ in 1967 and the ‘Office for Political Public Relations’ in 1970. During the struggles at the academy in 1971 Beuys and writer Heinrich Böll also published a proposal for a long-term project to establish a ‘Free International University’. Finally, in 1979 Beuys was also a founder member of the German Green Party.

Like his artistic cosmology, Beuys’ political theory is largely based on the teachings of the founder of the Anthroposophy movement, Rudolf Steiner. The ideal society is thought to be composed ‘organically’ of three spheres governed semi-autonomously according to their own principles, so that there is liberty in culture, equality in law and solidarity in the economy. Instead of political parties, workers’ councils and direct referendums are to represent the interests of the people. Benjamin Buchloh once gracefully summarized these theories as ‘simple-minded Utopian drivel lacking elementary political and educational practicality’.5 Objectively speaking, that’s what they are. And judging Beuys by his own intentions to enter into politics proper, this verdict is probably unavoidable. Even the Greens got weary of his missionary zeal and sidelined him early on. Yet there is something about the hyper-intensity of Beuys’ political commitment that puts it in an entirely different league. Like the excess of physicality in his performances, his passion for politics and education is just too much. In his life Beuys dreamt up as many political and educational institutions as, say, Aleister Crowley inaugurated occult places of worship. In the same way as we are now beginning to uncover some of the more disruptive moments behind the canon of Modernism, I would suggest that we look at Beuys as an unruly Modernist who set up parties and schools the way others invented religions or avant-gardes: out of the spirit of the moment, out of the realization that this is part of what an artist can do, and perhaps also out of a certain exuberant humour.

Jan Verwoert is a contributing editor of frieze and teaches at the Piet Zwart Insitute in Rotterdam. He has recently published a book Bas Jan Ader – In Search of the Miraculous (Afterall Books/MIT Press 2006).

1 Beuys in conversation with Willoughby Sharp, Artforum, no. 4 (1969), p. 44.
2 Among the few books that propose a re-reading are the excellent anthology Gene Ray (ed.): Joseph Beuys. Mapping the Legacy (D.A.P., New York, 2001) and the sceptical study by Barbara Lange, Joseph Beuys. Richtkräfte einer neuen Gesellschaft (Reimer, Frankfurt am Main, 1999).
3 The iconic pose is at times referred to as being part of the performance Kukei, akopee – Nein! (1964), although it was more likely simply a spontaneous reaction to the riots.
4 See Joan Rothfuss, ‘Joseph Beuys. Echoes in America’, in Ray, op. cit., pp. 37–53.
5 Benjamin Buchloh, ‘Beuys: The Twilight of the Idols’, first published in Artforum in 1980. Here taken from Ray, op. cit., p. 201.

Jan Verwoert



Joseph Beuys — Artist Who Expanded Art’s Boundaries

Joseph Beuys is considered one of the most important and controversial artists of the second half of the 20th century. Always on the cutting edge, Beuys thought artists had a central role to play in society.

A current exhibition provides a photographic record of Beuys’ working life

Those who know Joseph Beuys often think of two things when they hear his name: fat and felt. These were two materials that he often used in his works that were unsettling to some, simply incomprehensible to others.

On the 20th anniversary of the artist’s death, the Kunst Palast museum in Düsseldorf is holding an exhibition called “Joseph Beuys in Action: the Healing Powers of Art.” The exhibit features some 100 from different photographers who shot the artists at different phases of his career. They show Beuys in his different manifestations: teacher, political activist, withdrawn introvert or fighter for environmental causes.

Beuys was also involved in German politics and helped found of Germany’s Green Party. His experiences during World War II led him to become a pacifist and he was active in the pace and anti-nuclear movment.

Born in 1921 in the town of Krefeld, Beuys served in the German air force throughout World War Two. In 1943, his plane was shot down over the frozen Crimea. Those who found him tried to restore his body heat by wrapping him in fat and an insulating layer of felt, which is likely the origin of the recurring materials in his sculptural works.

After the war, he studied sculpture at the state art academy in Düsseldorf, where he taught from 1961 to 1972.


During that time, starting in the mid-60s, Beuys worked with the avant-garde art group known as Fluxus. It was during this period that he began to stage “actions,” where he would perform works in a ritualistic way. One of the best known of these was How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare from 1965. Beuys covered his head with honey and gold leaf, wore one shoe with felt on its sole, another soled with iron. He walked through an art gallery for two hours, explaining the art hanging there to a dead hare that he carried.

Joseph Beuys in 1980

But it was in the 70s and 80s that Beuys was most active on the international stage and his works were displayed around the world, from Vienna’s Biennale to New York’s Guggenheim to the Seibu Museum of Art in Tokyo.

Photographer Bernd Jansen accompanied Beuys in 1970 during his “Friday action, First Class Fried Frishbones,” which presents the bones of a fish displayed in a wall-mounted box as if they were a saintly relic.

“The fish is a sign for Christ,” said Jansen. “Beuys often dealt with Christian themes and this ‘Friday action’ was also a religious act, if you will.”

Beuys’ better known works are Felt Suit (1970), a felt suit exhibited on a coat hanger; the performance piece Coyote, “I Like America and America Likes Me” (1974), for which Beuys wrapped himself in felt and stayed in a room with a coyote for five days. In the sculpture Fat Corner, Beuys piled fat into the corner of a space, left to melt and turn rancid over a number of days.

For those who prefer their art to be sofa sized and depict idyllic landscapes or quaint country roads, Beuys’ art generally induced a good deal of head shaking.

New definition of art

But for Beuys, every person was an artist; every action a work of art. His expanded definition of art caused both sensation and fierce debate during his life. For him, works of art were as fleeting as life itself. He didn’t want to create eternal works, but to start people thinking.

Pictures taken during the art work named ‘Action in moor’ in August 1971

Beuys not only mounted fish bones on walls and ceilings, he also put them on a pair of his own jeans. That pair is now owned by Hinrich Murken, a medical historian and collector of Beuys’ works. Murken admits that his passion for Beuys was not always met with understanding.

“When I bought the Beuys jeans in 1971, it wasn’t easy for my immediate circle and my family to get why I brought home a pair of old jeans as art,” he said. “And then a pair that had fish bones on it. But the bones were what make the work really mysterious and puzzling and gave it the aura that it now has.”

Art, science and healing

The connection between art and the natural sciences, between art and medicine was something that Beuys discovered by looking at Leonardo da Vinci. He conducted research into nature and explored the topic of healing in his works like no other artist. Many of his works, drawings, actions and lectures contained motifs and allusions from the worlds of healing and medicine.

“The Temptation of the 20th Century” by Beuys

In his final creative period, the artist devoted much thought to shamanism, which for him was a natural philosophy which invoked a primordial world where all being lived in harmony.

“No other artist has such a variety of references in his work,” said Murken. “Beuys’ work continues to lives from this openness, from the fascinating variety of interpretations that are possible.”

DW recommends


Hans Dieter Huber
The Artwork as a System and its Aesthetic Experience.
Remarks on the Art of Joseph Beuys

(This article was given as a lecture at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, at the University of South Florida, Tampa and at the University of Texas at Austin in September/October 1989)


The art of Joseph Beuys in many cases provoked his audience as much as the media. He enraged people wherever he appeared. He was viewed as a madman, a charlatan, or a messiah. The intensity and emotionality of the public discussion about him and his works, which he consciously encouraged and his enormous influence on the arts, contrast strangely with the ignorance of his achievement in German art history. German scholars still have great difficulty comprehending the specific nature of his artistic conception and its aesthetic effectiveness. Beuys himself on the other hand, was always highly critical of the academic system and the lack of involvement on the part of university scholars in social processes and social evolution. (1)

Only in recent years have students and scholars recognized his fundamental influence on the visual arts, despite all the negative reaction. They have begun to reconstruct the historical processes and to discuss his conception of art and its aesthetic and social effects. As scholars we still stand at the beginning of a historical understanding of his art.

In the case of Beuys, it is often difficult to define which parts belong to the artwork and which do not. Traditional concepts such as unity, integrity, harmony, proportion, composition, scale etc. are of little assistance. So we are obliged to develop a new descriptive vocabulary and a new theory of interpretation. His various showcases illustrate the problems involved in identifying the objects and placing them into a significant relation with the other ones. In most cases it is unclear whether the objects are individual or different elements of one larger work. The problem of individuation and identification is central to any attempt to construct a new method of describing and interpreting his work.


General Systems Theory is especially suited for the description and analysis of such complex installations by contrast with many concurrent models, because it is able to account for the complexity and interdependence of all phenomena, the intense entanglement of all things, properties and relations internal to the work, as well as its relationship to the environment, including space, time, viewer and society. (2) Systems theory also permits an interdisciplinary and problem-oriented approach. But first it seems necessary to make certain distinctions in order to rule out possible misunderstandings.

Each object in the world and each relationship between objects in the world can be conceived as a system. Which object one conceives as a system and which not, depends only on one´s scientific interests and not on “objective” properties of the world. Contrary to Niklas Luhmann I hold that systems do not exist outside us in an independent reality. Systems are descriptions of the world, and the world is not describable without description. (3) The conceptual logic of Systems Theory employed as a descriptive and explanatory tool has an especially high heuristic value.

A system is generally defined as follows: It consists of elements ( which can be things, objects, components, parts, members) with certain properties. Elements are linked by relations (which can be references, correlations, connections, bonds, linkages, couplings). Despite differences of definition according to scientific discipline the fundamental constituents “elements”, “properties” and “relations” remain the same.

First. The elements of a system can be of any sort of physical entity, atoms, cells, things, individuals, or complete social institutions, and they need not to be homogeneous like the elements of a class. What functions as an element within one system, can be a complex subsystem within another system. So atoms are treated as elements in the chemical system and as complex subsystems in nuclear physics. What is defined as an element within a given system, depends on the choice of the basic units of that system. And this choice depends on the scientific interests at hand. (4)

Second. The only properties of an element taken into consideration are those relevant to the scientific enterprise. Others, non-relevant properties of an element are neglected. These significant properties are disposed into certain functional groups defined by our everyday experience of the same objects in different contexts and situations. The different object properties and employments are stored in our brain by a systematic semantic structure, the so-called semantic field.

Third. The relationships between the elements of a system can also vary in kind and number. They can be one-sided or double-sided, mutually dependent, active or passive, real or ideal, time/space-dependent or independent and they can have a certain history. The relevance or irrelevance of relations among elements of a system again depends on the scientific point of view. From the relations between the elements, we can make inferences about the specific properties which are operative only in these specific relations. This is a very important insight. The properties are established through relations. Only in a certain relation is a certain property of an element active or dominant. Unused, but still existent, properties of an element can be activated through relations. We must keep this in mind in discussing Beuys because the activation of potential properties through a setting-into-relation is one of his main strategies. To bring different elements together in order to activate certain properties of each is a central aesthetic method in his sculptural work.

Fourth. The wholeness of all relations which exist between the elements of a given system makes up the structure of that system. Anatol Rapoport says:

Structure is a description of the interrelations among the components of a system: the arrangement of its parts and the potential influence which they may have upon each other. (5)

Fifth. General Systems Theory has introduced the concept of the environment as an equivalent notion to the concept of the system itself. As far as I know, Systems Theory is the first scientific approach, which is not only concerned with the internal conditions and relations of its objects, but also with the exchange between the system and certain external conditions, which influence the system in parts and as a whole. On the other hand, possible influences of the system on the environment can also be specified and described.

In the art of Joseph Beuys the viewer is at least as important as the sculptural system itself. The concept of the environment of a system allows the interpreter and observer to turn his attention towards important influences and effects. He is enabled to take into account certain influences, which cannot be explained from the internal functions of the system. Taking into account the specific environment, the context or situation in which such a sculptural system operates, prevents us from artificially restricting our investigative focus. All elements or objects within one of Beuys’ sculptural systems at first refer to the beholder, who has to constitute actively the aesthetic meaning during his perceptual participation. The sculptural system together with its viewers forming part of the environmental conditions constitute the field of aesthetic effectiveness.

The works of Beuys are explicitly designed for and concerned with an exchange of energy from the sculptural system into the social environment, first to an individual as a representative member of the human community and then second to the whole community.


First, the material elements of an artwork can be substances such as blood, paper, plaster, marble, bronze, metals, glass, fabrics and so on.

Second, because all physical substances or materials are composed, their specific composition yields their specific form. Plaster for instance can be sculpture, architecture or wall decoration, depending on how it is composed. The difference between a wooden plank and a wooden beam is not a difference of material, but a difference of form. It is a syntactic difference. Composed physical materials make up the syntactical elements of an artwork such as form and color. They are complex physical subsystems, which are composed in a specific way. If their internal organisation, their physicality is of no interest,and only the relations to other elements are significant, the syntactical subsystems can be treated as elements.

Third, objects and things make up the semantic elements of an artwork. They are defined by labeling through verbal concepts. If a viewer or interpreter names an object or an element with a linguistic concept, this element functions as an instance of that concept. It exemplifies that concept, if the labeling was correct. The named element can no longer be seen without that linguistic concept. For instance,if I label these two bottles as containers for blood, they are from this point on always seen through this concept. If I alternatively label them as Mary Magdalene and St. John the Baptist one would always see them through these names and within the semantic field of a certain biblical story. If I describe the pieces of paper as particles of a newspaper, where fragments like “effective increase”,”balance”, “debt”, “decreased” are readable, these elements are seen in the semantic field of economics.

These few examples indicate how our perceptions are influenced by the concepts and labels, we use to describe objects and how it becomes difficult to separate these linguistic labels from our object perception. Through the process of naming every element of an artwork and every part of it becomes a semantic element. This conception allows us to interpret each material, syntactic and semantic element as meaningful, insofar it has been labeled linguistically.

Equipped with these linguistic tools, let us now turn our attention to Beuys and try to describe a relatively small sculptural work. It consists of five elements. Two melting pots for bronze casting are coated with cinnamon red pigment. In the right hand melting pot a plastic tube for blood infusions is arranged together with clamps, connections, a regulator and an infusion bag. A Jacob´s shell with blue copper sulphate is laid inside. It is a strange and hermetic arrangement which does not “speak” to the viewer. At first glance no coherent meaning is extractable from the structure of the system.

The viewer has to work hard in order to constitute the specific interrelations of the objects and to fill in the indeterminacies, which result from the unusual arrangement. The hermetic structure of the system, in respect of its environment, is revealed as an intentional strategy to force the viewer participate actively, to react , to use his imagination to constitute the relatedness of the elements as an aesthetic image.

To constitute the aesthetic meaning of these elements we must first ask for the semantic context in which the single object normally functions. This happens by labeling. Through the cognitive activation of the semantic context of the elements, their history as a history of linguistic use becomes available for epistemic appraisal. The semantic context of the infusion instrument is that of hospital, of life-saving after an severe accident, as an important instrument to support the forces of life. The bloodstream of the human organism is one of the most important systems of life maintenance. The Jacob’s shell normally contarns an animal,a creature of nature. Today it is one of the most endangered animals as the result of environmental pollution, since it needs extremely pure water. The creatures collect toxic substances like heavy metals in their flesh and thereby accumulate their toxicity. Copper sulphate is a very poisonous substance which kills microorganisms such as bacteria and plankton.The shell is already dead, having been killed by the dangerous chemical. The two melting pots stem from the semantic field of industrial production, of smelting of ore and the refining of metal. It belongs to the inorganic sector of the world. But it also has to do with artistic production, for it is a tool for modelling ,for giving amorphous melted substances stable form through casting and cooling down. The red coating gives the melting pot an active power, a force of life, of heart. The right hand melting pot functions as the heart of an organism, the plastic tube as a symbolization of the blood circuit.But the organism is endangered. The shell as the receptive organ is blinded. It has been poisoned by chemical substances. The blood does not circulate anymore, it has coagulated and is also dead. The state of the system is alarming. Hence the title “Alarm II”.

In this process of mentally constituting the semantic interrelations of the elements, their relevant properties become apparent. Step by step the work of art opens itself up to the active viewer. Parallel to the aesthetic constitution of meaning questions arise about the state of environmental polution and the toxic processes of our present social systems. We cannot hold back these thoughts nor exclude them from the aesthetic exerience. On the contrary, this stimulation of thought is the clear intention of the artist, as we shall see later. The artwork functions as a trigger for the shaping of thoughts about our contemporary life and society. This is one of the stated aesthetic strategies of Joseph Beuys.


The beholder’s aesthetic experience can be divided into two stages. First, the constitution of aesthetic meaning through an active process of perceiving and thinking and secondly the processing of the experienced aesthetic meaning. These are two totally different cognitive processes with different epistemic functions.

Let us turn to the first part and ask how aesthetic meaning is constituted. During perception the artwork functions as a trigger for certain cognitive processes. The elements of the sculptural system are transformed into the subjective realms of knowledge and experience of a certain person. Through the process of naming and classifying the art object is set into relation with our own epistemic network of concepts and beliefs. This is the moment when the object begins to affect us. The viewer himself as a complex and dynamic organism is part of the environment of the sculptural system. He is equipped with sensory surfaces, which allow him to extract information from the environment and process this input in the upper regions of his brain. This capacity of the human organism to extract information from his environment,to process it, to store it, to retrieve and recall it, is the ability for mental representation of the world. Human thinking is a complex system for the symbolic representation of information, which functions in a certain medium: its entire biological and physical organism.

When a person comes into contact with a sculptural installation of Joseph Beuys the artwork opens up a dialogue in which the art object and the beholder are equivalent partners in a situation where both function as independent systems which mutually refer to each other. Without this basic interrelation or dialogue no artwork can ever be experienced. For each kind of aesthetic experience this interrelation between viewer and artwork is a necessary condition. Without this there is nothing to observe, describe or interprete.

In consequence we have to differentiate between the art object “itself” and the process of its apprehension, its “concretion”. (6) Each percepted artwork contains many indeterminacies. Not everything is represented that would be necessary for a precise identification of the meaning of internal elements or relations. As beholders we are therefore in a certain state of disinformation in front of the artwork and the intentions of the artist.

Let us take an example.I should like to show you the sculpture “Snowfall” from 1965. Three pine trunks are covered by layers of felt. We cannot perceive how far the pine trunks reach under the felt layers. This is a very simple case of indeterminacy which we tend to fill up, “to concretize” as Roman Ingarden would say, through our own imagination and thinking. A more complex indeterminacy is the relation between the felt layers and the three pine trunks. Why do they lie on the floor horizontally and not stand upright as usual? Why are they covered with layers of felt as if they were sleeping? The trunks are dead and rotten, still they seem to emanate or transmitt energies out of the center of the felt as if the whole were a transmitting station. Surely we can produce answers and we do produce them from our perceptual questions. But, what I intended to show was that this always happens in a subjective, unverifiable way which goes far beyond every verifiable basis of what is actually there. This is the crucial point of the argument.

Each color, each form, each figure, each material, each element, each interrelation can contain numerous loci of indeterminacy. These points signify no weakness of the artistic system. On the contrary they are the cardinal points in the process of unfolding the work’s aesthetic effectiveness. In the process of concretion we tend to overlook these indeterminacies and to fill them in with arbitrary and subjective determinations, which are not at all justified by the artwork itself. At such points we go beyond the given system without being conscious of what we are doing in our imagination.

Subjective concretion is the essential turning point where the artwork is transformed into a mental representation by a subjective being. This is the first part of the perceptual process which I have called “the constitution of aesthetic meaning”. To the second part, “the processing of aesthetic meaning”, we shall turn later.


Let us turn back to the work of Beuys. One of his most significant ensembles is “The Capital Space 1970-77”, now permanently installed in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. It is a complex system with different elements, complex interrelations and different histories. The whole is installed more as an open working situation of individual parts than as a closed unit. The viewer until recently was able to walk around the individual parts and to look at them from a close distance. The “Capital Space” is only perceivable step-by-step, in a selective focus.

One rather homogeneous subsystem of elements is formed by the group of blackboards, on which diagrams, sentences, formulae, words and drawings are written with white chalk.They hang from the wall, lie on the floor or lean against the back walls. Another subsystem is defined by its connection to electricity. Two 16 mm projectors are standing with two empty filmspools on a projection shelves. They are plugged into the electrical system by a white cable. Two tape recorders with empty spools and headphones are standing next to them on the floor. They are plugged in to the electrical system by a black cable. A microphone-stand with a microphone is connected to one of the tape recorders. The tape recorders themselves are connected to an amplifier and two loudspeakers. A quite separate subsystem is formed by the zinc bathtub filled with water, white linen and two flashlights attached on the handles. A zinc watering can, a white enameled dish with a piece of soap in it and a towel are placed nearby. Between the microphone-stand and the bathtub lies a tin lid with a heap of gelatine. A ladder with gelatine pieces is standing in the corner of the room. The installation is completed by a piano, a spear and two felt covered wooden laths.

The relationships between these elements prove to be opaque to the viewer, so that an active effort is required to observe the aesthetic connections among those elements and to construe their aesthetic meaning. We are familiar with most of the objects of the installation from our everyday knowledge. It should therefore not be difficult to infer the internal coherence of the different elements.

In this work of art we are confronted with a collection and recollection of different media which all have something to do with the process of creation and of forming. Film for instance can be used as an artistic medium for the representation of actions, of events and of time. The projectors and the screen stand in the installation, as if they are waiting to be switched on and to show what they have to show. They are standing around as a potential, which can be used if necessary. The projecting system stands as as a symbol for visual transformation. It symbolizes the capability of visual storage and visual recollection.

The acoustic system serves for the sound recording for example of the human tongue, for language, singing and other sounds and for the reproduction of the recorded signals by the connected speakers system. In artistic use, it also is a system of representation, a medium for the creation of acoustic forms. The acoustic subsystem is therefore, like the projectors, a potential element and symbolizes the process of information extraction from the environment, the extraction of sound waves and their transformation into electric impulses. It symbolizes its storability and its reproduction. Like the human brain it is a system of transformation, storage and recollection. The written blackboards represent the linguistic medium of information storage and exchange.

The said elements are all different systems of representation, different visual, acoustic, linguistic media. They are able to represent different cross-sections and experiences of the world. In the installation they are presented as possible elements of creation and transformation. Hence the title “Capital”. Capital is a potential (of money), with which something can be achieved, can be designed or formed.

The ladder, the spear, the axe,the watering can, the soap and the dish in its most general meanings are tools for achieving certain results through action. All the objects in the installation are embraced, as we already know, by their semantic context. They are perceived through the semantic properties of their concept. But the semantic context is modified and transformed by the unusual relations in which these objects stand.

The objects are imbued with their own history, of how they have been used and how they can be used., of the process of thinking that went into their form and material. They carry a collective and an individual history of use; the history of how Joseph Beuys used these objects. These two histories, the general more than the individual, always envelop the object, even in this installation. The collective and individual fields of functioning are always more or less present for the beholder during the process of aesthetic perception.

One part of the elements are relics of an action, others, especially the blackboards on the walls, are the results of lectures and workshops, which Beuys gave on various occasions. Nearly all elements which occupy the floor space of the installation stem from two performances: the first with the title “Celtic (Kinloch Rannoch) Scottish Symphony”, which he performed together with the Danish composer Henning Christiansen at the Edinburgh College of Art, twice a day, from 26-30 August 1970. (7)

In the photographs several elements of the installation are to be seen. in action and in use. The projectors, the tape recorders, the microphone-stand, the axe, the gelatine, the piano, the spear and the felt angle.

The two systems of blackboards, which hang from the wall and which Beuys has added to the installation, result from his discursive activites during the two documenta-exhibitions of 1972 and 1977 at Kassel The drawings, notes and diagrams function as a visualized representation of collective language and thinking processes. Explanations, notations and diagrams can be seen which came into being during discussions, lectures or workshops. They form a close network of related concepts and ideas, which overlap the single blackboard and make up a manifold simultaneity of ideas. They directly lead the beholder into Beuys´ complex theories of social sculpture and of the transformation of creative energy, which is the real human capital, into society. The blackboards altogether form a system of visual ideas and collective thinking processes.which otherwise would have remained at an abstract and nonvisual, verbal level. The system symbolizes the multiplicity and continuity of such a teaching method. They are carriers of thinking energy, which is stored and preserved in visual form. Like the other media, it is a system of representation, storage and recall of collective thought processes. The system of the blackboards generally signifies the work of the collective, whereas the objects and the instruments stand for the work of the individual. Collective sculptural processes as represented by the blackboards are contrasted to the individual creation and human capability, as symbolized by the single objects and tools. The relation between wall and floor is analogeous to the relation between society and individual. (8)

The whole installation therefore can be comprehended as a potential model for the creative transformation of individual human energies into collective social processes for the evolution of the whole social fabric. The installation as a model fulfills a mediating function between the theoretical ideas and concepts of Joseph Beuys and the visual objects, which can be observed by the beholder during the process of aesthetic perception.


The model functions as a transmitter of concepts about the creative transformation and evolution of society. How does this mechanism work? At a former stage of our argument we made distinction between the constitution of aesthetic meaning in a situation of indeterminacy and the processing of aesthetic meaning which means the integration of the evoked thoughts into one´s own system of beliefs.

Our experiences of the world are not arbitrarily stored in our memory, but they must have, for functional reasons, a systematic structure. Because we are able to find a single recollection in our memory,to retrieve and to work with it, it is necessary that our experiences have a systematic and hierarchical structuring. Social psychologists have therefore postulated the existence of so-called mental reference systems or categorial systems. (9) They are hypothetical descriptions of how our brain manages to store, compare and recall sensory input systematically .

The conception of a mental reference system means that a single experience is always related to a individual framework of storage. During the course of life such mental reference systems become more and more differentiated and refined. Knowledge-based categorial systems function as stable decision and evaluation frameworks. They are cognitive background systems, which normally function inconspicuously and unpretentiously. But surely there are situations of experience, where their existence immediately becomes conscious. This may be caused by a certain strain between a single,new experience and its inability to be classified or the occurrence of a totally new, never hitherto preceived situation. Here the lack of present knowledge systematization suddenly becomes apparent.

My argument is that the epistemic function of art precisely affects this cognitive mechanism of a beholder´s knowledge systematization. The cognitive background of aesthetic perception – our systems of knowledge organization-, suddenly becomes itself the object of perception by a certain tension between a single stimulus and its inability to be classified. The whole system is turned inside out. The systems of knowledge organization suddenly become transparent and accessible to observation. (10)

Caused by a conflict in mental processing, they themselves become the subject of observation against a background of impulsion towards adequate adaptation to and consistent ordering of the external world. Here we come into close touch with a specific structure of aesthetic experience. Because of the tension between an aesthetic experience, triggered by a relatively new and unknown work of art and his own well-known, but insufficient systematization of knowledge and belief, the beholder must seek a restoration of equilibrium.

In their epistemic function works of art bring the beholder into a cognitive dissonance (11) with his own beliefs and attitudes. He must reduce this dissonance by either adapting and therefore distorting the single experience to a preexistent reference system, or by adapting the whole categorial system to the new aesthetic experience which seems to be for me the only appropriate way.


When we turn again to the art of Joseph Beuys we are able to describe the cognitive effects of his installations on the belief systems of different beholders. The installation “The Capital Space” exhibits turned-off machines and objects not in use but with a certain productive potential. The whole system is potential capital for creation. This character of potentiality is incorporated into the title, because capital in its first function is a potential for production. But the specific account of capital, as it is embedded in the various elements is a very different one from that which we would normally associate with the concept of capital. As beholders we have therefore to adapt and refine our categorial system of capital knowledge to understand this unaccustomed model.

In a programmatic essay in 1972 Beuys called for the transformation of the essential concepts of thinking, action and sculpture:

Only on condition of a radical widening of definition will it be possible for art and activities related to art to provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary-revolutionary power. Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the death line: to dismantle in order to build A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART.
This most modern art discipline -Social Sculpture/Social Architecture- will only reach fruition when every living person becomes a creator, a sculptur or architect of the social organism. (...) Only a conception of art revolutionized to this degree can turn it into a politically productive force, coursing through each person and shaping history.
But all this, and much that is as yet unexplored, has first to form part of our consciousness: insight is needed into objective connections. We must probe (theory of knowledge) the origin of free individual productive potency (creativity). We then reach the threshold where the human being experiences himself primarily as a spiritual being, where his supreme achievements (work of art), his active thinking, his active feeling, his active will, and their higher forms, can be apprehended as sculptural generative means,(...), and then recognized as flowing in the direction that is shaping the content of the world right through into the future. (12)

The first step is the “revolution of concepts”, a notion which Beuys took from Eugen Löbl, the political economist of the Prague Spring. Beuys writes:

Only through the 'revolution of concepts', through a new revision of the basic relations of the social organism, does the way thereby become free for a revolution without constraint and arbitrariness. Because a far-reaching practice is always connected with concepts, the kind of thinking about states of affairs is decisive for how one handles these states of affairs and - firstly: how and whether he understands them at all.(13)

In this context Beuys speaks of the "remelting of indurated conceptions and theoretical approaches". (14) What is required for the process of transformation of aesthetic experiences into social-evolutionary practice is a new quality of thinking and of action. He sets up the question whether the actions of man, his information, his informing character (to give something a form) is a process of free decision, an expression of the freedom of that human being.

With this character of impression we have reached a point, at which a sculptural process is addressed. The impressing of an action into material. In this action a sculptor is hardly differentiated from a printer. In this character of impressing the sculptor differs not at all from the mechanical engineer, who applies his impressing character through his forming will to mechanical-motor tasks. Therefore it can be proved in this action, whose impressing character can be perceived immediately, that still another sculptural process precedes this sculptural process.
It can be traced back by reflexion, description and unbiased perception of what happens in this sculptural character of impression by human action, by bodily organs, from where the decision for the design of this impression character stems. The revolutionary can trace back the process up to that form, which he has first of all developed in his thinking or in his imagination.
When he carries that out and looks at all of his forces, which are effective and alive in himself, he will experience that he is already able to ascribe this sculptural character to thinking itself. It then comes into the world as a character of impression by his bodily organs and other tools and into a form, which informs, being information as a product, or which also conceives information as news, which the other is willing to receive.(15)

Thinking in itself is an invisible sculptural process, which becomes visible by impression into material, into form. The material sculpture functions as a model or as a transmitter of these unobservable sculptural qualities of thinking for a human receiver, who is able to apprehend the material model. The physical substance as materialized thinking energy is able to trigger the perceptual and thinking capacities of another person. A transmission takes place in this model, a flow of sculptural energy from one point of the world to another.

Through this epistemic mechanism the aesthetic perception is transformed step-by-step into new thoughts and questions about social interrelations, the contemporary state of the social organism, and the evolution of a future human society. The installation functions as the transmission model of those thought energies.


Artistic models have a representative function. They allow for the visualization and illustration of theoretical thoughts and conceptions. An artistic model such as the “Honeypump at the workingplace” does not manifest all the properties and relations of the theoretical conception it is a model of, but only some of them. It links several of the theoretical relations, which are taken as relevant and essential in this model, with other observable features, which have to be explained through the theory.

“Honeypump at the working place”, executed in 1977 for the documenta 6 at Kassel, was conceived as a model for the energystream of society.

With Honeypump I am expressing the principle of the Free International University working in the bloodstream of society. Flowing in and out of the heart organ - the steel honey container- are the main arteries through which the hones is pumped out of the engine room with a pulsing sound, circulates round the Free University area, and returns to the heart. The whole thing is only complete with people in the space round which the honey artery flows and where the bee´s head is to be found in the coiled loops of tubing with its iron feelers.(16)

In the sump of the engine room the three maior principles of Beuys´ theory of sculpture -thinking, feeling and will- are represented in a seemingly scientific model. Beuys explains:

Will power in the chaotic energy of the double engine churning the heap of fat. Feeling in the heart and bloodstream of honey flowing throughout the whole.Thinking powers in the Eurasian staff, the head of which rises from the engine room right up to the skylight of the museum and then points down again. (17)

Unobservable elements of Beuys´ Theory of Sculpture like ” will”, “feeling”, “thought”, “bloodstream” or “society” are represented by a model which takes as its elements industrial machinery like ship engines, drive shafts, plastic tubes, fittings, fuses, switches, low pressure pumps, natural products like honey and margarine and three archaic clay pots standing besides. But these objects are not taken for themselves, but they refer to a complex theoretical conception of evolution and transformation of human creativity into future society. The elements of the installation build up a system, which because of its specific type of reference is a visual model. It functions as a visual bridge between the theoretical concepts and the observational capacities of the beholder.

That we are in close touch with the thinking and the ideas of Joseph Beuys and do not deviate from his central premises, is clearly indicated by the following statement which he published separately to the installation of the “Honeypump”. It is entitled “The model of the FREE INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY (‘Honeypump’)”.

'The Honeypump at the working place' shall refer to the fact that something has to be brought near to all working places, which presently is mssing them - and thus is something new. (...) Therefore to begin with, this deficiency shall come into appearance as honey, which is a precious nutritive substance -and namely in the sense, that it circulates and supplies all manufacturing plants with precious nutritive substance and connects them like in a circulation system, where everyone is mutually dependent from one another.(18)

The natural product honey serves as the essential model substance for the flow of a positive thinking energy, which is able to trigger and to support social transformation processes.


As a last example of that evolutionary model character of the sculptural work I would like to present the project “7000 Oak Trees”, executed from 1982 to 1987.

As his contribution to the ‘documenta 7’ in 1982 Joseph Beuys ordered the planting of 7000 oak trees inside the city limits of Kassel. Beside each tree a basalt column was to be erected as a sign marking the historical moment, when people began to bring their lives into line with the transformation of the whole social organism.

As a first visible sign and a preliminary model for the abstract and inconceivable quantity of 7000 trees, Beuys arranged 7000 stones in the center of the city opposite the Museum Fridericianum as a wedge-shaped triangle. For each planted tree one basalt stone was taken from this sculptural arrangement so that as the work progressed the basalt triangle progressively diminished and finally disappeared. Being asked about the exact number of trees he replied:

I think this is a kind of proportion and dimension,firstly, because the Seven represents a very old rule for tree plantations. You know that from already existent places and cities. In the United States there is a very large city, called Seven Oaks and another in Great Britain. You see that Seven as a number is in some way organically connected with such an enterprise and it also fits with the seventh documenta. I said to myself that it is a very small decoration, seven trees. Seventy does not bring us to the idea of that, what I call in German "Verwaldung" [afforestation]. This suggests the idea of making the world into a large forest, making cities and environments wood-like. 70 would not signifiy the thought, 700 on the other hand was not enough. So I felt, 7000 was something, which I could do in the existing time, for which I could bear the responsibility of completion as a first step. Thus '7000 Oak Trees' will be a very strong visual result in 300 years. So you can imagine the dimension of time ... (19)

Through this process which lasted from 1982 up to 1987, and whose completion Beuys did not live to see, the inanimate, crystalline basalt sculpture underwent a transformation of site and state into a living element of a spatially distributed, collectively executed and socially effective charged potential which discharges its powers over the period of the next centuries, as long as an oak tree takes to grow. Thus this sculptural project proved to be a paradigmatic model for the whole body of a social sculpture and his theoretical conception of transformation of creative thinking energies into the deadly sick social organism.

It is a new step in this working with trees. It is not a really new dimension in the whole conception of a metamorphosis of all this on earth and of the metamorphosis of understanding of art. It deals with the metamorphosis of the social body in itself, to bring it into a new social order for the future in comparison with the existent private capitalistic system and the centrally governed communistic system.(20)

It is extraordinary difficult to define that project in terms of a work of art and of aesthetic experience. I am convinced that this paradigmatic model we are confronted with is a totally new concept of art, where individual aesthetic experiences are transformed into collective evolutionary forces which most directly affect not only the self-consciousness of an individual beholder, but also the orientation of the whole social organism. ( in this case a whole city). This project has absolutely nothing to do with land-art projects. The whole intention is totally different. It is not a work of art which is transportable like a painting and which could be shown in museum exhibitions. It is not autonomous, but dependent on the situation and the site for which it was created. It is therefore a site-specific work. It cannot be possessed by a single proprietor, but it belongs to nearly 3000 persons from all over the world who have donated one or more trees. For these reasons, it also cannot be sold, so that the accumulation of economic capital through speculation with art objects in this case is not possible. It is also publically perceivable to everyone who walks, bikes or drives through the city; even if he or she does not know that it is a work of art. For the aesthetic and social functions of the work it is no longer necessary for the beholder to know whether it is a work of art or not. The art character has dissolved into a direct social effectiveness benefitting the inhabitants and citizens. In contrast to traditional works of art, it is also a very useful one, because the leaves of the trees transform carbon dioxide into oxygen, they filter tons of dust out of the air by their immense surface, cool the surroundings and so on.


All in all, we still have great difficulties with this very new type of a socially effective art work. Our methods of description and analysis still derive in great part from the 19th century art theory which deals with categories like harmony, autonomy and the closedness artistic systems against thier environment. Out of the confrontation with such radical developments, taking place in the visual arts at present, we have to rethink the traditional concepts and theories with which we describe and explain historical change. Because our scientific language is necessarily a verbal formulation of our ways of thinking, an externalized model of our theoretical conceptions, we first have to transform our scientific strategies of thinking and of knowledge systematization. We have to expand, through dialogue with contemporary artistic developments, our notion of science to include human creativity as the basic capital of all enterprises. Affecting the social organism through the infusion of thought energies into this circulation system, must be the scientific goal of our future art historical work.
1 Joseph Beuys im Gespräch mit Knut Fischer und Walter Smerling, (= Kunst heute Nr.1), Köln:Kiepenheuer&Witsch 1989, p. 26
2 A more detailed discussion can be find in my book “System und Wirkung. Rauschenberg – Twombly- Baruchello. Fragen der Interpretation und Bedeutung zeitgenössischer Kunst. Ein systemtheoretischer Ansatz”. München: Fink 1989, S.39-52
3 And if that description is true, it is also true that the described objects in fact are systems. See also: Hilary Putnam, Realism and Reason,in: Meaning and the Moral Sciences,London 1978, p.138
4 Nelson Goodman: The Structure of Appearance,(1951),Boston 1977, p.99-106
5 Anatol Rapoport, Systems Analysis: General Systems Theory, in: Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, (ed.) David L. Sills, Bd. 15,1968, p.454
6 Roman Ingarden, Vom Erkennen des literarischen Kunstwerkes,Tübingen: Niemeyer 1968, p.49-55
7 Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, London:Thames and Hudson 1979,p. 190
8 JOSEPH BEUYS und DAS KAPITAL. Vier Vorträge zum Verständnis von Joseph Beuys und seiner Rauminstallation “Das Kapital Raum 1970-77” in den Hallen für Neue Kunst, Schaffhausen…, Christel Raussmüller-Sauer (ed.),Schaffhausen 1988,p. 81
9 See for instance Wolf Lauterbach/Viktor Sarris: Beiträge zur psychologischen Bezugssystemforschung. Huber: Bern 1980, p.15-55
10 Huber (1989),p.78f.
11 Leo Festinger, A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford: Stanford University Press 1957
12 Tisdall 268f.
13 “Aufruf zur Alternative”.First published in Frankfurter Rundschau, 12/23/1978. Reprinted in: Harlan/Rappmann/Schata, Soziale Plastik. Materialien zu Joseph Beuys,Achberg 1976,p. 131
14 “Eintritt in ein Lebenwesen”. Lecture – given during the Free International University-Project, at the documenta 6 at Kassel on 08/06/1977. Reprinted in: Harlan/Rappmann/Schata, p.135
15 Harlan/Rappmann/Schata, p.125
16 Tisdall 254
17 ibd.
18 Johannes Stüttgen/Joseph Beuys: Das Modell der FREE INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY (“Honeypump”), p.1
19 Interview with Richard Demarco; in: Fernando Groener und Rose-Maria Kandler (Hrsg),7000 Eichen-Joseph Beuys, Köln: König, 1987, p.16
20 Groener and Kandler, p.18/19

designed by Hans Dieter Huber




Jan Verwoert

The Boss: On the Unresolved Question of Authority in Joseph Beuys’ Oeuvre and Public Image

To be certain, art offers answers. Its strength, however, often lies in its unresolved problems. In his statements about his own work, Joseph Beuys absolutely inundated his listeners and readers with answers. As a consequence, the inner tensions and unanswered questions at the heart of his oeuvre are scarcely recognized. An unconditional acceptance of Beuys’ interpretive authority over his own practice has caused the discourse surrounding the oeuvre to fail to touch on a central unresolved question within it: the question of authority itself. In order to understand the significance of Beuys’ work in the context of the artistic and political debates of the 1960s and 1970s, however, it is crucial to grasp the inner conflicts and unresolved contradictions that run through it, as well as the way Beuys publicly performed the role of the artist with regard to this question of authority. On the one hand he incessantly attacked traditional notions of the authority of the work, the artist, and the art professor, with his radical, liberating, and humorous opening up of the concept of art with regard to what a work, an artist, or a teacher could still be and do beyond the functions established by tradition, office, and title. On the other hand, however, it seems that in the presentation of his own interpretative discourse, Beuys regularly fell back on the very tradition of staging artistic authority with which he was trying to break.

While he abolished the common understanding of the artist’s role and demonstrated in his own practice that an artist could be not only a sculptor or painter but also a performer, politician, philosopher, historian, ethnologist, musician, and so on, he nonetheless had recourse to a traditionally established role model when projecting an image of himself to the public through the role of a visionary, spiritual authority or healer in full agreement with the modern myth of the artist as a messianic figure. While at one moment he provoked free and open debate through perplexing, if not deliberately absurd, actions that left himself open to attack as an artist, at the next moment he would bring a discussion on the meaning of these provocations back to orderly paths by seeking the seamlessly organized worldview of anthroposophy as an ideological justification for his art practice. On the one hand, he gambled on everything that traditionally secured the value, claim to validity, and hence authority of art and artists, while on the other hand he assumed the traditional patriarchal position of the messianic proclaimer of ultimate truths.

That Beuys sought such a role is affirmed in the artist’s own words. The style and content of his programmatic statements—the ceaseless explanation of his art, the world, its problems, and their solutions—appear to be consistent with the image he projects of himself as a shamanistic healer: he speaks with the authority of a man who knows all the answers, and in doing so consolidates his auratic authority as an artist with his message of salvation. Orthodox interpretations of Beuys’ work accept this authority without reservations, and this makes a critical understanding of his work more difficult, if not impossible. In the following section, I will use the example of one such orthodox interpretation to delineate the artistic and political impasse that inevitably results from such an understanding of Beuys’ oeuvre. In contrast to this, I will subsequently try to develop an approach to understanding the problem of auratic authority in Beuys’ work and self-image through a close reading of selected works. Using several performances as examples, I intend to argue that the artistic quality and historical significance of Beuys’ work are not, as the common view would have it, based upon a realizing of his declared intentions, but rather upon his staging of an unresolved conflict between the urge to demolish authoritarian definitions of what artists are traditionally supposed to be and the need to recoup certain aspects of fascination with the auratic authority of the artistic act and the artist’s role.

1. The Questionable Authority of the Artist as Healer

One revealing example of an art historical interpretation of Beuys’ oeuvre that is wholly under the spell of the artist’s authority is found in The Cult of the Avant-garde Artist by the American critic Donald Kuspit.1 Kuspit reads Beuys’ entire practice through the image of the shamanistic healer that Beuys projected to the public, portraying him as the last representative of the venerable tradition of avant-garde artists who believed their task to be one of helping humanity to heal the alienation of modern life (in Kuspit’s view, Warhol’s consent to alienation sealed the decline of that tradition). As evidence for this interpretation, Kuspit quotes two programmatic statements by Beuys: “My intention: healthy chaos, healthy amorphousness in a known medium which consciously warmed a cold, torpid form from the past, a convention of society, and which makes possible future forms.”2 And in conclusion: “This is precisely what the shaman does in order to bring about change and development: his nature is therapeutic.”3 Now, the concept of healing raises a series of questions: whom does Beuys claim to heal? And of what? By what means, and by whose authority? Kuspit answers these questions succinctly: the Germans, of the trauma of national collapse, and through the healing energy of an original, pagan creativity that he taps, for them, by virtue of his authority as healer.

Kuspit then proceeds to interpret National Socialism as an expression of exaggerated faith in technocratic rationality (and hence as an exemplary symptom of modern alienation), arriving at the conclusion that recovery from the pathologies of this strain of rationalism can only be achieved by liberating a Dionysian creativity of the very sort Beuys claimed to have released. Kuspit writes: “The Germans had to be cured of their pathological belief in the authority of reason, which they readily put before life itself.”4 Beuys, the shamanistic healer, is thereafter portrayed as the antithesis of Hitler, the technocratic dictator: “Beuys was warm where Hitler was cold.”5 This interpretation is bizarre. Nevertheless, it unfolds the logical implications of the concept of healing that Beuys established. The figure of the healer is messianic in nature, and is therefore of the same ilk as the messianic leader of men. A direct comparison therefore seems obvious. On somewhat closer inspection, however, this juxtaposition necessarily leads to a result that directly contradicts Kuspit’s interpretation. The messianic goal of healing modern man of his alienation by tapping primordial forces does not distinguish Beuys from Hitler but links them. The assertion that the German people could be cured of the maladies caused by the decline and decadence of modern culture through the rediscovery of their mythical, pagan (allegedly “Aryan”) creative powers was, after all, the core of the ideology by which the National Socialists justified their claim to power. The motto “Am Deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen” (The German spirit shall heal the world) was taken to articulate the association of the idea of healing with just such an ideology.6

However, the fact that, in the course of history, the idea of healing came to be associated with this particular ideology does not discredit Beuys’ approach to it per se. The motif of mythical healing—the notion that a rediscovery of a mythical creativity would offer a cure to the alienations of modern society—has occupied a central position in modern social criticism since early Romanticism (at the latest).7 In this form and function the motif can be found in the work of many modern thinkers artists, including (as Rüdiger Sünner has shown) Friedrich Schlegel and Nietzsche, as well as Helena Blavatsky (one of the key figures of modern occultism, the founder of theosophy, and an inspiration for Rudolf Steiner).8 If Beuys was enthusiastic about Celtic myth, for example, and saw James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to be the expression of the buried mythical, spiritual creativity of—as he literally says—“Indo-Aryan” culture, it is certainly reasonable to assume that his use of the term stems from authors such as Blavatsky.9 Channeled through authors such as Adolf Lanz and Guido von List, Blavatsky’s teachings were, however, also a source of inspiration for Hitler and Himmler, who developed the racial doctrine implicit to some extent in theosophy into a justification for their “völkisch” (racist and nationalist) doctrine of national recuperation.10 One application of the concept of healing cannot be directly reduced to the other. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that, seen in the context of the history of ideas, the idea of modern culture’s return to the supposedly mythical powers of a premodern culture was the impulse behind both Romantic projects to reform life and National Socialist ideology. That this ideological aspect is never really questioned or even acknowledged by Beuys and his orthodox interpreters (such as Kuspit) exposes the limits of the interpretive discourse Beuys established: he never submitted his own key concepts to a critical, historical analysis.

While he frequently dipped into the history of ideas for his discourse, Beuys did not apparently feel compelled to consider the fact that ideas have specific histories—ones that, in certain instances, might make it necessary to reject them, and the traditions they have come to stand for. In his artistic practice, however, the critical reconsideration of traditional forms was at the heart of his approach. The postcard work Manifest (Manifesto, 1985) offers a poignant slogan for this. In handwriting it reads: “Manifesto the error already begins when someone is about to buy a stretcher and canvas. Joseph Beuys, November 1, 1985.” The absence of a similarly critical approach to tradition in Beuys’ use of theoretical concepts may not ultimately be that problematic in terms of the content of the particular ideas he cites. What does have a significant bearing on the politics of Beuys’ overall practice is his adoption of a speaking position that is inextricably bound to the articulation of certain ideas precisely because this position is traditionally justified by these ideas: the position of the messianic speaker whose mythical authority is justified and authenticated by the invocation of the idea of primordial healing powers. The use of the concept of healing is thus synonymous with the creation of an unquestioned—and, by virtue of its superior justification, also unquestionable—position of power. However, if Beuys’ liberating approach to conventions of sculpture and to the possibility of art in general is understood as evidence of a critical attitude, it seems only fair to assume that the creation of such an unquestionable power position can hardly have been his primary concern. In positioning himself as a speaker, then, it would even appear integral to Beuys’ practice to distance himself from the power mechanisms at play.

No doubt, the desire for healing was an important motif in Beuys’ oeuvre. The question is whether the specific way in which he dealt with this desire in his work does indeed have a considerable artistic and historical significance, not because Beuys succeeded in being or becoming the healer he purported to be, but precisely because he (whether consciously or not is hard to say) allowed the inherent contradictions of the concept of messianic healing to become manifest within his work. One example to start with is Beuys’ complex interpretation of the motif of the Messiah in Zeige Deine Wunde (Show Your Wounds, 1976). In the Christian tradition, the act of showing the wounds is the gesture by which Christ reveals himself to his disciples as the resurrected Messiah. Strictly speaking, therefore, there can only be one person who is entitled to show his wounds: the Savior himself. The title of the work, however, is an appeal addressed to another person. Beuys here effectively changes the monologue of messianic revelation into a dialogue and thus multiplies the available speaking positions: anyone who feels addressed by the appeal is here invited to adopt the messianic position. This moment of multiplication is in fact also the primary formal characteristic of the installation. All of its elements are doubled. The central elements in the work are two stretchers on wheels, underneath each of which a zinc box and an empty glass vessel are placed. Anyone who encounters death or healing here does not do so alone. Death or convalescence is presented as an existential experience in which our lives come to mirror each other. The claim to uniqueness associated with the role of the Messiah is thus eroded linguistically in the title and literally in the space of the installation.

2. The Problematic Reversal of the Roles of Perpetrator and Victim

Admittedly, there may not be many more examples of Beuys so openly breaking away from the exclusive singularity of the Messianic role. Still, the way in which he deals with the notion of the Messianic in his artworks never lacks complexity. In fact, he continued to dwell on one particularly irresolvable ambiguity at the heart of the Messianic: to the extent that the Messiah of the Christian tradition redeems humanity by taking its suffering upon himself, he becomes both victim and savior, both sufferer and healer. It was precisely this double role that Beuys took on in the performance I Like America and America Likes Me of 1974. The performance began (if the reports are to be believed) with Beuys being picked up at the airport in New York by an ambulance and transported to the René Block Gallery. There he spent three days with a coyote and, wrapped in a felt blanket and holding a walking stick upside down like a shepherd’s crook, played the shamanistic healer and messianic shepherd. As the patient or victim of an unspecified accident, he had arranged to have himself delivered to a space where he would then turn himself into the healer.

Again, the crucial question is: who is claiming to heal whom of what (and by virtue of what authority)? Since patient and healer are the same person, one obvious way to understand the performance is as an attempt at self-healing. In this sense, Kuspit’s interpretation of Beuys trying, as a German, to heal German culture by tapping mythical sources of energy (represented here by the coyote) would seem justified. However, the highly problematic question that this interpretation leaves unanswered is: by what right does this German claim to be not only healer, but also patient and sufferer (if not even victim)? Victim of whom? Why would a German—in the historical wake of Germany’s responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust and its instigation of two world wars—ever be entitled to play that role on an international stage? Beuys’ statements on the performance are no help: “I believe I made contact with the psychological trauma point of the United States’ energy constellation: the whole American trauma with the Indian, the Red Man.”11 (The symptoms of the American trauma, according to Beuys, manifest themselves in the alienated culture of capitalism, represented in the performance by issues of The Wall Street Journal spread out on the floor on which, as he recounts, the coyote urinated now and again.) Despite the change of geographical context the problem with this scenario of trauma and healing remains the same. By interpreting the trauma of the genocide committed against the Native American population as a trauma for the modern United States caused by this genocide, Beuys essentially declares perpetrators to be victims. In this picture, the supposedly painful alienation of the United States from its roots is given the same status as the suffering of the victims of genocide, which fall out of the picture entirely. Though surely unintentional (and nevertheless effective), murder is equated with a regrettable destruction of nature. The historical victims have no voice here. The coyote cannot complain.

Almost inescapably, one feels compelled to read this constellation as a parable of the German situation and the exchange of roles as the expression of Beuys’ notoriously unclear position in relation to the historic role and guilt of his own generation. Benjamin Buchloh articulated this criticism with all possible harshness. In his essay “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol,” Buchloh in principle accused Beuys of deliberately blurring the historical facts by mythologizing the concepts of suffering and healing, thus of avoiding the question of responsibility.12 The evidence that Buchloh offers of Beuys reversing the role of perpetrator and victim is a particular passage from Beuys’ often-cited wartime anecdote in which he describes his rescue by Tartars after his bomber had been shot down over the Crimea in winter 1943. Canonical interpretations of this story focus on the detail that, as Beuys recounts, the Tartars rubbed him with fat and wrapped him in felt to warm him, and therefore these materials (and warmth in general) came to stand for the mythical principle of healing found in his work. However, a crucial turn in this narrative that Buchloh concentrates on is the Tartars’ proposal that Beuys remain with them: “‘Du nix njemcky’ [You not German] they would say, ‘du Tartar’ [you Tartar] and persuade me to join their clan,” Beuys reported.13 In this story, Beuys not only changes his identity from being a bomber pilot to a victim of the war; part of his healing is the absolution from his origin offered by the members of a mythical people. Buchloh reads this scenario of absolution as the symptomatic expression of a certain emotional condition in postwar Germany, namely the need of the German people to acquit themselves of their recent crimes and of an unscrupulous readiness to do just that: “In the work and public myth of Beuys the new German spirit of the postwar period finds its new identity by pardoning and reconciling itself prematurely with its own reminiscences of a responsibility for one of the most cruel and devastating forms of collective political madness that history has known.”14

If we take the messianic role adopted by Beuys at face value, this criticism touches a sore spot. Surely, one could object that both Buchloh and Kuspit assume Beuys was acting as a representative for an entire nation, whereas for many years his actions de facto stood in crass contradiction to the dominant cultural climate in Germany, which was aggressively hostile towards him. This objection, however, would immediately have to be countered by observing that, when he adopted the messianic role, Beuys simply conferred on himself the mandate to express collective needs. This position was affirmed first (as Kuspit’s book demonstrates) by his international reception as an exemplary German artist (which also consolidated after some time in German academia). Against this backdrop, it would indeed seem justified to see Beuys’ oeuvre and the way he chose to play the role of an exemplary German artist in public as indicative of a struggle to come to terms with German identity. It remains nonetheless problematic that neither Buchloh nor Kuspit makes any distinction between his public image and his oeuvre, considering Beuys’ position instead as an integrated whole. They do not take into consideration, however, that more often than not in his work Beuys fails to fulfill the programmatic claims that he asserts in his commentaries, as his works always remain, in their crude material specificity and inner tensions, at least partially resistant to conclusive interpretations. This specific failure is so crucial because it makes clear (if one is prepared to see it) that Beuys did more in his art than simply illustrate, and thus consolidate, preexisting ideologies.

I Like America and America Likes Me stands as an example of such a failure. Upon closer inspection, one would have to admit (despite Beuys’ own statement that he successfully touched on a point of trauma) that his ritual of healing has carnivalesque, exaggerated features. The old European is delivered to a New York gallery incognito and proceeds to emphatically perform obscure ceremonial gestures, posing as a pagan sorcerer wrapped in felt as if wearing a complete carnival outfit. Meanwhile, the coyote, unmoved, just does as coyotes do—Beuys’ meaningful posing does not concern him; he inhabits a different world. This clearly delimits the allegorical meaning of the performance. Through everything he does, the coyote demonstrates his utter indifference to the artistic allegory being constructed around him and, in doing so, destabilizes it. The photographic documentation of the performance is somewhat misleading in that it makes the animal look as if it were an integral part of one single overarching allegory. If, however, the performance is understood as a performance—that is, as a process that unfolds in space and time—then this picture falls apart. It is only then that the particular fascination and comedic quality of the coyote’s presence during the performance begins to emerge. The comedy lies in the situation: two unequal characters, for whom communication constantly fails, somehow find a way to deal with each other and with the failure of their communication simply because they live together in close proximity. Anglo-American sitcoms about modern family life function in much the same way. This comedy of living with the failure of communication, however, also has its tragic aspects. It demonstrates the impossibility of a symmetrical exchange between two divided worlds of experience. Yet still, a trace of utopia resides in the pragmatism of the arrangement: what collective violence destroys, one person alone cannot heal. At best, one small thing or another may be resolved on the level of daily coexistence, but only if one side is prepared to face and live with unclarified conditions.

The fact that Beuys exposed himself to, or provoked, such unclarified situations could be understood in this sense to be precisely what makes up the quality of his art, irrespective of its program. The fact that the boundaries between the role of the perpetrator and the victim also remain unclarified is impossible to deny. Yet, if one is prepared to see this confusion not simply as a desperate attempt at self-vindication, it could in fact also be read as a sign of the times. Consider for example the complex implications of the iconic pose Beuys adopted at the end of the out-of-control action Kukei, akopee—Nein! (Kukei, akopee, no! recorded in an eponymously titled photograph by H. Riebesehl): during the Festival der Neuen Kunst in the auditorium of the Technische Hochschule Aachen on July 20, 1964, a group of students (whom Caroline Tisdall has described as right-wing) stormed the stage to put a violent end to the Fluxus performance Beuys was engaged in; during the ensuing scuffle Beuys received a bloody nose. His reaction to the violence was to strike a pose in which he provocatively embodied both victim and perpetrator. With a defiant stare and bloody nose, he holds up a small crucifix to the audience in his left hand while he extends his right arm in a Roman salute. It is not necessary, though possible, to see this gesture as a variant on the Nazi salute.

In one sense, Beuys’ pose has an accusatory character: he holds a mirror up to the students, interprets their violence as tendentially fascist, and presents himself as their victim. In another sense, however, the pose is also clearly triumphant. In combination with the Roman salute and the defiant gaze, the crucifix in his outstretched arm conveys the message that Christ shall be victorious. In the end, the martyr, here embodied by the bleeding artist, will prevail. Beuys thus intuitively drew on several registers of body language at the same time to produce an impromptu pose of auratic authority, presenting himself as accuser, victor, and martyr all at once. The impromptu character of the pose, in turn, shows how Beuys, through free improvisation, managed to orchestrate the chaos that he had himself provoked. The example of the events in Aachen thus demonstrates impressively the extent to which Beuys’ artistic practice is based on his intuitive ability to improvise freely in unclarified situations, to absorb the energies released in the situation, and manifest them in strong—if contradictory—gestures. Yet, the example also shows that the gestures he uses to manifest the absorbed tensions are taken from a repertoire of postures for the staging of auratic authority. One possible explanation of this may be that, when improvising, Beuys intuitively fell back on familiar gestures of authority that enabled him to control the situation for the moment. If, however, we take into account the observation that Beuys was not just displaying his own emotions but in fact reflecting the tensions inherent in a given situation, this suggests another conclusion: namely, that Beuys channeled the violent energies of collective conflict over the foundation of authority that was in the air at the moment.

The art of provocation lies in forcefully bringing about a debate over the legitimation of authority. Fluxus cultivated this art of provocation as a method. So did the incipient culture of student protest in its successful attempts to expose and dismantle the authoritarian structures on which the National Socialists based their power, and which had not really disappeared from daily life after the collapse of the regime. The conflicts at the Fluxus festival in Aachen thus marked a historical juncture in which particular artistic tendencies coincided with general political developments. The contestation of the legitimacy of traditional structures of authority and the question of the origin of fascist power were on people’s minds. In a commentary on the event in the Aachener Prisma newspaper that year titled “Eine gutgemeinte Panne” (A well-meant mishap), the author Dorothea Solle accordingly interpreted the events as a flaring up of fascist violence brought on not only by the rampaging students, but equally by the aggressive irrationality of Fluxus performers’ actions.15 Still, it would be too simplistic to interpret the outbreak of violence as a moment of cathartic release. This interpretation would suggest that something had been resolved in the situation when, ultimately, the reverse seems to have been the case. After the festival had ended, Beuys apparently discussed what had taken place with students until two in the morning.16 It seems unlikely that they arrived at a conclusion. Nevertheless, a collective experience had been articulated. On the one hand, Beuys’ actions therefore need to be seen in the context of the critique of dominant structures of authority that the Fluxus performers gathered at the festival put into practice by destroying the conventions of authoritative (in the sense of being awe-inspiring) musical stage performances. On the other hand, Beuys’ martial poses also reflected the desire of the rioting students to see authority restored. They got the Führer-savior they wanted, if only in the form of a reflexive, inherently contradictory theatrical pose.

If one takes the Fluxus festival in Aachen as exemplary, one could argue that the manner in which Beuys made his contribution to the historically powerful critique of traditional structures of authority was more intuitive and improvisational than most. The quality of this contribution could then be understood to lie precisely in his capacity to improvise in unclarified situations and, in this process, to evoke, absorb, and manifest the prevailing tensions. This surely is not an excuse for his mythmaking and the afore-cited confused statement concerning the trauma of the perpetrators (in the North-American context). Still, it might help to explain the role Beuys may have played for his generation by articulating in a similarly improvisational way its collective experience of not being able to determine the relationship between their own share in the blame and their trauma suffered during the war. Beuys was equally incapable of resolving this problem. Whether it has ever been resolved, or if it can be resolved at all, remains doubtful. One might actually go so far as to argue, with Buchloh, that not only was the mythologizing of war trauma an expression of the desire to grant oneself absolution, but that, mutatis mutandis, the German postwar intelligentsia’s emphatically conscientious manner of reckoning with the past may have equally been such a technique, as if serious reckoning would enable one to make a clean break with the past and switch from the side of the accused to that of the accusers. A real effort to grapple with the experience of the victims of the crimes this is not. In general, it worth exploring at what point exactly German artists and intellectuals began to go beyond self-criticism and self-mirroring and instead actively confronted the outside perception and critical assessment of German history and identity in other countries. Beuys’ later travels and discussion workshops in Europe and America may have offered a forum for precisely that. But whether he listened long enough to others in these discussions to absorb their experience or simply propagated his own truths is a different question altogether.

3. The Strategic Debate over Interpretive Authority on the Threshold of a New Understanding of Art

Seen in its historical context, Beuys’ position marked a crucial threshold precisely because of its inner contradictions: politically, Beuys found inspiration in the incipient culture of student protest to challenge the attitude of his own generation and to attack the structures of mythical authority that made Nazi Germany possible, though without being able to overcome them entirely. Artistically, he also stood at an epochal threshold that he was never really able to fully cross. Buchloh describes this set of problems very accurately as well. In “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol,” he locates Beuys’ work in the context of the decisive artistic developments of the 1960s—by incorporating everyday objects and industrial materials into his repertoire, Beuys, parallel to Minimal and Pop art, took a step toward the radical materialist aesthetic that would influence contemporary art from the 1960s onward. At the same time, however, as Buchloh convincingly demonstrates, Beuys did not draw the same consequences from this step that his contemporaries did. In finally realizing the implications of Marcel Duchamp’s use of the readymade, Buchloh argues, Minimal and Pop art contributed, in the spirit of a critically reductionist positivism of Anglo-American provenance, to the disenchantment of the work of art and dismantling of myths—myths that, in the tradition of Old Europe, had ensured art’s aura. Yet it was precisely this tradition that Beuys revived by tapping its mythologies in order to provide his art and persona with their magic. About to cross the threshold to the present, Beuys, it seems, turned his back to the future and stepped back into the lost past of Old Europe.

Buchloh thus takes the nature of Beuys’ self-interpretations as evidence of a reactionary position within the framework of the artistic developments of the 1960s: instead of developing a contemporary analytical understanding (based on Duchamp’s findings) of how artifacts obtain significance in art via the context of their presentation, intertextual cross-references, and the open play of their interpretation, Beuys, according to Buchloh, restored the traditional one-dimensional model of the authoritative attribution of meaning through the declaration of the artist’s intention: “[Beuys] dilutes and dissolves the conceptual precision of Duchamp’s readymade by reintegrating the object into the most traditional and naive context of representation of meaning, the idealist metaphor: this object stands for that idea, and that idea is represented in this object.”17

This criticism of Beuys’ interpretive discourse is no doubt completely justified. Again, however, the question remains: to what extent does the problematic character of Beuys’ self-interpretations truly affect his artistic practice? One could even go so far as to accuse Buchloh’s own critique of clinging, in a sense, to the very same one-dimensional model that he attributes to Beuys. After all, Buchloh himself also presumes an identity of intention and artwork when he dismisses the work in the name of Beuys’ stated intentions rather than subjecting the work to a more precise reading irrespective of what the artist may have said.

This is by no means an isolated problem. In relation to the artistic practices of the 1960s, the relationship between artists’ statements about their work and the actual work has generally not been investigated as critically as it probably should be. Beuys is far from being the only artist who intentionally sought to impose a certain meaning on his work. In fact, particularly in the context of early conceptual art, artists aggressively used interpretation as a strategy. The interpretative practice of Art & Language and the artist Joseph Kosuth, who was for a time associated with the group, is symptomatic in this regard. The performative contradiction between the content of their statements and the way they relate them to their work is even more flagrant than it is in Beuys’ own practice. Kosuth and Art & Language legitimized their work and imbued it with an awe-inspiring air of authority by citing not myths, but the entire tradition of analytical philosophy (of language), only to declare—in utter contradiction with the complex semantic models that this tradition offers—a one-to-one correspondence between this philosophical content and their art’s meaning.18 They identified critical theory with the literal meaning and the content of conceptual art with the same naïveté that Buchloh detects in Beuys’ discourse.

If anything, the crude Neo-Platonism that Kosuth propagates when he claims in his essay “intension(s)” that conceptual art can make an artist’s intentions immediately transparent can certainly be considered naive.19 At the same time, the insistence on the authority of the artist to determine the meaning of his or her work is, for Kosuth, part and parcel of a critical reflection on the power politics of interpreting art. He identifies the practice of artists making statements about their own work as a strategic practice geared towards disputing the interpretive authority of critics and historians and shifting the power balance in the artist’s favor. Kosuth writes: “art historians and critics play an important role in the struggle of the work’s ‘coming to meaning’ in the world. But that is the point: they represent the world. That is why a defining part of the creative process depends on the artists to assert their intentions in that struggle. One of the greatest lessons defending the primacy of the intention of the artist, and the increasing importance of writing by artists on their work, is provided by this period of the sixties.”20

Motivated by power politics, the main reason for artists to offer their own interpretations would thus be in the interest of eliminating the middleman. In this spirit, Kosuth quotes one of his own statements about the work of Art & Language in the journal Art-Language from 1970: “This art both annexes the function of the critic, and makes a middleman unnecessary.”21 It seems fair to assume that Beuys—perhaps less consciously, but all the more effectively for that reason—realized the historical opportunity which Kosuth articulates to use the propagation of his own interpretations as a means to reinforce his own position of authority vis-à-vis critics and historians. The increasing media interest in (his) art offered him (and not only him) an excellent platform for that.

Against this backdrop, viewing Beuys’ practice of interpreting his own work as a strategic gesture can perhaps enable us to more accurately describe its function in relation to his other artistic activities—namely, as a praxis in its own right. As such, it is not situated on some meta-level but on the very same level as the other manifestations of Beuys’ work—as a parallel practice. In this context, Beuys’ participation in the founding of various political initiatives and utopian institutions, such as the Free International University he cofounded with Heinrich Böll in 1971, for instance, could equally be seen as a gesture that matters in its own right—as an expansion of the concrete possibilities of artistic practice irrespective of any ideological program.22 Founding institutions thus becomes one artistic medium among others. Seen in this light, Beuys’ practice of speaking publicly should be treated not as a metadiscourse on his art but as an artistic medium sui generis. Beuys’ statements could therefore be regarded as having the status of material that he produced in parallel with other material. The chalkboards with scribbled lecture notes strewn on a stage constructed of wooden pallets in the installation Richtkräfte (Directional forces, 1974–77) offer a graphic example of this. Discourse becomes material, loads of material. And, because of the sheer number of chalkboards and the simple fact that some boards cover others in the pile, the sheer accumulation of material makes it partially illegible. The fascination with the material then could be seen to lie less in its ideological content than in the immanent tension between its legibility and its opacity as material.

Of course, this defense of the installation contradicts Beuys’ own interpretative discourse and declared intentions in its application of a concept of material derived from the school of Anglo-American criticism. Against the backdrop of Kosuth’s reflections, this interpretation could surely also be read as a critic’s strategic attempt to reclaim some ground in the battle for the authority to interpret a work. If interpretation is understood as an antagonistic practice, then indeed no speaker’s position within this field is neutral. It therefore seems necessary to explicate, if it is not already obvious, the position from which the author of this essay speaks: in contrast to the apodictic gesture of Beuys’ own statements (and the statements of his orthodox defenders and intimate enemies), the gesture of this essay is probably more that of unfolding a form of reflexivity from a position of historical and rhetorical distance. In terms of style, this reflexive speaking position may be typical of a (my) generation, whose experience of the patriarchal artistic gestures of Beuys’ generation is already mediated by the intervening generation’s struggle with the same gestures. In other words, a more distanced reflection seems possible today because the need and necessity to position oneself “with–alongside–against”23 Beuys is no longer as strongly felt as it may have been by the previous generation, which was immediately confronted with his persona. Buchloh belongs to the latter generation, as does my father, Walter Verwoert, who was one of Beuys’ first students. While Buchloh seems to have experienced  Beuys’ manner of embodying the role of the (German) artist in the international art world as unbearably reactionary, my father describes his experience with Beuys as a teacher at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the early 1960s as radically liberating in artistic, personal, and political terms. The reasoning in this essay is born out of a desire to reflect on these opposed positions rather than from a need to take one side or the other.

The freedom in approaching his work created by the distance of one generation is of a peculiar nature. You could liken it to the situation of the coyote in I Like America and America Likes Me: Beuys is present. That is undeniable. But because the horizon of a common language has disappeared, there is no prescribed protocol for engaging with that presence. In this situation, critique could perhaps be a medium for creatively developing a certain form of conviviality—that is, a way to live in the present with the spectral presence of a figure who contributed decisively to shaping this present but did so without ever fully entering it. This form of conviviality need neither be peaceful nor intimate. Photographs of the action show the coyote biting Beuys’ felt robe and tearing at it in one moment, only to accept his presence in the room and return to going about his own business in the next. Perhaps this could serve as a model for the further reception of Beuys’ work.

4. The Still Unresolved Question of Authority in Artistic Practice: The Boss

Independent of this experience of historical distance, however, certain unresolved questions in Beuys’ work have not lost their relevance, and neither have the artistic means through which Beuys channeled these questions and manifested their problematic implications. The questions concern the foundation for authority itself: have we ever fully understood what generated the fascination with the auratic authority of the messianic leader that made fascism possible in its various manifestations in Germany, Austria, Italy, and Spain? To what extent have we succeeded in distancing ourselves from a fascination that endures despite all we have learned since? This is a thorny issue not only in art but very much also in intellectual discourse. It could be argued that in this field (even, or perhaps especially, in the tradition of leftist political engagement), the ability to project a certain auratic authority is a basic prerequisite for making your voice heard in the public debate. To the extent that the claim not only to act and speak in one’s own name but to also hope to act and speak for others is a condition of artistic practice and intellectual discourse, this form of practice and discourse as such will necessarily generate an aura of exemplary action or speech. The question of why—by virtue of what authority—someone could legitimately hope to act or speak on behalf of others (on behalf of the general public or simply on behalf of an unknown number of people who perhaps have similar feelings) is therefore a question that persistently haunts artistic practice and intellectual discourse—especially since certain catastrophes of modernity called the legitimacy of auratic authority into question. On a constitutive level, the justification for one’s own practice and discourse as an artist and intellectual is challenged by this unresolved question.

With particularly pointed humor, Beuys acknowledged the implications of this question in the performance ÖÖ-Programm (1967). At an orientation event at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, he welcomed the new students by taking a stand at the microphone, an ax in his hand, uttering inarticulate sounds for minutes. On the following day the Düsseldorfer Express titled its report on the event “Professor bellt ins Mikrofon” (Professor Barks into the Microphone).24 Short and succinct, that describes the situation.25 By turning the official occasion of an address by the academy staff into an absurd event, Beuys deliberately subjected not only himself but also the office and authoritative speaking position of the professor to mockery. At the same time, however, he also exposed the foundation of this authority: as a professor it was within his power to do such things. By carrying an ax, he intensified this ambiguity even further. If one recognizes the ax as an attribute of power, it is impossible not to see the parallel to the axes wrapped in rods that the lictors (the bodyguards of Roman consuls) carried as a symbol of their authority. The name for these rods—fasces—is considered to be one possible origin of the term fascism. If we also take “barking into the microphone” to be an expression that describes the style of Hitler’s public addresses conspicuously well, Beuys’ action could indeed also be understood as a caricature of the dictator. Rather than deny the structural authority that accrued in his role as professor (for example, by appearing as an emphatically liberal pedagogue), Beuys exposes this structural authority in a deliberately exaggerated way and demonstrates its complicity with forms of mythical authority. Given the obvious absurdity of the presentation, it seems fair to assume that he did it with the idea of pushing his authority to its limits and thus instigate resistance—for example, by provoking laughter.

As its title makes unmistakably clear, the performance Der Chef (Fluxus Gesang) (The Chief [Fluxus song], 1964), was another occasion on which Beuys openly addressed the question of authority, here adding a particular twist. The length of the performance was specified to equal the duration of an ordinary workday, and over the course of eight hours from 4 p.m. to midnight he performed the job of embodying authority. He appeared, rolled up in a felt blanket, in one of the exhibition spaces of the Galerie René Block in Berlin. The space could be looked into, but not entered, from the adjoining room. Hidden inside the blanket, Beuys could not be seen, only heard. He had a microphone with him, and at irregular intervals would make inarticulate sounds that were amplified via a PA system. This noise performance was interrupted periodically by a composition by Henning Christiansen and Eric Andersen played from tape. Two dead hares lay at either end of the rolled up felt blanket. Other props from Beuys’ repertoire (copper rod, fat corner, fingernails, etc.) were placed all over the room to identify it as a space for ceremonial activities. In the announcement for the event, Beuys stated that Robert Morris would carry out the same performance simultaneously in New York. To my knowledge, it has never been confirmed that this actually happened. The announcement may well have been a joke made at Morris’ expense, since Morris’ own elegantly sober, analytically self-reflexive use of felt was certainly being undercut here by Beuys, who subjected the same material to a protracted, wearisome, and on the whole not very elegant process.

In accordance with Beuys’ own mythology, the performance could certainly be interpreted as an attempt to relive the experience of his healing on the Crimea. Yet this interpretation neither accounts for the title of the action, nor its time limit based on a workday, nor the central role that the PA system plays in the performance. If we take into consideration the historical resonance that the act of “barking into the microphone” had in the action ÖÖ-Programm, it is perhaps not too farfetched to see a parallel in Der Chef: the performance is centered around the experience of loudspeakers giving the guttural voice of an unseen speaker an uncanny physical presence in a room. This experience effectively resembles that of hearing propaganda speeches on the so-called Volksempfänger, the “people’s radio,” introduced into the German family home by the Nazis, the novelty of which very likely made for a formative media experience for an entire generation. If we assume that the distortion of the speeches by poor radio reception would have been a regular feature of that experience, then the indistinct muffled noises from the PA system (and its irregular interruption by music) would be, phenomenologically speaking, an echo of this experience. The “Chef” is in that sense also the “Führer.”

Der Chef, 1964. © 2008 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

In a grotesque and highly pointed manner, Beuys thus frames the experience of the auratic. Walter Benjamin characterized this experience as one of “proximity with simultaneous distance.” It is precisely this fascinating contradiction that Beuys foregrounds on several levels in his performance: his voice filled the room, while the source was nowhere to be found. The artist was the focus of attention, yet remained invisible, rolled up in a felt blanket throughout the duration of the event. Due to his previous appearances in the media, the Der Chef performance brought a number of visitors to the gallery, according to contemporaneous reports.26 For the duration of the exhibition, these visitors were, however, forced to stay in the neighboring room. They could see what was happening but remained barred from direct physical access to the event. The partial closing-off of the performance space from the space for the audience created distance, and at the same time increased the attraction of the artist’s presence. He was present acoustically and physically as part of a piece of sculpture, but he was also absent, invisible, untouchable, and this staging of simultaneous presence and absence made his stage presence particularly auratic.

The title further reinforced this ambiguity of proximity and distance. On the one hand, it designates the leader at the top of a hierarchy. On the other hand, however, in colloquial German the word Chef—like jefe in Spanish and boss in American English—is equally used to jovially address a coworker. This double entendre lent a humorous quality to the title. Still, it did not really deflate the authority associated with the term Chef but, when seen in conjunction with the performance, rather auraticized it: on the one hand, Beuys was the highlighted artistic personality, art professor, and incipient media star who could only be perceived from afar. On the other, he was also the “coworker” who “did his job” for eight hours and made it known through moaning and groaning noises how hard he was “slaving away.” That was bound to create sympathy and proximity. This simultaneity of distance and proximity gave the artist his auratic authority in his role as “Chef.” Political leaders traditionally create an aura—that is, the appearance of absolute credibility—in an analogous way by presenting themselves as idealized, powerful paternal figures and simultaneously as approachable “men of the people.”

The crucial thing, however, is that Beuys did not simply produce an aura of authority but that he also exhibited the material conditions of its production in all their crudity, and exposed the contradictions inherent in this process in all their obvious absurdity. In this way, Beuys simultaneously constructed and dismantled an aura of authority. The performance constituted an event. Its eventful qualities were, however, simultaneously also reduced to a minimum—not much happened. A man lay wrapped in a blanket between two dead hares and made strange noises for hours. The scaling down of the performance to an activity that could scarcely be perceived as an activity at all, the stretching and expanding of time, the death rattles from under the blanket, and the overall gravity of the mise-en-scène in general creates a peculiar regressive atmosphere. Very much in line with the analysis of auratic authority that Werner Herzog developed in his films, Beuys here too foregrounds the peculiar regressive pull (Freudians would call it the “death drive”) inherent in the peculiar gravitas of auratic authority—a pull that equally also creates its limitation, in that its own weightiness sooner or later weights auratic authority down and brings it to the point of collapse. And indeed, in Der Chef Beuys staged the mechanisms producing this auratic authority together with the event of its slow collapse.

Der Chef could thus be understood to expose and exorcize, in a pointed manner, the fascination with auratic authority that constituted a crucial historical condition for the possibility of fascism. Admittedly, Beuys did not perform this act of exposing and exorcizing from a distanced position. Rather, he lived through it physically and thus, in a symptomatic way, manifested its unresolved contradictions. Beyond the discussion of historical conditions, however, the fact that Beuys chose an immanent position from which to work through the problems of auratic authority brings us back to the question raised earlier, namely, whether certain structures and contradictions of the auratic are not structurally inherent to artistic practice. A structural feature of art practice, for instance, that Beuys deals with in Der Chef, is not only the adoption of the position of an auratic speaker but also the ascription of that position to the artist through the expectations of the audience: Beuys came to Berlin and people expected an event. By appearing in public, but making himself invisible, Beuys both satisfied and frustrated their expectations. The aura that Beuys generated around himself by virtue of this strategy became a means as well as a medium to both protect himself against and play with these expectations: to throw them into relief and change them.

The fact that this attempt to renegotiate the relationship between artist and audience is, moreover, formalized as an eight-hour workday, potentially turns the performance into a parable of the constitutive tensions between the private and public that define artistic or creative work in general. As is a form of work that traditionally takes shape under conditions marked by extremes of self-isolation (in the studio, at a desk, in nature) and the act of making oneself public (in exhibitions, actions, publications), certainly there are other approaches to art practice based on participation. But experience shows that they too require a certain moment of isolation and concentration that allows for collective action to be planned and forces to be gathered. A fascinating aspect of Der Chef is that Beuys does not in fact treat isolation and publicness as polar opposites, but as inseparable qualities of a single action. The self-isolation inside the felt roll takes place in public. Kept at bay spatially on the one hand, and addressed through the loudspeakers on the other hand, the public is simultaneously excluded and included. In this situation, the microphone and PA system become the medium that establishes the relation between isolation and a publicness. In this sense, Der Chef can be read as a parable of cultural work in a public medium. The authority of those who dare—or are so bold as—to speak publicly results from the fact that they isolate themselves from the gaze of the public, under the gaze of the public, in order to still address it in indirect speech, relayed through a medium. What is constituted in this ceremony is authority in the sense of authorship, in the sense of a public voice. In Der Chef, Beuys stages the creation of such a public voice as an event that is as dramatic as it is absurd. He thus asserts the emergence of such a voice as an event. At the same time, however, he also undermines this assertion through the lamentably powerless form by which this voice is produced: in emitting half-smothered inarticulate sounds that would have remained inaudible without electronic amplification. This performance offers no answers. But it articulates the unresolved crux of a question that deeply concerns both art and politics: by virtue of what authority is it possible to embody a voice in the public and for the public?


© 2008 e-flux and the author

1 Donald Kuspit, The Cult of the Avant-garde Artist (New York: Cambridge University Press,

2 Ibid., 93.

3 Ibid., 95.

4 Ibid., 89.

5 Ibid., 81.

6 The motto comes from a line in the poem “Deutschlands Beruf” (1861) by the Romantic poet Emanuel Geibel (1815-1884). Geibel invokes here the spirit of German rationalism as a mediating force he believes can create peace and political stability in Europe. In its later, more notorious application, however, the phrase came to be associated with German colonialism and with the Nazi ideology of racial superiority.

7 The philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy describes very pointedly this modern design for self-healing by tapping a supposedly sovereign creativity of myth formation: “Romanticism itself could be defined as the invention of the scene of the founding myth, as the simultaneous awareness of the loss of the power of this myth, and as the desire or the will to regain this living power of the origin and, at the same time, the origin of this power…. This formulation in fact defines, beyond romanticism and even beyond romanticism in its Nietzschean form, a whole modernity: the whole of that very broad modernity embracing, in a strange, grimacing alliance, both the poetico-ethnological nostalgia for an initial mything humanity and the wish to regenerate the old European humanity by resurrecting its most ancient myths, including the relentless staging of these myths: I am referring, of course, to Nazi myth.” Jean-Luc Nancy, “Myth Interrupted,” in The Inoperative Community, trans. Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 45–46. See 43–70.

8 Rüdiger Sünner, Schwarze Sonne: Entfesselung und Missbrauch der Mythen in Nationalsozialismus und rechter Esoterik (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder Spektrum, 1999), 34-35.

9 See Götz Adriani, Winfried Konnertz, and Karin Thomas, Joseph Beuys: Life and Work (New York: Barron’s, 1979), 29.

10 Sünner, Schwarze Sonne, 36n7.

11 Quoted in Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1979), 228.

12 Benjamin Buchloh, “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol,” originally published in Artforum 18, no. 5 (1980): 35–43; quoted here from Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy, ed.Gene Ray (New York: D.A.P., 2001), 199–211.

13 Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, 17n10.

14 Buchloh, “Beuys,” 203n11.

15 Aachener Prisma 13, no. 1 (November 1964): 16–17, quoted in Adriani, Konnertz, and Thomas, Joseph Beuys, 112n8.

16 Ibid., 111.

17 Buchloh, “Beuys,” 206n11.

18 A perfect example of this is to be found in Kosuth’s text “Art after Philosophy” (1969), in which Kosuth, in the best Hegelian manner, declared his art to be the historically necessary endpoint of the history of philosophy since Kant, and his works to be direct, transparent illustrations of these lines of thought; see Joseph Kosuth, Art after Philosophy and After; Collected Writings, 1966–1990, ed. Gabriele Guercio (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991).

19 Joseph Kosuth, “intention(s),” originally published in Art Bulletin 78, no. 3 (September 1996): 407–12; quoted here from Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 460–68.

20 Ibid., 462.

21 Ibid., 464.

22 These included the Deutsche Studentenpartei (German Students’ Party, 1967), the Organisation für Nichtwähler, freie Volksabstimmung (Organization for Nonvoters, Free Plebiscite, 1970), the Organisation für Direkte Demokratie durch Volksabstimmung (Organization for Direct Democracy by Plebiscite, 1971), the Free International University (1971) cofounded with Heinrich Böll, and his participation in the discussions of the founding of the German Green Party (1979).

23 “Mit-Neben-Gegen” (With-Alongside-Against) was the title of an exhibition of works by Beuys’ students at the Frankfurter Kunstverein in 1976.

24 Express (Düsseldorf) December 1, 1967; quoted from Barbara Lange, Joseph Beuys: Richtkräfte einer neuen Gesellschaft (Frankfurt am Main: Reimer, 1999), n. p., fig. 3.

25 After a lecture on the present topic, a Beuys disciple instructed me (with an authority that tolerated no dissent) that the action ÖÖ-Programm was not in fact about the question of authority but rather, as Beuys himself had said, a demonstration of (if I remember correctly) a Mongolian technique for articulation, and at the same time an illustration of the creative process of forming the quintessentially unformed by articulating the still unformed. The only reaction that occurred to me was a standard line by the Rhenish cabaret artist Jürgen Becker: “Well, you know more than I do there.”

26 See Wolf Vostel’s description of the action in Adriani, Konnertz, and Thomas, Joseph Beuys, 120n8. Among other things, Beuys’s provocative statement that the Berlin Wall would have to be raised five centimeters to improve its proportions had certainly made him a media figure by this time. When he left the room at the end of the performance, that statement was apparently the subject of the first question posed by someone in the audience.

Jan Verwoert is an art critic based in Berlin. He is a contributing editor at Frieze and writes regularly about contemporary art for magazines such as Afterall and Metropolis M. He teaches in the Fine Arts MA program at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam.

America’s Artistic Shaman: Bruce Nauman



Magazine – What’s News


Pioneering Artist Bruce Nauman Releases a New Monograph

Throughout his long career, the famously reclusive artist has rarely agreed to interviews, so this month’s publication of Phaidon’s book on the artist, ‘Bruce Nauman: The True Artist,’ is truly a red-letter occasion

SIGNS AND SIGNIFIERS | The first of Nauman's many neon signs, 'The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths,' 1967. ENLARGE
SIGNS AND SIGNIFIERS | The first of Nauman’s many neon signs, ‘The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths,’ 1967. The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign), 1967, Artist’s Proof, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bruce Nauman ©Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York/DACS, London

Pioneering Artist Bruce Nauman Releases a New Monograph
Throughout his long career, the famously reclusive artist has rarely agreed to interviews, so this month’s publication of Phaidon’s book on the artist, ‘Bruce Nauman: The True Artist,’ is truly a red-letter occasion

By Carol Kino
May 1, 2014 1:53 p.m. ET

FOR MANY YEARS, Bruce Nauman has occupied an unusual position in the art world. Known as a vastly influential pioneer of everything from performance to video to conceptualism to installation, with nearly half a century of international biennials and museum exhibitions behind him, Nauman is the rare artist who seems entirely uninterested in pandering to the demands of his own celebrity—and he’s been able to get away with it. In 1979, he moved to New Mexico, and he now spends most of his time on a 700-acre ranch south of Santa Fe, emerging from his cluttered studio only to train, breed and ride horses (and presumably to spend a little time with his wife of 25 years, the painter Susan Rothenberg). Communication with the outside world is conducted via his studio manager and gatekeeper of 29 years, Juliet Myers. And inquiries are often fruitless, as Nauman is known for almost always saying no to retrospectives, interviews or anything else that might “totalize,” as he’s said to put it, his work and career.

So this month’s publication of Phaidon’s monograph on the artist, Bruce Nauman: The True Artist, is a red-letter occasion, if only because it represents one of the rare moments when Nauman said yes. Written by Peter Plagens, an abstract painter who was the art critic for Newsweek from 1989 to 2003, the book has been in the works since 2008—or even longer, if you count the fact that Phaidon’s co-publisher, Amanda Renshaw, had been trying to get Nauman to agree to a project since she joined the company more than 20 years ago.

Early on, Renshaw says, “I made a list of the artists I thought any self-respecting publisher of art books should make a book on. Nauman was one of the artists on the top of my list.” Over the years, she adds, she must have suggested 20 different writers to him, always in vain. “‘I don’t want anyone to write a complete career retrospective on me,'” Renshaw recalls hearing from Nauman’s studio over and over. “‘That’s not what I want.'”

But when Plagens came on board, the obstacles evanesced. The two men had known each other in Los Angeles in the 1970s, when Plagens was trying to establish himself as a painter and critic, and Nauman was, as Plagens writes, the “neighborhood famous artist,” jetting off to shows and grappling with his first career survey, which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in late 1972, traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and then toured Europe and America until 1974. For most of that decade, Plagens and Nauman had studios on the same block in Pasadena and they played in a weekly Santa Monica artists’ basketball game. Plagens also performed in Nauman’s 1975 film Pursuit, which features more than 24 minutes of footage of men and women running on a treadmill against a black background, panting desperately into the void while staying in place.

But other than that relatively casual acquaintance, “I couldn’t say why Bruce said yes to me,” says Plagens over lunch in the East Village, as we retrace the footsteps of his last interview with Nauman in New York. Maybe it was because they used to shoot the breeze about the Lakers, he suggests, or because they’re both originally Midwesterners—Plagens born in Dayton, Ohio, and Nauman in Fort Wayne, Indiana. On another occasion, Plagens posits that it might just be because “we are grizzled old white guys of a certain age.” (

Either way, they make for a curious pairing. While Nauman looms as a cross between the Marlboro Man and an art-world Greta Garbo, Plagens, who contributes art criticism to The Wall Street Journal, is an unrepentant chatterbox who tends toward mighty digressions. But that’s also what makes the book such a delight. Full of riffs on subjects ranging from the use of neon in art to the history of the Venice Biennale, it’s as much a social history of the modern-day art world as it is a guide to Nauman’s life and career.

Plagens begins with Nauman’s graduate-school days at the University of California, Davis, where he starts out as a figurative painter but ends up making sculptures from studio detritus and using his own rangy body to create performances and films. He also conceives of his first sculptures of negative volumes, like A Cast of the Space Under My Chair (1965–68). Next come the early years in San Francisco, where working in a storefront studio, he makes his first neon sign, a blue-and-red spiral that reads “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths” (1967).

During this period, Nauman also makes a lot of punning color photographs that show him enacting verbal clichés, like Bound to Fail and Eating My Own Words. Plagens, encountering the images at the 1968 German art exhibition “Documenta,” writes in the book that he found them “superficial” and “smart-alecky.” In 1973, he gave Nauman’s LACMA retrospective a damning Artforum review, which he quotes from extensively.

Yet as Plagens grew to realize over the years—”I was wrong,” he writes—Nauman’s work seems discomfiting at first, precisely because it is so original. With time, it also grows increasingly hard to categorize. In New Mexico, as Nauman starts training horses, his pieces become more challenging, and oddly grotesque, as in the 1988 sculpture Hanging Carousel (George Skins a Fox), which puts taxidermy casts of animals circling on a merry-go-round. There’s also the cartoonish 1987 video installation Clown Torture, featuring clowns who perform gags ad infinitum, one screaming, “No, no, no, no, no!”

‘”I just found him kind of regular. He was never censorious. He never said, ‘I’d really wish you didn’t say this about me.’ “’
——Peter Plagens

A strong sense of Nauman himself emerges in the book. In Plagens’s description, he’s certainly taciturn but also loyal and straightforward—a man’s man who loves horses, picks up technical know-how quickly, maintains old friendships and enjoys good food. (“For all his everyday-ness, Nauman has a way of ferreting out good restaurants when he’s out of town on a project,” Plagens writes.)

Nauman also, surprisingly, comes across as quite funny, even something of a wry practical joker. Asked to contribute an earthwork to a 1969 show in Pasadena, he plans to hire four planes to skywrite “Leave the Land Alone”—a counterintuitively pollution-spewing project that wasn’t realized until 2009. And years after trying to skip large rocks across a river with the painter Frank Owen, who shot Pursuit, he gathers 40 pounds of perfectly shaped skipping stones from California and lugs them across the country to Owen’s New York loft as a gift.

Despite the wealth of anecdotes and quotes, however, it turns out that Plagens interviewed Nauman for the book only three times: once at the ranch, when they stayed up most of the night watching Elvis Costello on TV while Nauman drank neat whiskey; once in Venice, Italy, when Nauman represented the United States at the Biennale in 2009; and once in New York, over lunch at the same restaurant we are visiting today. How did Plagens get so much out of him? “Bruce makes it sort of easy,” he says. “I just found him kind of regular.” Plagens was also surprised to find that Nauman, whose work is often described as “controlling,” never once tried to control his depiction. “He was never censorious. He never said, ‘I’d really wish you didn’t say this about me.’ ”

People who are close to Nauman seem to agree with this portrayal. “Bruce controls his sphere, his output, his production, his art,” says Angela Westwater, his longtime New York dealer. “But if it’s someone else’s job or profession, he sees it differently.”

Maybe that’s why Nauman finally agreed to be “totalized” by Plagens. Maybe he realized someone would do it eventually, and he’d rather it be someone who was unlikely to indulge in hagiography.

But when I try to interview Nauman to find out if this is true, he won’t speak with me directly. Instead, he sends a message through his devoted studio manager, Myers, who calls as Nauman is returning to the studio. “Bruce said yes to this monograph,” Myers repeats carefully, as if she is reading from a script, “because Peter is a different kind of writer and he’s known him on and off for many years.” Then she delivers the kicker: “But what Bruce really loves about Peter is that Peter does all the talking.”




“One Hundred Live and Die,” 1984. Credit Fujitsuka Mitsumasa

As one of the contemporary art world’s pre-eminent jesters, Bruce Nauman is hardly a barrel of laughs; known as much for his deadpan wit as for his dire take on mortality, his art engages bleak themes (the failure of language; the body’s betrayals; the repetitive, claustrophobic nature of daily life) even as it sparks a knowing, gallows grimace. How else to react to, say, “Sex and Death/Double ‘69,’ ” one of his trademark neon sculptures, which arrays four figures of indeterminate gender in an arrangement (two hang down between two standing) felicitous for simultaneous oral and genital copulation by both pairs? The iconography may owe a debt to high school bathrooms, but the tension between the pulsing colors and the matter-of-fact postures of these doleful sybarites evokes the title’s universal and enduring linkage, as well as the more particular moment of its creation at the beginning of the AIDS crisis in 1985. The scary sense that the core of our human enterprise may be nothing more than a garish amusement park diversion feels inescapable — and as such we are invited to grin and bear it.

“Bruce Nauman: The True Artist” offers the fullest survey yet of this protean artist’s work. Still, even with its numerous reproductions of Nauman’s sculpture, photographs and drawings, the volume necessarily falls short of adequately representing his videos, performances and installations (included stills and photos must suffice), and that is no small issue for an artist whose efforts in those media are regarded by many critics as decisively influential. Indeed, it’s impossible to talk about the careers of any number of contemporary video artists without referring to Nauman. Peter Plagens’s accompanying text takes smart measure of that current relevance, while also providing a detailed account of Nauman’s aesthetic evolution in California during the 1960s. A longtime art critic for Newsweek who kept a studio in the same Los Angeles neighborhood as Nauman, Plagens bolsters his strong art-history chops with a memoirist’s site-specific insights. He recalls his early ambivalence — “Nauman’s art bothered me. It was both psychologically and culturally threatening, and the very fact that it bothered me bothered me” — and notes that his first reviews of the artist were negative. This first-person, journalistic tack is a welcome approach to an artist who often attracts jargon-fond academics.

That’s not to say Nauman doesn’t warrant high-energy contemplation; his vigorous connections to, say, Wittgenstein and Samuel Beckett animate his representations of language’s doubleness and the intrinsically comic nature of repetition. The philosopher’s influence marks a 1967 sculpture titled “From Hand to Mouth” that literalizes the locution by presenting a disembodied, snakelike hand, arm, shoulder, neck, chin and mouth. The macabre object undermines the commonplace quality of the expression by charging its conventional meaning with corporeal fact: To live hand-to-mouth is to be hungry, perhaps feeble. Plagens notes how “like Beckett, Nauman was compelled to exteriorize these troubling thoughts” and finds that the incessant permutations of the famous “sucking stone” passage from “Molloy” “in cadence and content parallel Nauman’s way of artistic thinking.”

The kinship is borne out as if scripted by the Irish author in “Clown Torture,” a 1987 video installation featuring four monitors and two video projections set in a darkened space on which audiences watch perpetual loops of a clown screaming “No,” opening a booby-trapped door, balancing a fishbowl on the end of a broom and retelling the same joke. Loud, abrasive and disturbing, the “torture” the clown endures isn’t funny. But it is. Or at least we are, as we stand there in the dark subjecting ourselves to what Plagens calls the “pointless seriousness — or serious pointlessness” that makes Nauman’s art a test of our own tolerance for his grim vision.


The True Artist

By Peter Plagens

Illustrated. 287 pp. Phaidon Press. $125.



Onward and Upward with the Arts June 1, 2009 Issue
Western Disturbances
Bruce Nauman’s singular influence.


Probing relentlessly into the darker aspects of American life, Nauman helped to break the grip of Minimal art. Photograph by Steve Pyke.

Bruce Nauman and Susan Rothenberg have lived for the past twenty years on seven hundred acres of open, windswept land near Galisteo, New Mexico, south of Santa Fe. Rothenberg, a painter whose imagery hovers between abstraction and figuration, is sixty-four, high-spirited, talkative, small, easy to like. Nauman, who is four years older, and well over six feet in his made-to-order cowboy boots, has the watchful reticence and the physical bearing of an old-time Western movie star. His primary medium is sculpture, but he has used such a wide range of materials and media—including film, video, drawings, prints, performance, sound, and neon light—that his work has no signature style. Art lovers looking for beauty or visual pleasure are advised to look elsewhere; they find much of Nauman’s work boring or irritating, and sometimes highly offensive. “PAY ATTENTION MOTHERFUCKERS,” he suggests, in a 1973 lithograph that spells out this message in large mirror-image capitals. To see it is to comply.

Nauman’s and Rothenberg’s studios are in separate buildings behind the functional one-story house they designed for themselves. A hand-lettered sign just inside the door to Rothenberg’s reads “HI HONEY YOU’RE HOME!” In Nauman’s, which is about sixty feet long by thirty feet wide, mounds of leftover detritus from completed art works take up most of the floor space, along with heavyduty tools, empty cartons, extension cords, and a small enclave harboring two battered armchairs and a table piled with assorted books: two Ross Thomas paperbacks, Gabriel García Márquez’s “Memories of My Melancholy Whores,” Ezra Pound’s “Cantos,” Xenophon’s “The Art of Horsemanship.”

The couple live alone in Galisteo. Nauman has no studio assistant. His studio manager and archivist, Juliet Myers, whose hot-pink-and-orange hair style is a Santa Fe landmark, drives out every Wednesday. “I have the job mainly because I can say ‘No, thank you’ in about a thousand different ways,” she jokes. “Bruce appreciates that I can keep the world at bay.” The Naumans go into Santa Fe now and then, but they steer clear of the thriving art colony there. Non-art activities occupy a lot of their time. They both like to cook. Rothenberg feeds the chickens (they have six), and takes their three mixed-breed dogs on long hikes. She combs the dry hills behind the house for potsherds, arrowheads, and other artifacts of the ruined Galisteo pueblo, where a Tewa-speaking people flourished from the late twelve-hundreds to about 1690, on what is now the Naumans’ land. Her finds fill many drawers and shelves in the house, and she has assembled a dozen or more complete pots. Nauman gets up at seven each morning to feed his fourteen horses, which he breeds, raises, trains, and sells. They are quarter horses, “working horses,” he explains. “Some turn out to be pleasure horses, but they’re bred to work cattle.” His partner, Bill Riggins, runs a horse-and-cattle ranch that they own jointly in Santa Rosa, sixty miles to the southwest. It provides income, as well as steaks.

When I visited Nauman’s studio in March, two rows of square white ultra-thin loudspeakers, clipped to floor-to-ceiling cables, ran the length of the room. This was his “Days/Giorni” project, a new sound work that will début on June 7th at the Venice Biennale. He fiddled with an audio keyboard on a table, and played a bit of the Italian version. Four male and three female voices intoned the days of the week—domenica, lunedì, martedì—skipping or adding days in varying sequences. (An English-language version will be installed at another location in Venice.) Walking slowly between two rows of speakers, arranged so that each voice comes from a pair on opposite sides of the room, was like moving through discrete ribbons of sound. The effect was hypnotic. What might have been merely monotonous seemed rich and full of nuance—the human voice making unintentional music as it evokes the passage of time. More than thirty other works by Nauman, from all phases of his career, will be on view in Venice. “Vices and Virtues” (1983-88), seven of each, intertwined in flashing neon letters seven feet high, will encircle the cornice of the United States pavilion on the Biennale grounds. Inside, and in two venerable buildings on the other side of the Grand Canal, Nauman’s videos and animated neon sculptures will share space with flayed animal sculptures, hanging male and female heads, and other works, including, in a window, his mockingly cryptic 1967 sign: “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths.” The survey, which was organized by Carlos Basualdo and Michael Taylor, of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a long-delayed public affirmation of Nauman’s status as the most influential living artist.

To many people, Nauman’s influence is hard to fathom. Ever since his first show, in 1966, at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles, his prickly, uningratiating work has disturbed viewers, infuriated more than a few critics, and fascinated artists. His early films, which were influenced by the single-image films of Andy Warhol, carried an emotional charge that seemed mysteriously unearned, and so did his blobby, awkward-looking sculptures in latex and fibreglass. As he went on in later years to explore new materials and stranger means, the impact deepened. “Matthew Barney, Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer, Mike Kelley, Robert Gober, Tony Oursler: none of these catch-names in contemporary art could have arrived without Nauman,” Andrew Solomon wrote in the Times Magazine, in 1995. He could also have named Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread, and most of the other Young British Artists. By bringing social and political content back into art (without cynicism), and by probing relentlessly into the darker aspects of American life, Nauman helped to break the grip of Minimal art. He forces you to experience his art viscerally, not just look at it. “Is there anybody like him?” Maurizio Cattelan, a conceptual master of startling images (such as his sculptural installation of the Pope struck down by a meteorite), asked me recently. When I said no, he muttered, “Damn.”

After an hour in the studio, we walked over to the main house, through a raffish garden whose main feature is a Nauman fountain made out of three bronze foxes stacked in a pyramid. It was late afternoon. Nauman poured himself a small glass of bourbon, neat, and sat down at a zinc-topped dining table. He wore work clothes—jeans, boots, and a frayed gray shirt. His large head reminded me of a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington, with its prominent nose and high, tapering forehead. Talking about his work or his life doesn’t come easily to him, but the bourbon helps. Nauman speaks slowly, with frequent pauses to work out what he’s going to say. We talked about the two years he’d spent in art school at the University of California’s newly established graduate program at its Davis branch, near Sacramento. He had arrived in 1964, when the barriers between painting, sculpture, photography, film, dance, theatre, and music were eroding so fast that more and more artists felt free to use any and all of them, in any combination, for whatever purposes they had in mind. Coming from his undergraduate art studies at the University of Wisconsin, where the faculty had no patience with Abstract Expressionism or any later trends, was “like stepping out of the Middle Ages,” Nauman said.

In Wisconsin he concentrated on painting, working his way (against faculty disapproval) to abstract landscapes in the style of Willem de Kooning. He quit painting soon after he got to Davis, and never went back to it. “I had to find some other way,” he said. He tried performing—using his body as an impersonal object—but he wasn’t comfortable with that, so he started filming his performances instead. “I’d buy out-of-date film stock, which was cheap. I’ve always liked to use what’s cheap and possible. I even tried writing poetry. Much later, some of that gets into the work.” The abstract sculptures he was doing at Davis had a raw, unfinished look—like fragments of something else. Robert Morris, Richard Serra, Eva Hesse, and a few other New York artists were using non-art materials and processes similar to Nauman’s; he saw reproductions of their sculptures in art magazines, along with works he admired by Jasper Johns and Richard Tuttle. None of his classmates were moving in this direction, though, and some of them thought Nauman was aesthetically challenged. Others were in awe of him. His most important teachers, the painters William Wiley and Wayne Thiebaud and the ceramic artist Robert Arneson, encouraged his experiments. “I was impressed with his openness,” Wiley told me. “We shared an interest in what art could do, where it could go.”

Unlike most art students, Nauman was married. His wife, Judy Govan, was a girl he had known slightly in the sixth grade in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. They went to the same high school—Judy was pretty and popular, Bruce was shy and serious—and started dating at the University of Wisconsin. Immediately after graduation they got married, mainly because, as Nauman explained, their parents would have been “very, very upset if we had gone to California together” without doing so.

Nauman’s parents, Calvin and Genevieve, were solid, middle-class Midwesterners—Bruce was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana—with strong moral and ethical codes of behavior, which they imparted to Bruce and his two younger brothers, Craig and Larry. Their dependable but somewhat remote father was an engineer and a salesman for General Electric. His company kept moving him to different cities when the boys were growing up, so they went to several different schools. Bruce did well in all of them. Something of a loner, he was mainly interested in math and music—he took piano lessons as a child, switched to classical guitar, then to string bass. At the University of Wisconsin, he planned to major in physics, but, realizing that he lacked the passion for math that the best students seemed to have, he decided (“and it’s something I never quite understood—what made me think I could do that?”) that he was going to be an artist.

Reports of the strange-looking sculptures and films he was making at Davis got around. Nicholas Wilder, a young Los Angeles art dealer with an eye for new talent, saw one of Nauman’s fibreglass pieces and couldn’t get it out of his head. Wilder visited Nauman’s studio at Davis soon afterward, and eventually offered him a one-man show in the spring of 1966—something that now happens to young artists regularly but was almost unheard of then. Nothing sold, but a couple of the pieces appeared later that year in a group show called “Eccentric Abstraction,” at the Fischbach Gallery in New York. When he cleared out his Davis studio that spring, some fellow-students went through the Dumpster he’d used and pulled out the relatively intact pieces, which they held on to until he became famous.

Bruce and Judy moved to San Francisco, where they rented a former grocery store in the Mission District. Their living quarters were in back; the storefront became Nauman’s studio. He taught two days a week at the Art Institute of San Francisco, which provided health insurance. That helped, because their first child, Erik, had been born in August. His studio process, then and now, was to read and think until an idea took hold of him. He reread Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations” and John Cage’s writings on chance and contingency, both of which he had discovered in college, and he devoured Samuel Beckett’s novels and plays. “I was trying to understand what art is and what artists do,” he told me, “and a lot of that, for me, seemed to involve watching and waiting to see what would happen. When I’m desperate enough just to do anything, even if it seems completely stupid, it’s such a relief.” In those days, he hoped that sooner or later he’d figure out how to make art without such a struggle, but it never happened. “My dad once said, ‘You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day,’ but I think you do,” he told me. “Maybe not every day, but pretty often.”

The process, in any event, produced a torrent of work, some of it pretty silly. Nauman constructed and photographed a series of three-dimensional puns or wordplays: “Drill Team” consisted of five drill bits in graduated sizes, embedded in a block of wood; “Eating My Words” was Nauman poised over a plate containing pieces of bread shaped into letters of the alphabet. Others were more enigmatic, such as his wax cast of Judy’s hand, arm, shoulder, neck, jaw, and mouth, which he called “From Hand to Mouth.” He made a convex lead plaque with the inscription “A Rose Has No Teeth” (the phrase comes from Wittgenstein); it was to be affixed to the trunk of a tree, so that “after a few years the tree would grow over it, and it would be gone.” Judy, who knew better than to ask him about his work, assumed that a lot of it was Bruce being playful. “There was a lighthearted side to his personality,” she said recently. “I thought he didn’t take himself all that seriously, but I found out later that he did—very seriously.”

Nauman devised two window signs with messages that stretched irony to a higher level. One read “The True Artist Is an Amazing Luminous Fountain”; the other was “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths.” Both were inspired by a neon sign for beer that had been left in the big plate-glass window of his studio when the New California Grocery moved out. The first, inscribed in large capitals on a sheet of transparent Mylar, echoed Nauman’s slightly earlier “Self-Portrait as a Fountain,” a photograph of himself, bare-chested, directing an arched spout of water through pursed lips. The photograph was a clear enough spoof of classical themes and garden ornaments. But “amazing” and “luminous”? He was kidding—wasn’t he? A similar uncertainty surrounds “Mystic Truths,” which Nauman did soon after visiting a Man Ray show at the Pasadena Museum. It is a five-foot-high “wall or window” piece that he designed and had executed in pink and blue neon tubing, in the spiral form of the beer sign in his window. Nauman said he was interested then in making art that didn’t look like art, something that looked, in fact, like a commercial display. As he told Brenda Richardson, the curator at the Baltimore Museum, “In that case, you wouldn’t really notice it until you paid attention. Then, when you read it, you would have to think about it.” The piece, he told me, “was like a little test, to see if I believed it or not.” And did he believe it? I asked. “Probably not,” he said, smiling. “But then why not?” He got up and poured another two fingers of bourbon.

Leo Castelli, the New York dealer who represented Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and several stars of the Pop generation, heard about Nauman from Richard Bellamy and other art-world insiders. In January, 1968, he gave him a solo show. There were almost no reviews—Robert Pincus-Witten, in Artforum, described the work as “adolescent and contemptible”—and few sales at the time (though everything sold eventually), but none of that mattered. Joining Castelli’s star-studded roster put Nauman, at the age of twenty-six, into the front ranks of contemporary art.

Nauman and his wife and son were spending that winter on the East Coast. The painter Paul Waldman, whom Nauman had met in San Francisco, had offered to let them use a house in Southampton that he owned jointly with Roy Lichtenstein, with strict instructions not to make any marks on the wall of the studio they had built in the back. “That’s when I got a video camera,” Nauman said. “Leo bought one of the first handheld video cameras for the gallery, and let me use it, and then Richard Serra had it.” He used the camera to record himself performing banal and repetitive activities in the studio, such as walking a square pattern “in an exaggerated manner.” Conceptual artists who made “installation” works on site, or gave instructions for others to make them, were opening an era of “post-studio art,” but for Nauman the studio was the place where he got his ideas and carried them out. One of his first audio works, done in 1968, consists of a small empty room with concealed speakers, through which his voice can be heard repeating, in tones that range from a plea to a snarl, “Get out of my mind, get out of this room.”

A crucial shift was taking place in Nauman’s work, from a focus on himself and his own body to a more direct engagement with the viewer. In a 1969 group exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York, soon after his return from his first trip to Europe, he showed “Performance Corridor,” a narrow wood-and-wallboard construction that played perceptual tricks on people who ventured into it. He had made the corridor for a video piece in the Southampton studio, which showed him squeezing into it, and then realized that others could have the experience for themselves—but on his terms, not theirs. “I wanted them to do it my way,” he explained. Nauman admired the revolutionary dance theatre of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, who used chance operations in composing sounds and movement, but he wasn’t ready to do that in his own work. When asked by Johns to design a set for Cunningham’s “Tread,” though, he came up with an eminently Cagean solution: a row of industrial-size electric fans at stage front, blowing out toward the audience.

The New York sojourn had been highly rewarding, but Nauman had no inclination to stay there, or to become enmeshed in the intensely competitive New York art world. “I really needed to get away from that,” he said. The city had whetted his ambition, however, and he didn’t want to go back to San Francisco. “The San Francisco artists tended to be anti-intellectual and uptight,” he said. “A lot of energy went into hating New York and Los Angeles.”

The Naumans went to Los Angeles, where they settled in Pasadena, in a large, rambling, shingle-style house that belonged to Walter Hopps, a curator who had a habit of getting fired from one museum after another. Hopps didn’t live in the house, and he liked to let artists stay there. (The Naumans paid seventy-five dollars a month.) An artist named Richard Jackson and his girlfriend, Christine Langras, were living in another part of it when the Naumans arrived, and the four of them became friends. Although Nauman kept his distance from the L.A. art scene, he took on some protective coloration during the nine years he lived there. He wore cowboy shirts and Stetsons from Nudie’s Rodeo Tailor. Ileana Sonnabend, his Paris dealer and Castelli’s ex-wife, owed him a substantial sum for European sales, so he got her to buy him a classic Ferrari. His work was selling for up to ten thousand dollars, and he supplemented his income with teaching jobs. “I paid attention to how the art market worked,” he said. “I wasn’t blindly bumping along. If you were a New York artist, you got more attention. Being in L.A., I needed to be a little tougher, a little meaner.” During this period, Judy Nauman began to question her role in the marriage. With feminism gaining ground, she was less content to settle for being a housewife and mother, or to accept the emotional distance that her husband seemed to require. “My feelings are in my work,” he told her. The birth of their second child, Zoë, in 1970, brought additional strains. Bruce was a supportive husband and an attentive father, she said, but “he was an artist first.”

Nauman continued to produce a lot of new work—more corridor pieces, videos, flashing neon signs that conflated punning wordplays: “Raw War,” “Eat/Death,” “Run from Fear, Fun from Rear.” His work found fewer buyers in the U.S. than in Europe, where Nauman’s anti-formal objects had precedents in the work of Joseph Beuys and the Italian Arte Povera movement; at home, their rude intensity made people uncomfortable. Artists, though, took note of everything he did, and so did several museum curators.

In 1972, at the age of thirty-one, he had a major retrospective. It opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, travelled to the Whitney, and went on to tour four European museums. The show was almost certainly premature. Hilton Kramer dismissed it in the Times as “pretty cold stuff, and pretty boring” in its slavish adherence to “Duchampian territory.” In fact, Nauman had never thought much about Duchamp. While he agrees that Duchamp’s influence was impossible to ignore, he says it got to him secondhand, filtered through the Duchamp-influenced work of Man Ray, John Cage, and Jasper Johns.

The 1972 retrospective lasted into 1974 and stopped Nauman in his tracks—a fairly common experience for artists, who often find it hard to move forward after such an effort of looking back. He couldn’t work for several months. “It had never happened to me before,” he said, “so I was trying to figure out if I had to find a different career. I was having such terrible stomach pains that I went to the emergency room. The doctor said, ‘Well, try Tums.’ ” Nauman, whose reticence masks acute sensitivity, was more vulnerable than people realized. The first important pieces he made after the dry period were “Double Steel Cage Piece,” a steel-mesh room set inside a slightly larger steel-mesh enclosure—viewers could enter the outer cage but not the inner one—and “Consummate Mask of Rock,” a sculptural installation of sixteen limestone cubes in two sizes, plus a typewritten text, taped to the wall, that was based on the child’s game Rock, Paper, Scissors. Really a long poem, the text includes these lines: “This is my mask of fidelity to truth and life. / This is to cover the mask of pain and desire. / This is to mask the cover of need for human companionship,” and then, farther along, “PEOPLE DIE OF EXPOSURE.”

The Naumans’ marriage came apart in the mid-seventies. “I needed something that he just couldn’t provide,” Judy said recently. “I left the marriage emotionally, and then he left. It took him a long time, but when he decided, the door was shut.” She eventually remarried and had another child. By then, Bruce was living with Harriet Lindenberg, Zoë’s kindergarten teacher at a Quaker school south of Pasadena. “I asked him to dinner,” Lindenberg remembers. “It would never have happened if I hadn’t. He was painfully shy.”

Lindenberg was a vivid, independent, sometimes irresistible force. Born in San Antonio, she had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Latin America, and was passionate about social and political issues. Nauman, who told me he had been “barely aware of the Vietnam War, because I was too focussed on wanting to be an artist,” was impressed. Lindenberg had no idea what Nauman did at the time she asked him to dinner, and no interest in getting married. They lived together for more than ten years. It was Harriet who persuaded him to leave California and move to New Mexico, in 1979. Her brother lived in Santa Fe, and she knew about Pecos, a village about thirty miles to the east, from an old friend in the Peace Corps. “Bruce was very resistant at first,” she recalls. “He said he was an urban artist, that he’d shrivel up and die in the country, but then he adjusted quicker than I did.” They bought a “funky little cabin that Bruce added on to himself,” Lindenberg said, and got someone to build a studio for Nauman just up the road. She took a teaching job in Santa Fe. Zoë came to live with them soon after, when she was ten. Her mother’s second marriage had failed, and she was having a difficult time raising three children alone. Two years later, Erik moved there, too. Harriet became a highly involved stepmother. “I was a little afraid of her at first,” Erik remembers. “She was quite emotional, the opposite of Dad. But it was good to have someone who tried to get us to talk about things, which my dad certainly didn’t.”

Nauman’s reputation had been in decline ever since the retrospective. Producing relatively few works and being so far removed from the New York art world had a lot to do with it, and his distaste for self-promotion didn’t help. For several years, he subsisted mainly on his two-hundred-dollar-a-month stipend from Castelli (paid against future sales). At one point, he felt so discouraged that he thought seriously about turning his avocation—forging handmade knives—into a real business. (“I never sold enough to pay for the material.”) Nauman, whose art does without fine craftsmanship, has a very high regard for it in his personal effects—knives, hats, boots, saddles, cars.

In the early eighties, he began a series of large sculptures with political overtones. “South America Triangle” (1981), his first overtly political work, had a cast-iron chair hanging upside down inside a suspended steel triangle. This grim image referred to methods of political torture he had read about in the work of V. S. Naipaul, and also in a book by the Argentine journalist Jacobo Timerman, which Harriet had told him about. Increasingly, his frustration and anger over what was happening in South Africa and Latin America, and over the way people treated one another in general, became an inspiration for new work.

The anger came out more directly in the neon-tube sculptures he did in those years. “American Violence” (1981-82), shaped like a swastika, has short, rude phrases, like “STICK IT IN YOUR EAR,” that flash on and off in vivid colors. “One Hundred Live and Die” is a ten-foot-tall tower of alternating multicolored three-word commands, such as “LOVE AND LIVE,” “HATE AND DIE,” “FUCK AND DIE.” These vivid, startlingly gorgeous constructions progressed to animated neon displays, some quite large, whose moving images featured group sex, masturbation, aggressive insults, and death by hanging. He also produced several new videos, his first since 1973. Made with the help of a video editor in New York named Dennis Diamond, these were longer and more complex than his earlier ones, and their content was considerably more disturbing: a domestic spat that escalated into a double homicide (“Violent Incident”) and, in his “Clown Torture” series, the agonies and humiliations of circus clowns. For some Nauman admirers, myself among them, to watch a fully costumed clown saying “No, no, no” in every conceivable inflection and intonation, and ending up writhing on the floor, screaming the word in terror, is more punishment than we probably need. When they were shown at the 1989 Whitney Biennial, a shocked visitor stood outside the room for quite a while, warning people not to go in.

The scatological nastiness in some of Nauman’s work in the eighties put a lot of viewers off, but the new work, which coincided with a booming art market, revived his reputation. Museums here and abroad showed the videos and neons, reviewers praised them, and American as well as European collectors bought them. None of this disturbed the even tenor of Nauman’s personal life, where emotions of any sort rarely surfaced. Harriet Lindenberg saw him get really angry once, soon after they moved to Pecos; a telephone argument with the man who was building his studio made him so furious that he drove his right fist through a wall, breaking a finger. Nothing like that ever happened again. His feelings went into his work, but soon after the wall-punching incident he got interested in horses, and his life changed in deep and subtle ways.

Before dinner at the Naumans’ house one evening, we watched a videotape of Ray Hunt working with horses. Hunt was a professional trainer who travelled around the West, giving clinics. By the mid-nineteen-eighties, Nauman had acquired two saddle horses of his own. “I’d heard about Ray Hunt,” he said. “I took my horses up to Farmington, Colorado, where he was doing a clinic. Watching Ray was kind of like a Zen experience. Western horsemanship can be pretty rough, but his idea is that if the horse isn’t afraid there’s no problem. To get along with your horse, you have to give up trying to be in charge. You have to get to be where the horse is.” People have known this for millennia; Xenophon talks about it in “The Art of Horsemanship.” Watching the tape of Hunt, on foot, working with a horse that had never been ridden, using just a loose rope to persuade him, very gently, to turn in one direction or another, was mesmerizing—a lesson in converting fear into trust. “Ray didn’t give you an inch,” Nauman said. “You had to pay attention every minute. His teaching really had to do with how you lead your life.”

Nauman now spends nearly as much time working with his horses as he does in his studio, and in his mind the two activities are related. When he was making the “Clown Torture” videos, in 1987, he would hand a simple scenario to the performer and let him (or her) improvise. This was a long way from the tight control he’d maintained over his corridor pieces. “I don’t know if there’s a connection, but I started to give up control when I was learning about horses,” he said. “I think the work got richer.”

He went to several more clinics with Hunt over the years, and the two men, in their nonverbal way, became friends. A week after I’d been to Galisteo, Nauman e-mailed me, saying, “Ray Hunt died yesterday.” In another e-mail, an hour later, remembering his first visit to Hunt’s clinic, he wrote, “Going home to Pecos I was a few miles out of Farmington and had to stop—was teared up and had to get out and touch my horses—tell them I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”

Susan Rothenberg, who was born in Buffalo, moved to New York City in 1969, two years after she graduated from the Fine Arts School at Cornell. Gregarious and a bit wild, she hung out at Max’s Kansas City, met dozens of artists, musicians, and dancers, explored other media, took dance classes, married the sculptor George Trakas, and had a child with him in 1972. Two years later, doodling on a small canvas, she drew the outline of a horse divided down the middle by a vertical line. The image, which came out of nowhere, led to the paintings that made her famous: spectral horses embedded in abstract, densely worked backgrounds, mysterious images that carried a strong emotional charge. They were key works in what would come to be known, in a 1978 group show at the Whitney, as “New Image Painting.”

Like most of her artist friends, Rothenberg had followed Nauman’s work for years. They’d met a few times, at art events, and they met again at a New York dinner party for Nauman in October, 1988. Rothenberg was no longer married and had just ended a relationship with a Hungarian banker. Harriet Lindenberg had recently broken up with Nauman. The hostess, Angela Westwater, whose New York gallery, Sperone Westwater, had started to represent both Nauman and Rothenberg, seated them together. A day or so later, Nauman called Rothenberg and invited her to lunch. He went to a party at her apartment the next week, and stayed on afterward—stayed for several days. He had to go back to Pecos, but returned to New York in a hurry, and three months after that they were married.

Nauman offered to move to New York, but “I didn’t want him to give up New Mexico and the horses, and New York wasn’t really calling to me,” Rothenberg said. A lot of her artist friends had moved away, and, besides, she was deeply in love. (“It was a shock, at forty-four, to feel that kind of emotional intensity, and know it was mutual.”) They commuted for the next year and a half, until Rothenberg’s daughter, Maggie, finished high school, and then Rothenberg packed up and moved to their unfinished house near Galisteo. The marriage was something the art world rarely sees: two major talents working at a very high level, without competition or interference.

Her painting changed in the high-desert country. “Colors,” she said. “Animals. Brighter palette. Different points of view, looking down at things and up at things.” She painted a strange portrait of Bruce, called “Blue U-Turn,” a deep-blue, male-ish ellipse. As a wedding present, she had given him the first horse painting she ever did, in 1974; it hangs in their living room. Nauman gave her a horse, a Spanish barb called Cece, and the horse image, gone from her work for several years, returned in a new form. She tried to enjoy riding, for his sake, but, she said, “I was never really comfortable up there,” and eventually she stopped. “I’m a walker, not a rider.”

Nauman’s work also changed. He had found he could buy, on the Internet, ready-made polyurethane forms that taxidermists use to stretch animal skins over. These ghostly, featureless animal shapes became the basis of a series of new sculptures: animal pyramids; dismembered and reassembled hybrids; carrousels with dangling animal forms whose feet or hindquarters scraped the floor as they revolved. He made bronze casts of human hands, paired in expressive positions and gestures, and casts of the heads of people he knew—the heads were often suspended on wires, some of them upside down, or in embarrassingly close proximity to each other. Because he didn’t remove the marks and imperfections of the casting process, the heads have a rough look that makes them seem vaguely threatening. A similar unease pervades the videos he made with Rinde Eckert, a singer and performance artist, who also posed for many of the heads, and it reaches a near-unbearable pitch in “Shit in Your Hat—Head on a Chair,” a video installation in which a female mime attempts, with increasing distress, to act out inane, rapid-fire commands she’s being given by an off-screen voice.

The full range of Nauman’s power to disturb was laid out in a 1994 retrospective, his second, organized by the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in Washington, D.C. The exhibition, which also appeared at the Reina Sofía, in Madrid, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, predictably polarized critical opinion. “I think he is the best—the essential—American artist of the last quarter-century,” Peter Schjeldahl, an early supporter, wrote in Art in America. Time’s Robert Hughes called the work “so dumb that you can’t guess whether its dumbness is genuine or feigned,” although he glumly conceded that “Nauman, beyond much dispute, is the most influential American artist of his generation.” More radically than anyone else, Nauman had led the way out of Minimal art’s austerity and into the new world of scorched-earth freedom, with its endless pitfalls and opportunities, and he had done so in near-total isolation from art-world politics and promotions. He had even conquered the art market. The French collector François Pinault paid $9.9 million in 2001 for “Henry Moore Bound to Fail,” his 1967 wax-over-plaster sculpture of his own back with his arms bound. Nauman had outdistanced criticism.

He retreated to his studio after the retrospective, to read and think. The dry spell this time was a long one—Rothenberg says it lasted two or three years. He took care of his horses, and rode one or more of them every day, unless the weather was too bad. Now and then, Rothenberg tried to get him to talk about his block. “The answer was always ‘Don’t know,’ ” she said. “I used to get so mad at his inability to communicate, but that stopped around three years ago. I went to a shrink for a while, and then we both went, and the shrink lost interest in me. The shrink still calls Bruce about every three months, and leaves a message asking if there’s anything he’d like to talk about, but Bruce doesn’t call back. I’ve finally realized I don’t need to know the stuff Bruce is unable to tell me. I think we love each other very much. There have only been three women in his life, and he’s never been alone for more than a few months. I’m very satisfied with him, and very happy living about ninety-two per cent of my life by myself. I don’t think I’ll ever know Bruce, but he’s mine, and he’s a beauty.”

One day in 2000, sitting in his studio, Nauman began to wonder what happened there at night, when he wasn’t present. He had a video camera with infrared capacity, which he set up in one corner and turned on before he went to bed that night. When he looked at the footage the next morning, he saw that quite a lot had happened. Moths flitted by, leaving momentary white streaks. Mice scurried in and out, their tiny eyes flashing red as they caught the light. Coyotes howled, far off. The studio cat appeared, sat down, wandered off again; once or twice the cat and a mouse were in the picture at the same time, but they ignored each other—there had been an infestation of mice in the studio that year, Nauman explained, and the cat had caught so many that he’d lost interest. For many nights over the next couple of months, Nauman deployed his camera in seven different studio locations, and put the footage together to make a film lasting nearly six hours. “Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage),” as he called it—the reference was to Cage’s use of chance methods—was shown at the Dia Center for the Arts, in New York, for six months in 2002. Plenty of people found it excruciatingly boring, but plenty more stayed for hours, gliding around in the wheeled office chairs that Nauman had asked the gallery to provide. “If you tried to watch it, you missed out,” Nauman said. “You just had to wander through and let it work.” He also made, at Rothenberg’s suggestion, an “all-action edit,” showing only the footage with moths, mice, or cat, and lasting about half an hour.

Two years later, in 2004, invited to do a temporary installation in Turbine Hall, the colossal entrance plaza of the Tate Modern in London, Nauman created a sound environment. He used twenty-two soundtracks from his videos and sound pieces over the past forty years, an aural retrospective that enthralled and shook up large numbers of visitors, and provided both the model and the audio technology for his “Days/Giorni” installations in Venice.

On one of the afternoons I spent with Nauman, he told me about Lennie Tristano, a blind jazz pianist he used to listen to in Los Angeles in the nineteen-seventies. Tristano had played with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and other jazz legends. Nauman handed me a pair of earphones and cued a Tristano recording on his laptop. The man’s style was fast and driving. “He doesn’t lead you into it, he just starts and goes,” Nauman said admiringly. “At one point, I wanted my work to have that kind of immediate impact, just being there, all at once.” When I asked if he still wanted that, he thought a bit, and said, “No. Maybe sometimes. It’s as though, earlier, there was an intention, and as the work’s gotten more spread out there’s more waiting to see what will happen.” Nauman’s recent work did seem less harsh and more meditative than it used to be, I suggested; did this mean that the level of anger and frustration had subsided? He considered the question. “I don’t think I operate out of that anymore,” he said, “and I don’t think I did when I was younger. That was more during the eighties, and it was about the larger world—although there was also some frustration with the art world.” I asked him whether, after forty years of thinking about what art was and could be, he’d come any closer to an answer. “I have enough trouble working that I don’t think about that as much,” he said quietly.

The Naumans come to New York fairly frequently. They keep a small penthouse apartment in the East Eighties, and a year ago they bought an 1830 house on the Lower East Side, which they are currently renovating. It will have studio space for both of them, and they will be able to spend more time with Rothenberg’s daughter, Maggie, an artist who lives in New York, and with Nauman’s son, Erik, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and teaches at the Hewitt School in Manhattan. (Zoë Nauman, a photographer, is in Oakland, California, where she helps her husband run a combined bar and motorcycle-repair shop.) Because of the horses and the dogs, Bruce and Susan probably won’t spend much time in New York for the next few years. Susan, breezing in from her afternoon outing with the three dogs, said their plan was “to wait until the dogs die, and Bruce makes up his mind about the horses. In five years we’ll know what we’re doing.”

Two small drawings of a strange-looking head were pinned to the wall of Nauman’s studio. “I’ve been thinking for a couple of years about self-portrait drawings,” he explained, when I asked about them. The idea came to him after seeing a number of Rembrandt self-portraits in a show at the Metropolitan Museum, but, of course, being Nauman, he couldn’t just start drawing his face in the mirror. Instead, he rescued, from a pile of stuff on the studio floor, a mold he’d used years earlier for a wax male head (not his own) and hung it up to use as a model. It was the reverse image of a face—if you poured plaster into it, the correct image would emerge. “I haven’t really drawn at all for two years,” he explained. “It’s a drawing exercise, to get myself back in shape. This is a tough thing to try and draw, because it’s a reverse image. So I’ve set myself a difficult problem.” ♦



Bruce Nauman review – an electrifying carousel of ideas

The artist’s new Paris show combines works that play on adult fears with childlike instructions and repetitive movement – a compelling lesson for young and old alike

Portrait of Bruce Nauman, 2009 © Jason Schmidt
Finding out what a creative act is … Bruce Nauman, 2009. Photograph: Jason Schmidt

The carousel goes round and the voices go round and the dancers go round and I return to Bruce Nauman once again. The Cartier Foundation’s Nauman exhibition in Paris is a mix of older works and new, Nauman at both his most electrifying and enigmatic and his most obtuse and apparently slight.

Nauman is a compelling artist, not least because he constantly asks the question of what a creative act is, at its most irreducible. An idea might begin in nervous fiddling and footling, a distraction or a simple gesture. You get inspiration where you can.

Anger, frustration, anxiety, boredom, distraction, the stray words in his head, repeated thoughts, creative blocks and a sense of emptiness and depletion are all important to his creative process, if it can be called that. Sometimes they become the work’s subject.

In one work, Nauman is playing with pencils in his studio. He holds a sharpened pencil in each hand, and uses them to pick up a shorter, stubbier pencil – sharpened at both ends. This requires steady hands, concentration and a bit of luck. Occasionally you get a glimpse of thumbs and forefingers, and hear Nauman talking with his assistant, Bruce Hamilton, who is filming this delicate game. The work is projected on a grand scale, on two giant LED screens. The pencil-lift on the left screen is performed against a blank white background. On the right, we see Nauman’s scarred old work-table, with piles of papers shoved aside to make space, the studio clutter beyond.

Bruce Nauman: Pencil Lift /Mr Rogers, 2013 HD video installation

Pencil Lift/Mr Rogers, 2013. Photograph: © Bruce Nauman/ADAGP, Paris 2015

But the act is the same in both instances, the same knife-whittled pencils with their yellow shafts, the same work-bitten fingers. Sometimes the pencils are all aligned across both screens, making a precarious bridge. They sway and rise and fall, point to point, as Nauman keeps them aloft. He checks with Hamilton that the pencils aren’t drifting out of shot. I imagine him holding his breath and furrowing his brow to keep the whole thing going. On the screen on the right Mr Rogers, Nauman’s cat (he gets a name-check in the title – Pencil Lift/Mr Rogers) pads lightly over the table. There’s something about the cat’s poise that chimes with the game.

That’s it. That’s all that happens, over and over again. This exercise in dexterity is the sort of thing you might do to amuse the kids, and teach them something about keeping a cool head and a steady hand. A voice leaks in from the next gallery. “For children, for children, for children”, repeats Nauman, over and over again, filling an otherwise empty space with his deadpan voice. His voice fades, replaced by another, repeating the same words in French. “Pour les enfants, pour les enfants”, it says. What is for children? Fading and flowing between languages, the words become a kind of empty music. Is Nauman telling us that his work is for children, is dedicated to children?

Bruce Nauman at Fondation Cartier_MG_1329.jpg

Untitled 1970/2009. Photograph: Thomas Salva/PR

Some years ago, Nauman came across a series of piano compositions, written to accommodate the size of children’s hands, by Béla Bartók: it was called For Children. Nauman has also adapted this idea for his For Beginners (Instructed Piano), a solo played by artist and musician Terry Allen, using, I think, the same instructions as a video Nauman had made of his own hand gestures, which he filmed to the accompaniment of a series of commands. The music proceeds and falters. It is always beginning again, the notes finding their way around the keyboard’s middle C. Tinkling away in a little sunken seating area in the Cartier Foundation’s garden, For Beginners is a series of false starts. Writing and making art can be like that too, groping towards something that won’t or can’t be said or done. Keep going and something might be discovered. There is almost something pedagogic in these works.

Down in the basement of the Cartier, things take a darker turn. A carousel drags taxidermy moulds of deer, lynxes and coyotes round the floor. Beyond, the head of performer and classically trained singer Rinde Eckert is projected three times on the darkened walls, seen both right way up and inverted, and again on six video monitors stacked on the floor between the giant projections.

Bruce Nauman: Carousel (Stainless steel version), 1988

Carousel, 1988. Photograph: © Bruce Nauman/ADAGP, Paris 2015

Nauman’s 1991 Anthro/Socio (Rinde Facing Camera) is one of his most powerful works. Rinde is seen in closeup, repeating three phrases: “Feed me/Eat Me/Anthropology”, “Help me/Hurt me/Sociology” and lastly “Feed me/Help me/Eat me/Hurt me”. I last saw this in Nauman’s major show at the Hayward Gallery in 1997 and it has stayed with me ever since. In a surprising essay in 1999, British painter Bridget Riley talks of the intelligence and humour in Rinde’s face, and that it “ensures that the work is not experienced as either menacing or threatening”, and she describes the polyphony created by Rinde’s classically trained voice, overlayed and competing with itself as it chants the one-man roundelays: “rather like a madrigal resounding in the space of a cathedral.”

Bruce Nauman: Anthro/Socio (Rinde Facing Camera), 1991

Anthro/Socio (Rinde Facing Camera), 1991. Photograph: © Bruce Nauman/ADAGP, Paris 2015

Unlike Riley, I find the work immensely threatening, and painful. For anyone who has never experienced Anthro/Socio, it is worth making the trip to Paris for that alone. “All those messages have to do with making contact”, Nauman has said. Developed out of some prints he made in the 1970s, this video installation is an endless appeal and plea for human contact. In the next room, two dancers turn on a mat, which is divided into 16 radiating quadrants. Positioned like the hands of a clock, the dancers lie outstretched, their hands making contact in a play of fingers and palms as they roll over and over, moving their legs as though they were walking on a treadmill.

The camera views them from above. Sometimes the camera itself turns, making the floor and the room the dancers occupy seem to revolve like a dizzying panoptic machine. The scene is projected a second time onto a wrestling mat on the gallery floor. Untitled 1970/2009 is both measured in its slow and regular movement and exhausting to watch. It seems interminable. The quadrants spin like the spokes of a wheel as the dancers move over the face of their contained world, touching and parting, reaching out and coming together, going nowhere and being somewhere. It is a lesson for adults and for children alike.

Interviews with Iranian Filmmaker and Artist Shirin Neshat




April 24, 2015 4:07 pm

Shirin Neshat in Washington and Baku

The Iranian film-maker and artist mounts powerful new multimedia shows in the US and Azerbaijan

No sooner am I through the door of Shirin Neshat’s New York studio than we are talking politics. The artist, whose work over two decades, which she describes as “subversively candid”, has precluded her from returning to her native Iran, is excited about the fragile diplomatic agreement reached in Geneva at the beginning of this month. “It may be my naive reading but I think it’s a very positive thing,” she says. “President Rouhani is a smart but cautious person — and the chief negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has become a hero embraced by the people.”

Next month, a retrospective of Neshat’s work will open at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in Washington DC: it is the inaugural exhibition for the organisation’s new director, Melissa Chiu. And rather than present the artist’s oeuvre, a remarkable mix of hard-hitting politics and lyrical aesthetics, in chronological order, the show will tell a story of Iran’s relationship with the west. The timing seems perfect.

“Who would have thought that the Iran talks would be progressing in the way that they are?” laughs Chiu. “This idea of narrating history came to me because I think that Shirin’s work has often been conflated under the idea of talking about Islam and talking about women. For me, it has always been about Iran. If you look at her historical trajectory, the way she created it, there are specific moments in Iranian history that informed the creation of her work.

“As an Iranian in exile, she has always been very articulate about the idea of a condition of diaspora and, with that, the complexity of feeling connected to a culture, but living outside it,” adds Chiu. “It’s a very personal approach to history, through Shirin’s own eyes.”

The show will focus on three moments: the British- and CIA-backed coup that brought about the downfall of the democratically elected Mosaddek government in 1953; the immediate aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution; and, finally, the protests of 2009 that have become known as the Green Movement.

“Munis” (2008), the video that paved the way for the feature film Women Without Men (2009), which won Neshat a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival the same year, opens the show. Dipping in and out of magic realism, the work centres on one woman’s experience just before the 1953 coup which, as Neshat sees it, paved the way for the 1979 revolution. “You can see the rage that developed,” she says. “The embassy where the conspiracy was hatched in 1953 became what they called the House of Spies. But I think the American public are largely unaware of the US intervention in Iranian modern history.”

Like many of her compatriots Neshat, now 58, was sent abroad for her education in the 1970s. She studied art at Berkeley in California but did not practise as an artist until more than 10 years after graduating. Her first trip back to Iran, in the late 1980s, inspired “Women of Allah” (1993-96), a powerful set of images of veiled women with guns, their bodies inscribed by hand with Farsi poetry, through which she explored the experience of the women who had lived through the revolution and fought in the Iran-Iraq war.

The images brought her recognition as an international artist, and some notoriety. “Some people thought I was endorsing the Iranian government, the government thought I was criticising them and the critics thought I was just being provocative,” she says. “At that stage, I didn’t even have a career or a point of view. It was only later my work came to have a sharper knife.”

Neshat is happy to define herself as a Middle Eastern artist but she is not alone in distancing herself from the label “feminist”. “Many female artists in the region deal in their work with the experience of being a woman but I don’t think they are dealing with those issues as explicitly as they were in the 1990s,” says Omar Kholeif, a curator at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. “It has shifted into a more implicit critique.”

Reem Fadda, associate curator for Middle Eastern art at Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, agrees: “The artists I see do not define themselves in any one box. In the Arab world and Iran there are multiple causes that people are struggling with: women’s issues are just one of many.”

If Neshat broke new ground in the 1990s in terms of drawing the world’s attention to her art, her strong focus on politics is part of a tradition. “Politics has always run through the work of artists from the Middle East, and its representation has changed with the great uprisings and conflicts,” says Kholeif. “The six-day war of 1967, for example, created a whole different language in visual culture.”

In the aftermath of the six-year effort involved in making Women Without Men, Neshat returned to monochrome portraiture: The Book of Kings (2012) about Iran’s Green Movement; Our House Is on Fire (2013), about the Arab Spring; and, last year, she accepted a commission to create Home of My Eyes, a series of 55 portraits of Azerbaijanis for the opening exhibition of the Yarat Contemporary Art Centre in Baku. Neshat asked her subjects what the word “home” meant to them and inscribed their answers on their bodies. Azerbaijan evoked the Iran of her childhood. “Baku felt old-fashioned, in a good way,” she says. “There was a poignancy to the project; I was half an hour’s flight from Iran.”

Some thought I was endorsing the government. The government thought I was criticising them

Three years ago, Neshat told an audience at Oxford university: “I am a restless, anxious, nervous person: I thrive on struggle. I need to feel I am growing.” So portraiture will take a back seat while she embarks on a second feature film, due for release next year, this time about the famous Egyptian singer Oum Kulthum. “She’s the most significant artist of the 20th century in the Middle East, loved by Egyptians, Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, says Neshat.” It will tell the story of an Iranian film-maker trying to find a way to make a film about a famous Egyptian singer. Neshat is not just directing — she has just completed her first script.

Another project, slated to take place in 2017, will take Neshat farther into uncharted waters. This time, she will be directing and designing the sets for an opera. The details are still secret but preparations involve backstage visits to the Metropolitan Opera and weekly coaching from a dramaturge. “It’s thrilling,” she says. “I’m a complete student.”

Neshat is not the only Iranian artist enjoying the limelight this year in the US. Pioneering Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, working in glass and now 91, has a show at the Guggenheim, while Parviz Tanavoli, “father of modern Iranian sculpture”, has his first full US retrospective at the Davis Museum in Massachusetts.

“It’s definitely the spring of Iranian art in the US,” says Kholeif, who commissioned this year’s Middle East-focused symposium at the Armory show in March. “We have a lot of work to do now to make sure the conversation continues.”

‘Shirin Neshat: Facing History’, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, May 18-September 20;

‘The Home of My Eyes’, YaratContemporary Art Space, Baku, until June 23;

Slideshow photographs: Shirin Neshat/Courtesy Gladstone Gallery; Tim Knox

This article has been amended since original publication



INTERVIEW: Shirin Neshat – A Conversation (2014)


February 15, 2014

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Soliloquy Series, 1999

Shirin Neshat. A conversation.

By Raphael Shammaa for ASX

January 27, 2014

Raphael: Shirin, your upbringing in pre-revolutionary Iran straddled both the religious and the secular. You attended Catholic schools, your grandmother was a practicing Muslim but your father’s thinking was progressive. Did you study the Koran at home or in school in any formal manner?

Shirin: Well just to clarify, it’s not just my grandmother; my whole family were Muslims. I grew up in a strictly Muslim family and even my mother and father were Muslim. It’s just they were not as strict about practicing it, and in Iran in my time, and I’m sure today, yes we studied the Koran at school. We don’t speak Arabic, and the Koran is in Arabic language, but we prayed and we went to the mosque and we studied the Koran in school.

Raphael: Was that part of the curriculum in Catholic school?

Shirin: No, I went to Catholic school for only two years. I was mainly in public school in my city. Of course in Catholic school they wouldn’t be teaching the Koran. That was a boarding school. I went for a short time in the city of Tehran, but the rest of my education was in the city where I was born, which was a very religious city. I think it’s the third most religious city in Iran.

Raphael: Is it really?

Shirin: Yes, it is very very religious, and there we studied Arabic and also the Koran, from what I remember, yes. We were all practicing Muslims, so it wasn’t just my grandma or anything.

Raphael: Well thank you for this clarification. And knowing what was going on in your own country while you were in The States, how was it for you to witness Tianamen Square, the Velvet Revolution, the overthrow of Ceausescu in Romania and the fall of the Berlin Wall – each of them the outcome of people rising against oppression and all of them taking place within the same twelve months in 1989, barely ten years after 1979, which was the year of the Iranian revolution?

Shirin: Well I grew up during the Shah period, and we lived under a heavy sense of censorship and there was a lot of social control and we had the Savak, which was the secret police of the Shah. It was as liberal as it may sound compared to this government, current government. It was really a hush-hush situation. There were a lot of student activists that were imprisoned. It was sort of forbidden to talk about Khomeini – because there were so many of them killed. Even at a young age I knew something was boiling up, meaning the frustration of the people who were religious and the frustration of students against the Shah’s tyranny, and then eventually what came out was the Islamic Revolution.

For me now, it is my understanding that nothing happens overnight. Everything sort of builds up over the years and it was no surprise that we had the Islamic Revolution. The groundwork took place a long time before that and I am one person who knew that. So my response to Tianamen Square and the razing of the wall in East and West Berlin was very much the same thing. It was the frustration of the people that eventually crystallized in a very strong reaction, and it made perfect sense, and for others who haven’t lived in countries such as that, or who have democracy, etcetera, I tend to think they believe it comes out of the blue, but in fact it takes 20 – 30 years, or more sometimes, to build up that kind of rage and determination to bring about a revolution.

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Rapture Series, 1999

Raphael: Yes, it’s a confluence of factors.

Shirin: Exactly.

Raphael: In 1990, after a 12-year absence, you finally go back to Iran. The militancy of Irani women and their changed outer appearance, you say, were a shock to you. Your work, The Unveiling and Women of Allah, are products of this shock. What was the process that unleashed your energy and activated your art?

Shirin: It was the very simple reaction of a person who had been away since the start of the Islamic Revolution and was inundated with a sense of nostalgia and a longing to reconnect; and when, of course just like any other Iranian, I went back, I really did find that the place had changed like day and night in terms of what I had remembered was there before, even the way people looked, the way that people dressed, the way the streets were bombarded with propaganda against the US. It was totally unbelievable that this was the same country.

Raphael: The prevailing tone had changed.

Shirin: Exactly, and for me it became an obsession to understand, from a strictly artistic perspective, some of the issues that were really relevant to the understanding of this transformation. I decided to really focus on a very key conceptual ideological issue of the Islamic Revolution, which was the concept of martyrdom. Martyrdom – meaning that people who were very committed to and had a strong conviction to their religion would be willing to die and kill in the name of devotion and faith in God; and to me that was really a kind of loaded concept that was almost institutionalized by the government. But even more interesting, I saw that even women in the Islamic Revolution were seen in that new way, I mean there were a number of publications and images that showed religious Iranian woman wearing the veil and yet holding weapons, and I found that amazing – a kind of paradox.

So I just kind of took that and ran with it in terms of not only framing the question of martyrdom, which is this obsession with death, and life after death, and the idea that young people should die and that their families should be congratulated for their deaths because they’re now in heaven but, more so, that women were placed within that context even though women are generally about giving life and birth and not about dispensing violence and death. So I just found that as an artistic and philosophical point of view a kind of fascinating phenomenon, and decided to develop Women of Allah, which pretty much explores these conflicting ideas.

Raphael: Is it a matter of concern to you that it’s easy to a casual audience outside of the Middle East to confuse Persian script with Arab calligraphy and to erroneously assume that the text overlaying your art in The Unveiling and Women of Allah is excerpted from the Koran instead of what it really is: contemporary, even feminist Irani poetry, a far cry from Koran texts?

Shirin: It’s a good point. There are two issues that frustrate me often. People in the West often cannot understand the difference between people who are Arab and Iranian. Iranians are not Arabs and we do not speak Arabic and we don’t write in Arabic, but we have the same alphabet, and you know also that Western audiences often rush to think that everything that we write is excerpted from the Koran, which I would never do. It would be so sacrilegious, and my texts are all Iranian text, Farsi text, and they’re all poetry. And another frustrating thing is that when I speak about my work, about my subject, people don’t understand that I’m really talking about Iran. I’m not talking about the entire Muslim world, because that relationship to Islam is specific to each country’s political history and about their specific relationship to Islam, in terms of whether it is an authentic religion, whether it was brought in by force, whether it was a secular religion or a non secular religion, so unfortunately there is in the West that rush to generalizing when representing me as someone who makes work about Muslim women. I don’t do that. I’m very specifically talking about Iran.

Raphael: You’re really focused on the product and the outcome of the Iranian Revolution and the effect it has had on women in the population there. So I wanted to talk a little bit about your short piece Turbulent. It’s a haunting video installation, and it features a man singing a Persian poem by Rumi and simultaneously, on a separate screen in another part of the same room, a veiled woman intones a primeval, wordless lament. The man sings to an audience, confident in his own talent and their appreciation of his art, and the woman to an empty room. But then the man seems to gradually become aware of the female voice reaching him across the chasm and he becomes transfixed by it. At this point the episode seems to transform itself into a call-and-response duet across space. Is this about hope? Is it an ode to receptive men willing to listen past prejudice and ignorance, or is it about women’s innate power to communicate something deeper and more powerful even than culture itself?

Shirin: Yes, I think it’s more about the second explanation. That piece along with two other videos is based about the issue of gender in Iranian society, referring to the fact that women often find themselves against the wall. This particular piece, Turbulent, is about women being forbidden to sing publicly or produce recordings. I was fascinated by how in general, women in Iran, the more against the wall they feel, the more defiant and innovative they become. I believe that if you look at Iranian society today you’ll find women to be remarkably rebellious. So that piece is more about looking at it through the rules governing music. The man sings a stylized, predictable, conceptual piece and is applauded by his all-male audience. And what about the woman? She’s forbidden to sing and therefore becomes creative and makes music outside sanctioned music or language and their rules. While she is rebellious, the man continues along conformist lines, a metaphor of Iranian society.

Raphael: Does the metaphor also stand for art in such societies?

Shirin: Yes, in fact the kind of expression you expect from women is very, very different from that of men’s. Therefore, whatever is created or is expressed by women is radically different from whatever is created or is expressed by males. And being a woman I’m very fascinated by Irani women.

Raphael: Of course. And in Rapture, women in traditional black Chadors busy themselves on a beach putting a small boat to sea, some, but not all, departing onto the open waters toward unspecified shores. Men in western clothes on the other hand, survey the scene from elevated rampart walls – hemmed in, moving about their enclosure with nowhere to go but the short distance to the next fortified wall. This work seems to present an inverse perspective on gender realities in Irani society from what we know. Is this a misreading of your work or is it a psychological portrait?

Shirin: Rapture is an allegorical piece just like Turbulent. It addresses important sociocultural issues in an allegorical way. If Turbulent is about gender in relation to music, Rapture is about gender in relation to nature and culture. And for me it is truly curious that religious women in Iran are never pictured as having any connection to nature – mostly represented as they are in urban environments; and I found it interesting to represent a hundred of them in Nature while representing men in a traditionally masculine space. I feel there is a common thread between Rapture and Turbulent where, in the end, women show enough courage to migrate from the desert towards the sea and, eventually, just leaving. As in Turbulent, they contradict standard expectations by resorting to courage and rebelliousness.


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Passage Series, 2001

Raphael: Yes, in your pieces, men seem to be hemmed in by tradition, and women to be responding to their own nature.

Shirin: Yes, exactly. Your reading is correct. Both pieces are similar in their conceptual approach.

Raphael: You say that if we really want to know a society we ought to look at how its culture deals with women and how women are faring within that society, and you seem to position women’s status as the proverbial “canary in the coal mine”, a strong indicator of how balanced a particular society is.

Shirin: In a lot of Islamic societies women embody the rules of government, of society or religion, so their private lives are much more impacted by them than men’s, but I think this is changing and if you look at Iran today and even at my own recent work you’ll find women no longer abiding by government rules quite as much. They’re very educated and independent, they’re very vocal, and powerful participants in protests. In the streets of Tehran some women even dress in outrageous ways. They just refuse to mirror government dictates. At the very least they’re subversive.

Raphael: The brand new Tunisian Constitution enshrines women as equal rather than complementary to men. Do you think that will spread through the Muslim world any time soon, or at least have some impact?

Shirin: I’m very optimistic about President Rouhani and I have the feeling we’ll see some very good things happen to women as well.

Raphael: Incidentally, I want to ask you how different your career would be today without the advent of the Iranian Revolution and the dramatic rise of the ayatollahs?

Shirin: That’s a good question. Maybe I wouldn’t be an artist. I think it’s true that much of my work has been defined by the Islamic Revolution, by my reaction to it, and that my life has been defined by it. I’ve been separated from my family and live in exile, so emotionally and, I suppose intellectually, my work is my response to the Revolution and how it has defined a whole generation of people in and from Iran.

It’s fascinating how this revolution defines so many peoples’ lives, whether they choose to leave or stay and what kind of political decision they opt for. I haven’t seen my family in so long and it’s had a direct influence on my thinking, and yes, if all of this wasn’t an issue I certainly don’t think I would have been an artist, just talking about the weather or…

Raphael: Or not the same artist, perhaps.

Shirin: Yes. You know I stopped making art for ten years.

Raphael: Yes.

Shirin: Yeah, not the same artist. Maybe it’s a good thing [the Revolution] – or I would have quit altogether.

Raphael: And yet, although there is no fatwa against you, you hesitate to go back to Iran for reasons of personal security. Is Iran the only country you feel that way about?

Shirin: I think so. I think it is the only country.

Raphael: You directed a short for the 2013 Viennale with Natalie Portman and cinematographer Darius Khondji – both world class artists and you are proceeding with research on a film about Umm Kulthum, the legendary Egyptian female singer (in yet another Islamic country) with more or less the same issues. Does working on these projects, because they are not related to Iran, feel different than working on say, Turbulent, or Women Without Men – your award-winning feature?

Shirin: I think it’s very similar because in Women Without Men the main idea is the relationship between art and politics, the lives of certain women as Iran was battling a coup… I’m not sure if you’ve seen the movie…

Raphael: Yes, I have…

Shirin: With Umm Kulthum I feel that by making this film we’ll be navigating and taking the audience on that same journey. Once we’re with Umm Kulthum and her music, with art and mysticism, brought to the level of primal responses, we find ourselves elevated beyond time, politics or even history. We’ll use the music, the camera and everything else we have to take the audience to that state of ecstasy. Because she happened to live in Egypt at such a pivotal time in politics, we’ll take the audience through the age of colonialism, of social revolution, of the war with Israel and through defeat and economic disaster. We’ll show her at the center of all that as well as an artist. For me, this is potentially a similar concept – it’s about the underlying connections between individuals, the community, art and politics.

Raphael: Does serendipity play any role in your work despite all the planning?

Shirin: You know something, I believe in magic. For example, we have this opening at the Rauschenberg Foundation this week and it never occurred to me that the theme of the exhibit is about loss in the aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution, and that this month is the anniversary and that there’s violence there again.

Also, I’m just back from Davos, from the World Economic Forum, where I was given a prize and had to give a little speech. This year is also the first in ten years that the Iranian president agreed to participate. That was serendipity – an Iranian artist and the Iranian president.

And after working on it for years, Women Without Men came out exactly in the same summer of 2009 when we had the uprising in Iran. People thought we planned it like that, because there were all these shots of protest in the streets of Tehran in 1953, so yeah, I believe in magic.

Raphael: How would you like that particular body of work to be seen over time other than playing against its specific backdrop and time in history?

Shirin: Which body of work?

Raphael: The one that has to do with women within the Irani revolution.

Shirin: Well I’ve come to the conclusion that, in terms of my photographs, I’ve done two big bodies of photographs. Both of them have been human portraits. One of them has been Women of Allah, which basically captured a pivotal moment in Iranian history, which was the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The next body of work in photography, again a human portrait, captured during the Spring and Iranian Green movements another pivotal moment in Iranian contemporary history. For me, my photographs, the big two, are the only two groups of photographic work that I’ve done, each one of them representing a particular moment in Iranian history but neither reflecting what’s going on today. The Book of Kings, finished in 2011, represents a lot more of Iran today, but Woman of Allah should be looked at as something of the past and no longer of the present.

Raphael: As an engaged artist do you feel that contemporary art sometimes suffers from lack of content?

Shirin: Yes absolutely, I have two thoughts on that. I don’t insist on contemporary artists being politically active but they ought to be politically conscious. And if I could be that blunt, I think the art market has been the biggest factor in determining art movements for the past decade or so; and the money involved has seduced galleries, collectors and artists to becoming super rich and very, very distanced from sociopolitical issues; art has basically become a commodity and about entertainment.

Being Iranian came as a mixed blessing of course, because Iranian artists paid a great price, having to live in exile and being censored. You really have to suffer for what you do, but I have to say that I have not become just pure commodity and my work has been effective and has been heard by non-art people from my community and that gives me a lot of pride. So I do criticize the art world and the artist today and think that this was not the case before.

That’s why I’m so proud to be apart of the Family of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation because as a Western artist he definitely has a legacy in being politically conscious and an advocate for helping with different causes from education, to AIDS, to government, to asking for democracy. And it doesn’t mean that you don’t make highly aesthetic works but it still means that you should be engaged. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be painting landscapes and things that aren’t completely outside of political reality but I think it’s important to be engaged.

Raphael: You were not born into the US culture, obviously and the country in which you grew up is no longer there. How does that reality play out for you?

Shirin: Yeah. This is the story of the new generation of artists that we are truly nomads. In my case I don’t even remember living in a place in which I look like everyone else and speak the same language. I’ve always been an outcast. It’s just a way of life. I am a storyteller and I find my way. I go to Mexico, Egypt, Morocco and Turkey and I make work that makes one believe that I’m in Iran, and this reality of never being in a place that’s your place of origin, has been a way of life.

Raphael: Is there are a part of you that wishes for a place that you actually belong and feel totally at home in?

Shirin: No, to be very honest. I’ve lived longer in this country now than I have anywhere else. My independence and way of life is non-Iranian in many ways. Inasmuch as I’m emotionally Iranian and I’m surrounded by a community that’s Iranian I don’t think any of us have the ability to go back to that idea of purity of just remaining in one place. I go to Egypt now and I feel so at home. I go to Europe and I don’t feel quite as home but I can adjust to it. I can’t go someplace where they tell me how to be and how to live, that there’s just one way of being. I just don’t know. I’d love to visit Iran but I just don’t know if I could ever go there to live permanently.

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Shirin Neshat: Our House is on Fire, January 31 – March 1 2014, The Rauschenberg Foundation Project Space, 455 West 19th Street, New York

Shirin Neshat

Iranian-born artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat has had numerous solo exhibitions at galleries and museums worldwide, including the Detroit Institute of Arts; Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin; Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal; the Serpentine Gallery, London; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. She is the recipient of various awards, such as the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale (1999), the Hiroshima Freedom Prize (2005), the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (2006), and the Crystal Award at the World Economic Forum, Davos (2014). In 2009, Neshat directed her first feature-length film, Women Without Men, which received the Silver Lion for Best Direction at the Venice International Film Festival. Declared Artist of the Decade in 2010 by The Huffington Post, Neshat is represented by Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

(All rights reserved. Text @ Raphael Shammaa, Images @ Shirin Neshat and courtesy The Rauschenberg Foundation)



Shirin Neshat

by Arthur C. Danto

Shirin Neshat, Rapture , 1999, video still. Images courtesy of the artist and Barbara Gladstone Gallery.

In 1999, in consequence of the wide success of her video installation Rapture, Shirin Neshat achieved immediate celebrity as a major contemporary artist. This standing was reinforced by Fervor, one of the highlights of the Whitney Biennial 2000. These two works, together with the slightly earlier Turbulent, compose a trilogy on human identity, inflected by differences in gender and culture, which situates the work at the heart of art world preoccupations today. A fourth film, Soliloquy , portrays a woman torn between two forms of life, modern and traditional, Western and Middle Eastern, to neither of which she can fully surrender. All four films enact these conflicts and tensions in the symbolic terms of very high art, and in ways that, beyond their contemporary topicality, touch our essential humanity.

The urgency with which these issues are presented in her films implies that they are felt with a commensurate urgency by the artist herself, so that her success is an opportunity to pursue a mission which involves her art together with her life, and entails real decisions as to how and where to live and work. This interview was conducted in Neshat’s loft deep in New York’s Chinatown, above the shouts of shopkeepers and customers. We spoke in her studio, where the films are worked out. There is a pair of monitors on a table beneath some bookshelves. It is a very orderly atmosphere, though the answering machine was kept busy throughout our conversation. The artist was dressed in a black outfit, an affinity with the garments the women in her films wear, and she speaks fluidly, with a soft accent. Shirin Neshat is an unassuming person, entirely without airs, but she shares a certain fierce determination with the women she portrays.

Arthur C. Danto The last three years have been extremely productive for you, you’ve done four films. What were you doing before the films?

Shirin Neshat I graduated from UC-Berkeley in 1983 and moved soon after to New York City where I quickly came to the conclusion that art making wasn’t going to be my profession. I felt what I was making was not substantial enough—and I was intimidated by the New York art scene. So I worked to earn money and took courses in various subjects. Soon after I met my future husband, who ran the Storefront for Art and Architecture, an alternative space in Manhattan. I dedicated the next ten years intensely to working with him at the Storefront, and that became my true education. Storefront functioned like a cultural laboratory, the program was quite cross-disciplinary; I was constantly working with artists, architects, cultural critics, writers and philosophers. This exposure eventually led me to think about myself as an artist and I wanted to make artwork again. During those ten years I made practically no art and what I did make I was quite dissatisfied with and eventually destroyed. So it was only in 1993 that I began to seriously make artwork again.

AD And those were photographs?

SN Yes, I thought photography was the most appropriate medium for my subject as it had the realism that I needed. In the 1990s I finally began going back to Iran. I had been away for over ten years—since the Islamic Revolution. As I traveled back and forth a lot of things started to go through my mind, which eventually led me to develop the work that I have. My focus from the beginning was the subject of women in relation to the Iranian society and the revolution, so I produced a series of photographic images that explored that topic.

AD I was talking just last week with Susan Sontag, who said that, in her view, the Iranian film movement is the most remarkable in contemporary cinema. That’s quite an extraordinary claim. How do you account for that?

SN I agree with her. I am very inspired by the new trend in Iranian cinema. In my opinion, it has been one positive aspect of the revolution, as it has in a way purified Iranian culture artistically by eliminating Western influences that had deeply infiltrated our culture. Before the revolution, Iranian film followed similar standards as in any commercial Western film, much of it was filled with superficiality, violence and sex. After the revolution, the government imposed severe codes; filmmakers had to reformulate their ideas, and as a result a new form of cinema was born that thrived in the midst of all the governmental censorship. These films have been successful for their humanistic, simple and universal approach. They reveal so much about Iranian culture without being overly critical. The pioneer of this generation of filmmaking, Abbas Kiarostami, is showing his most recent film, The Wind Will Carry Us, in New York starting in July.

AD Let me ask about your first films. When you began to show them here were they more or less conventional, linear films with a single screen . . . or did you begin with the double-screen format right away?

SNTurbulent was my first cinematic film. Prior to that, I had made a few videos which I consider very different; they were video installations, very sculptural, with no specific narrative, beginning or end.

AD That was video as it was understood at that time: something projected on a wall, a nonnarrative, free play of images. Did you have sound?

SN Yes, sound was always an important part of my work.

AD And was it always music?

SN Well, I had made some very simple rhythmic sounds with my own voice. For example, one of the pieces I made in Istanbul was of a woman—me, actually—running in four distinct types of spaces and projected on four screens, simultaneously. And in a piece called The Shadow Under the Web, I made a sound with my own voice, something between breathing and singing, repeated in different time signatures. I improvised it as we were recording. In Anchorage, which was a single projection, there was a combination of chanting and a very simple song, and again, I improvised.

AD You composed those songs spontaneously?

SN Yes, on the spot at the recording studio.

AD There must have been a moment when the ideas that began to be expressed in Turbulent came to consciousness. You took a shift, a change in direction; did you feel yourself on the threshold of something quite different? I remember seeing some photographs of you with what seemed an antique sort of rifle. Where do these fit in?

SN The first group of photographic work I produced in 1993 certainly reflected the point of view of an Iranian living abroad, looking back in time and trying to analyze and comprehend the changes that had taken place in Iran since the revolution. It was the approach of an artist who had been away for a long time, and it was an important turning point for me artistically and personally, as it became more than art making but a type of journey back to my native country. I was deeply invested in understanding the ideological and philosophical ideas behind contemporary Islam, most of all the origin of the revolution and how it had transformed my country. I knew the subject was very complex and broad so I minimized my focus to something tangible and specific. I chose to concentrate on the meanings behind “martyrdom,” a concept which became the heart of the Islamic government’s mission at the time, particularly during the Iran/Iraq War. It promoted faith, self-sacrifice, rejection of the material world, and ultimately, life after death. Mostly, I was interested in how their ideas of spirituality, politics and violence were and still are so interconnected and inseparable from one another. But after a few years, I felt that I had exhausted the subject and needed to move on. I no longer wanted to make work that dealt so directly with issues of politics. I wanted to make work that was more lyrical, philosophical and poetic.

AD It did come across as didactic, and, in a way, rhetorical.

SN There were a lot of problems there with the issue of translation, literally in terms of the writing I was inscribing onto the photos and in cultural misreading. I must admit, when I made this group of work, I did not have an audience in mind. I had never exhibited before and had no plans for it. Eventually, when I did have an audience, I felt conflicted as to how I might go about translating ideas that were so entirely based on non-Western rationality without compromising their authenticity and meaning. Looking back at this work, I do see the problems but it was an honest attempt to reconnect and raise important issues in regard to my culture. I reduced my references in order to get a handle on the subject of martyrdom, but perhaps a lot got lost in between. I felt strongly about moving on, making work that, while ethnically specific, could allow wider interpretation.

AD Something that touches on what one might call universal human nature.

SN Exactly.

AD That’s the feeling I have with those works.

SN By this time, you have to understand, my relationship to the subject, my understanding and feelings about the revolution had all changed. When I first arrived in Iran, I was really taken by everything and desperately wanted to belong to the Iranian community again. It was almost a romantic return to Iran. Turbulent was the first work that no longer had the perspective of an artist distanced from her culture; it dealt with an issue that belonged to the present and revealed a new sense of intimacy and familiarity between myself and the subject. By this time, I had a pretty good understanding of the way in which Iranian society functioned. I had been traveling to Iran frequently and was working with an almost entirely Iranian crew.

Shirin Neshat, Rapture, 1999, video still.

AD When you began to work on Turbulent, were you thinking of it as part of a trilogy—which is what, evidently, the three films constitute—or were you thinking of it as a single statement, which, as it turned out, led to two other films?

SN I didn’t think of it as a trilogy at first. It is just that one subject—one project led to the other. The topic of masculine and feminine in relation to the social structure of Iran started with Turbulent. As I finished it, I immediately moved on to making Rapture, which although very different, raised similar issues. Finally Fervor was made, which in my opinion closed the chapter on this series. What inspired me to make Turbulent was a strange experience I had on the streets of Istanbul, seeing a young, blind woman singing to make a little money; her music was extraordinary and the public gathered uncontrollably around her. I fell in love with her music, bought a cassette. Later I had her songs translated and became obsessed with how much her blindness—not having a visible audience—affected her music.

AD This is one of the things that struck me about Turbulent. The male singer is on one screen, and he’s singing with a great deal of passion, but with his back to the audience. The camera is backstage, so we see him singing, and we see his audience behind him. The female singer is on another screen and she’s facing an empty auditorium. You only see her from the back; she’s quite mysterious. As a matter of fact, she looks like a death figure from the Inquisition. All through the man’s singing, you just see her from the back. And you don’t know what this is all about. The man’s audience is extremely responsive; they applaud. As I remember it, he turns around, bows to the audience and then faces back, and the woman who is on the other screen begins to sing. Her singing is very different from his; it seems electronic. It’s modified, it’s not ordinary singing. And then bit by bit her face begins to emerge and you see her sing. The camera pans back and forth over the empty auditorium. And on the other screen, the man is staring at her. So he at least is in some way a member of her audience, although you’re not quite clear how that happened. So that was the juxtaposition.

SNTurbulent is similar to Rapture in that both films are based on the idea of opposites, visually and conceptually. The male singer represents the society’s ideal man in that he sticks to the rules in his way of dressing and in his performance of a passionate love song written by the 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi. Opposite to him, the female singer is quite rebellious. She is not supposed to be in the theater, and the music she performs breaks all the rules of traditional Islamic music. Her music is free-form, improvised, not tied to language, and unpredictable, almost primal.

AD When you say she’s not supposed to . . .

SN An important aspect of Turbulent is that women in Iran are prohibited from singing in public, and there are no recordings by female musicians. The piece took off in various directions and brought about other important questions about the male and female contrast in relation to the social structure. The ultimate question was how each would go about reaching a level of mystical expression inherent in the Sufi music.

AD But her song is not a traditional song.

SN No. It is Sussan Deihim’s music; she’s a gifted, contemporary Iranian singer living in New York. Although her music is based on traditional Islamic melodies, it is quite radical, too, in that it does not quite resemble any particular music.

AD It was her voice in Turbulence, and her person you were photographing?

SN Yes. We spent a lot of time together discussing the choice of music and her presence in the film and how absolutely critical they were to the meanings of the work.

AD Very percussive.

SN By the end, we wanted the male singer to be stunned, in a state of disbelief, and the female singer to be released—freed. She, of course, had no trouble doing that.

AD Well, she had no trouble with the music. But that effect, of being free, and the man being stunned—do you think that registers visually in the film?

SN I think it did. We discussed at great length with Shoja, the male singer, how important his expressions were, his compassionate but almost envious gaze.

AD Who wishes in a way that he could be freer, as she is.

SN Exactly. And that sexual hierarchy is inevitably outside of his control. Perhaps he himself is a type of prisoner.

AD Very much like the men in Rapture.

SNRapture followed the same framework. Once again, the women are the unpredictable force, they are the ones who break free. The men, from the beginning to the end, stay within the confinement of the fortress. This all ties back to what I believe is a type of feminism that comes from such a culture; on a daily basis the resistance you sense from the women is far higher than that of the men. Why? Because the women are the ones who are under extreme pressure; they are repressed and therefore they are more likely to resist and ultimately to break free.

AD Formally speaking, it doesn’t sound entirely different from feminist discourse in the West. The difference as you represent it in the films is that the men seem condemned to a life of futility, and are unable to break free. Whereas here, the male life is conceived of as the significant life, overcoming obstacles, having careers, etcetera. And in a certain way, an American woman’s freedom is modeled on the idea of what it is to be a free male. Whereas what you convey is women moving into a very unstructured space, for which males are no longer the models. If anything, if the male is to genuinely be free, he’d almost have to model himself on the female. And of course you can’t be terribly explicit about that because nobody knows how that’s going to work out. One of the things I love about Rapture is the uncertainty of it. With these women setting off on that boat, you found, I thought, a marvelous, mythic image.

SN Thank you. But I disagree with you that our idea of feminism is similar to that of the West. From my understanding, Western feminism is about reaching a certain level of equality between men and women . . .

AD Yes, that’s just what I do mean.

SN But I don’t believe we strive for the same thing. Iranian women, for example, feel that men and women have their own distinct roles and places, they are not competitive.

AD And that will continue to be true?

SN I think so. I believe their struggle is to reach an equilibrium necessary in a just and healthy society. They want the domestic responsibility—which actually gives them a lot of power. Where they suffer is in their inability to maintain their rights as women, for example in the areas of divorce, child custody, voting, etcetera.

AD I don’t want to get too deeply involved in the differences and similarities. I quite agree with you that equality and liberty are 18th-century ideas very central to American consciousness—but feminist theorists have said that the liberation of women also means the liberation of men. It’s in that sense that I meant there’s a similarity, there’s a mutual liberation in that the future and destiny of male and female is quite open.

SN It would be a generalization to speak about Islam as a whole, but I know in Iran women are quite powerful, unlike their clichéd image. What I try to convey through my work is that power, which is quite candid. In Rapture, the heart of the story is the women’s journey from the desert to the sea; eventually a few leave on a small boat. This journey, the attempt to break free, for me symbolizes bravery, whether this leaving is for the purpose of committing suicide or reaching freedom, it does not matter. Those women remaining behind symbolize for me the idea of sacrifice. The film questions women’s nature as opposed to men’s, and shows how often women surprise us with their strength of purpose, particularly in moments of crisis.

AD I’ll tell you, that’s been my experience with women. (laughter) I wanted to ask one thing about the titles. You’ve employed an extremely romantic vocabulary: turbulent, rapture, fervor—all psychological terms referring to states of extreme excitement. I thought fervor was a bit ironic. It was the behavior of the audience—that was the fervor, that he, the speaker, had aroused. But rapture, I wasn’t certain of; rapture is usually somewhat erotic in connotation.

SN Oh really?

AD At least in English. “What rapture, divine . . . .” And turbulent is a state of perturbation, disturb and so forth, agitation of a certain sort.

SN The titles are the most difficult part. A mistaken title could lead the project the wrong way, trivialize or reduce the meaning. What I look for in a title is suggestiveness, references that allow the viewers to draw their own interpretations. I thought Turbulent, for example, was about the woman’s state of mind, she was clearly the one not at rest. In Rapture, I saw the meaning as a state of ecstasy.

AD That’s right, it’s ecstasy. It’s just that American culture is not a particularly mystical one; ecstasy here means something like erotic rapture. There are analogies between mystical and erotic transport, and certainly the Persian poets were aware of that connotation. They tend, characteristically, in my recollection, to speak of religious ecstasy in terms of erotic metaphors.

SN It’s the same with Fervor, because it has its religious connotations but at the same time it could be sexual. Again, I was pointing toward the clash between sexual and carnal desire versus social control.

Shirin Neshat, Rapture, 1999, video still.

ADFervor is the one film in which you’re relying on speech rather than music. Music really does overcome linguistic barriers. But in Fervor the man talks at great length, and one tries to infer what he is saying. And he points to a painting that is prominently displayed behind him.

SN From the beginning, I thought about having subtitles. In fact, I had an excerpt of the speech translated, and created subtitles. However, many English-speaking friends came to see me while I was editing and almost all of them felt that subtitles made the work too literal, too obvious, and distracted from the clarity of the image. I regret that I did not have a translation on the exhibition wall so those people interested could have referred to it.

AD Hmm . . . I’m of two minds on that. I really don’t know what the truth is there.

SN The speech becomes very musical here.

AD Yes, it does.

SN It almost functions like an opera, you don’t really listen to the words, you imagine what has been said through the musical qualities. But I did get some criticism for the lack of subtitles; some people were not satisfied with guessing at what was being said. Let me tell you the meaning of the speech and a little about the speaker, whose character is quite dubious. He comes across as something between a politician, a mullah, and an actor. The event was also designed to resemble a political event, a religious ceremony or a theatrical story. I was inspired by public Friday prayers in Iran, where masses of men and women come together, but sit separately. Usually, a distinguished mullah leads the prayers and delivers a moral speech, each time focusing on a particular topic. So in Fervor this man comes on the stage and offers his moral speech which happens to be the problem of sin, particularly sin that arises from sexual behavior—carnal desire. He uses the story of Joseph (Youssef) and Zuleika from the Koran to exemplify the destiny of those who cannot control their sexuality. In the Koran, Zuleika, the female character, seduces Joseph. The painting in the film’s background illustrates the story. This type of theater is actually a traditional form in Iran, where a speaker stands in front of a painting to tell the story. It usually takes place in coffee houses.

AD So the speaker uses the painting as the basis of a narrative.

SN Exactly.

AD How fascinating.

SN I think Fervor, unlike Rapture and Turbulent, was not as easily understood by Westerners.

AD Enough of that narrative came across. For one thing, you feel that whatever the message was, the man and the woman felt themselves beyond or above it, that they were really interested in their more fundamental view, namely each other.

SN Exactly.

AD I loved that they don’t see one another, but the moment the man begins to look toward her, the woman begins to look toward him. Whoever begins that, maybe it’s simultaneous—that’s what is extremely romantic about it. And then they leave simultaneously, and they see one another. And still, there’s a long road ahead of them—literally.

SN The type of forbidden seduction that one experiences in that part of the world is of course very different from what one experiences here in the West. You’re not supposed to make eye contact with the opposite sex. Every Iranian man and woman understands the dilemma, the problematics, and yet there is the joy of a simple exchange in a gaze. This type of social and religious control tends to heighten desire and the sexual atmosphere. Therefore, when there is a modest exchange it is the most magical, sexual experience.

AD I was reading an article about Afghanistan and the enormous closed garment, the burka, women are obliged to wear. The assumption is that women’s eyes are extremely dangerous. They shouldn’t be seen.

SN And the veil is an incredibly powerful icon in the way it empowers a woman sexually. It’s supposed to be doing the opposite, but as you can tell, through a mere gaze the woman can excite men. These are the issues this project explored. I’m not sure it was understood in the West.

AD I thought it was quite universal. It’s a story that is told over and over again. How do men and women overcome the distances that are imposed between the genders?

SN I approached Fervor as a way to close the chapter on this kind of gender curiosity that I’ve had. Finally, in Fervor, the issues are not about opposites, but about the commonality between the man and woman. The taboo surrounding sexuality concerns both men and women, but of course it is the woman who takes most of the heat.

AD So Zuleika is the seducer?

SN Yes, she is the princess and Joseph is a slave.

AD It’s the biblical story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. It’s the same story!

SN Exactly.

AD She’s quite treacherous as it turns out. If he doesn’t do what she wants then she’s going to say that he raped her. Well, the Bible is full of a great deal of human wisdom. In this other film, Soliloquy, which I was able to see . . .

SN So you have seen that one!

AD Yes, Barbara Gladstone let me see it at the gallery. And it did seem like a departure. Are you the actress in that?

SN Yes.

AD I thought so. It’s in color. There is a mythic quality to the black and white, but it was important for what you were trying to do that you did use color. Aesthetically it’s very successful. I felt that this was a conversation of a woman with herself. The two screens work a bit the way they do in Turbulent; she sees herself and whether it’s an image, a dream, or a memory—you can’t quite discover. Although there is what I think of as the more traditional setting: there is a child and some tragedy is implied. Whereas the worst thing that seems to be happening to the woman in the other, Western setting is loneliness. That is to say she’s there and the crowds sweep by, and she goes up the staircase. It reminded me of one of Maya Deren’s earlier surrealist films. I thought it was wonderful by the way, but I felt at the same time that it was tentative.

SN Many people, including critics and curators, have been comparing the last few works I have made, telling me which one they think succeeds or does not work as well. I think what is more important is the developmental process, and looking at how each work visually and conceptually takes the ideas forward. Soliloquy has almost no relation to the trilogy that we’ve been speaking about, but it’s a topic that I had wanted to make a film about for a long time; and perhaps the most personal work I’ve ever made. It’s about imagining the emotional state of a woman standing at the threshold of two opposite worlds. She is constantly negotiating between two cultures that are not just different from one another but in complete conflict. So once again the idea of opposites applies but in a different way. The location in the East [Turkey], where it was shot, is the place of her origin. It is ancient, traditional and communal but also a controlling society, at times suffocating, as there is no personal—individual—space. The location in the West [The United States] is in a modern, free, extremely individualistic society where we sense a great personal isolation and loneliness. By the end we find that the woman never quite feels at peace in either space.

AD Do you feel at the end that both states of the woman, or stages, are rushing to meet one another? How could you show that they do get together? Of course, it would be impossible, but . . .

SN That is the ambiguity that I wanted to maintain; it’s not really clear where she was running to or from. Once you leave your place of birth, there’s never a complete sense of center: you’re always in the state of in between and nowhere completely feels like home.

AD I understand you shot Soliloquy in Turkey, but do you have any plans to work in Iran?

SN It has been a dream for me to finally work in my own country. Slowly, I am advancing in that direction although the country is still in a state of flux so one never really knows if it is completely safe to work there or not. But recently I did have a major breakthrough. I was contacted by the minister of culture, the director of the visual arts who also happens to be the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran! He officially invited me to come to Iran to work, exhibit, and meet with local artists. According to this gentleman, there should not be any problems but I have been told to be cautious. However, if things don’t quite work in Iran, I will go back to other Islamic countries, Morocco and Turkey, as I have been. In all my work, I am dealing with issues that address historical, cultural, sociopolitical ideas; but in the end, I want my work to transcend that and function on the most primal and emotional level. I think the music intensifies the emotional quality. Music becomes the soul, the personal, the intuitive and neutralizes the sociopolitical aspects of the work. This combination of image and music is meant to create an experience that moves the audience. It is an expectation that I have as an artist and I want that intensity from any work of art; I want to be deeply affected, almost like asking to have a religious experience. Beauty is important in relation to my work. It is a concept that is most universal, it goes beyond our cultural differences.

AD I believe that. There’s been a kind of cynicism in regard to beauty, that it’s entirely relative. At any rate, I’m thinking myself about it a great deal, philosophically. I’m trying to write a book on that.

SN It is particularly important in relation to my subject since in Islam, beauty is critical, as it directly ties to ideas of spirituality and love of God.


Jun. 16, 2009

Shirin Neshat: An Interview

All images this article, unless otherwise noted, stills from Shirin Neshat’s film Women Without Men. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York.

Over the last 12 years, Iranian-born Shirin Neshat (b. 1957) has produced a series of lyrical video installations that touch on such issues as gender politics, cultural self-definition and the authority of religion. Drawing on the artist’s experiences as a Middle Eastern émigré as well as more universal themes of identity, desire and social isolation, these works have garnered many honors, including, in 1999, a Venice Biennale International Golden Lion prize. Since 2003, Neshat has been engaged in an ambitious two-part video/film project based on (and titled after) the 1989 novel Women Without Men by the Iranian writer Shahrnush Parsipur.

The project’s five individual videos—Mahdokht (2004), Zarin (2005), Munis (2008),Faezeh (2008) and Farokh Legha (2008)—each of which centers on one of the female characters in the novel, have recently been brought together into a single multiroom installation. First shown in 2008 at the ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum in Denmark, the composite work traveled to Faurschou Beijing Gallery in China and the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens. It will go on view at the Kulturhuset in Stockholm this fall, with other venues pending. In addition, four of the videos (all except Farokh Legha) were screened at last year’s “Prospect.1 New Orleans” biennial.

While making the videos (largely sponsored by Gladstone Gallery, New York, and Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris), Neshat also worked on a soon-to-be-released feature film. The movie, which spins off from both the novel and the videos, features a dreamlike narrative that interweaves the women’s personal stories with the political upheavals of 1953 Tehran, the setting for Parsipur’s book. (Alarmed by the nationalization of Iran’s oil fields, British and American operatives that year abetted a coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, reinstating the Shah.) To create the videos and the film, Neshat worked closely with her longtime collaborator, Shoja Azari, who coauthored the final script. The film version, shot in Casablanca in the Farsi language, primarily uses Iranian actors who live in Europe. It also includes a voiceover written by poet and art critic Steven Henry Madoff.

Over a series of weeks, I spoke with Neshat about the genesis of the “Women Without Men” project. We discussed its meaning to her, the challenge of translating Parsipur’s novel into moving images, the tricky task of balancing its poetic and political elements, and the differing demands of video and film.


ELEANOR HEARTNEY: How did this project come about?

SHIRIN NESHAT: At the time I was in Documenta in 2002, having made several video installations, I was beginning to feel very consumed by being in one big international show after another, making one work after another. I felt I needed time off to plan a project that would take a long time to realize. Then I got a call from the Sundance Institute, asking if I would consider developing a feature film project for their writers’ lab. At first, I thought I couldn’t, so I said no. Then, after Documenta, I thought why not?

EH:  What did you discover about the difference between the art and film worlds?

SN:  In the art world you are very free, but you end up making something that few people see. In the film world anybody can view your film for the small price of a ticket, but you are not as free. There is also a big difference between film producers and art dealers. Producers are extremely involved. Everything has to go through them, while an art dealer basically leaves you alone and remains uninvolved in the production.

What I wanted from the beginning was to create a feature film for theaters, in parallel with a group of related video installations for gallery and museum settings. I found out that in order to get funding for a feature film you have to have a quality script — and this was a new experience for me, since I had just storyboarded my past videos. My producers insisted that I work with the German script consultant Franz Rodenkirchen, so I started to travel back and forth to Berlin, eventually becoming a resident in 2003. Franz would read the script and offer his criticisms; I would revise and return for more discussions. This took a few years, and in the process I think we did over a hundred and fifty different versions, ending with a script that was co-written by myself and Shoja Azari.

EH: The film and the installations tell the story in radically different ways.

SN: Yes, they are very different kinds of constructions. The logic behind the editing of the video installations was to create a group of five nonlinear narratives, giving a glimpse into the nature of each of the five characters, as opposed to telling their entire stories. The idea was that the viewer would walk from room to room and, at the end, be able to put the story together. So in reality the viewer becomes the editor.

The logic for the movie version was to make a straight narrative, a more or less conventional film, while relying on my visual esthetics. The main challenge was how to fuse my artistic vocabulary with cinematic language. I realized that I had underestimated the difficulties of pacing, story development, dialogue and many other related issues. In a film, you must never lose the thread of the story, and at times beautiful imagery has to be discarded as too distracting. The issues of comprehension and clarity are very important, whereas in art practice, enigma and abstraction are encouraged.

In the end, I learned that the fundamental difference between cinema and art is the question of character development. In all my past work, such as the videos Rapture [1999] and Passage [2001], I had treated people sculpturally, devoid of any character or identity. They were simply iconic figures. But with this film, I had to learn how to build characters, how to enter their inner worlds, their mindsets. This was an entirely new experience for me. I began to appreciate directors like Bergman, who could keep you pinned in your seat, sometimes spending two hours merely with two characters in one room.

EH: Let’s talk about the story you chose to tell. Both the videos and the film are based on Shahrnush Parsipur’s novel Women Without Men. What drew you to this book?

SN: This is a very well-known novel that has been banned for many years in Iran. Parsipur herself spent five years in prison. I have always had an obsession with certain Iranian women writers, not just for their fantastic talent but also for how their lives and artistic work mirror each another.

Women Without Men is a quite beautiful but strange novel. I couldn’t have picked a more difficult book. It is written in a magic-realist style, which I was told later is perhaps the most challenging type of literature to convert into cinema. Even before I started, my advisors told me to be careful.

My attraction to the book probably stems from the fact that my own work comes out of a similar conjunction of influences. It is deeply personal and highly emotional yet equally political. Like Parsipur’s novel, everything that I have ever made concerns the intersection of contrary elements: personal/social, global/local, spiritual/ violent, masculine/feminine. My work is all about opposites and parallels. Parsipur’s tale follows the coup d’état that took place in Tehran in the summer of 1953, when Iranians struggled for political freedom against imperialism, while also tracing five women as they go on their own quests for personal freedom.

EH: How would you sum up the theme of this book?

SN: The story is a deeply philosophical one. It tells of five women who all run away from their troubled pasts and find that their lives mysteriously converge in an orchard in the countryside. This orchard becomes a refuge, a place of exile, where they can disconnect themselves from the external world. These women have something in common—the courage to take their destinies into their own hands. Some of the characters are quite realistically portrayed, such as Farokh Legha, a women in her fifties who still wants to start life over again, and Faezeh, who wants to have a normal family—a plan interrupted when she is raped. Other characters are more surrealistically drawn, like Munis, who commits suicide and finds freedom through death, and Zarin, a prostitute who begins to see her customers as literally faceless.

The film follows in parallel manner each woman’s journey out of Tehran and into the orchard. Once in the orchard, the women feel fulfilled and safe. Together they create a utopian community, until one of them gets bored and chooses to open the orchard to others. Parsipur is obviously alluding to the Garden of Eden.

EH: In the film, Munis is the pivotal character. She dies at the beginning but is resurrected, and it is her voiceover that guides us through the story.

SN: In the novel, Munis enters the orchard like the other women, and Parispur treats her as a woman who is simply curious about the world but not particularly political. In my film, I changed her story. She becomes a political activist, and she enters the orchard as a ghost, not as a human. In fact, it is through her experiences that we witness the political development in the country. Meanwhile, as the narrator of the film, she also serves as a spiritual guide.

EH: The book and videos have a fifth female character, Mahdokht, who plants herself as a tree in the garden. Why did you leave her out of the film?

SN: The extremely magical nature of her character was difficult to balance in the film. Originally, in the first few drafts of the script, she was included, but she eventually got eliminated. Mahdokht is a woman who plants herself as a tree since she is terrified of sexual intercourse but obsessed with fertility. She dreams of producing fruits and seeds that can be disseminated around the globe. So you can imagine how far out her story was.

EH: Meanwhile, you give a bigger role to the gardener, who appears both in the brothel scene as one of Zarin’s customers and as a nurturing figure in the garden.

SN: The gardener is treated as a very mysterious, rather angelic figure throughout the film. His identity is never quite revealed. He recruits the women for the orchard. And as you mentioned, he appears as a faceless monster in the brothel, which causes Zarin to escape the place; then, in the orchard, he seems very compassionate.

EH: The ending of the film also differs radically from the book’s.

SN: I must say that there are numerous things that I love about the novel, such as its philosophical and political nature, plus its broad range of female characters, from Westernized to devoutly religious and traditional to extremely poor. But I don’t really like how the story plays out once the women arrive at the orchard, nor how it ends. I feel that the women become victims, and I never wanted to portray my characters as victims. I wanted to make a film that shows women who obviously are oppressed and against the wall—due to sexual, religious or social pressure—but who all undergo a positive transformation.

EH: Which of these characters do you find yourself identifying with?

SN: Just as Parsipur constructed the characters according to her own personality, I’ve done the same. Munis and I share a passion for political activism, a belief in social justice. With Faezeh, I share the desire for a normal, traditional life. With Farokh Legha, the idea of aging but still wanting to start over again. With Zarin, the character that I perhaps feel closest to, it is the problem of the female body and feelings of shame. As a Muslim woman, I have grown up with a complex about my body, always feeling inadequate.

EH: Your film also has much more emphasis on the political aspects of the story. You highlight the 1953 coup.

SN: In the novel, the political material is only in the background, but I expanded it and brought it forward. Selfishly, I found it very timely to revisit history and remind Westerners that the American and British governments were directly responsible for overthrowing a democratic system in Iran. The CIA organized the coup in 1953, which in turn paved the road for the Islamic Revolution in 1979. As far as I know, this is the only film made so far that tries to depict this monumental political moment.

EH: The film deals with the period before you were born. How did you reach back to that?

SN: The Iran I grew up in was not so different from the one described in the novel. We were quite Westernized. The society was perhaps not as democratic as in 1953, because the Shah had created SAVAK, the secret police, but the country was far freer than it is today. In my film, you’ll see how, before the coup, the Communists and the Muslims, like the pro-Shah, the pro-Mossadegh and the pro-West groups, all coexisted. To this day, most Iranians believe that Mossadegh’s overthrow robbed them of the possibility of democracy for decades, and caused the relationship between Iran and the United States to break down. In the course of my research, I discovered how little I knew about this period and how wonderfully sophisticated and fascinating Iranian culture was at the time.

EH: On the other hand, although the film is more political than the book, you maintain a strong degree of magic realism. It can be argued that Parsipur, living in Iran, had to deal rather obliquely with her concerns about women’s roles and the place of religion. You, however, could have made a more overtly political film. Why did you retain so many fantastical elements?

SN: In cultures where citizens struggle with heavy social control, magic realism is a natural tendency. For Iranians, who have endured one dictatorship after another, poetic-metaphoric language is a way to express all that is not allowed in reality. Of course, these days, the government has a good grasp of subversive art and literature. So even though it takes place in 1953, Parsipur’s novel is considered highly problematic by the current Islamic government, which is sensitive to the book’s religious and sexual overtones. Personally, magic realism seems to suit me well, because I feel most comfortable with surrealism—not only as a strategy to avoid the obvious but as a means to make art that transcends the specificities of time and place.

EH: Do you anticipate any trouble with Women Without Men?

SN: I already know that the film won’t be screened in most of the Islamic world, primarily because of a few scenes. For example, at one moment we see Faezeh praying, then soon after, in another shot, she becomes partially nude as she unbuttons her shirt. But this was the only way I could represent a woman coming to terms with her body after a rape. Equally problematic might be showing Zarin nude in the bathhouse. Without a doubt, there will be some angry responses from Muslims troubled by the mixing of sexual and religious themes. I also expect some controversy over the political nature of the story. There are many disputes among Iranians and Westerners regarding the coup. The course of events has been interpreted differently by different camps, so the historical truth still remains a subject of debate.

EH: How has the film evolved from your earliest conception?

SN: Originally, the film opened in a very realistic manner with a fight between Munis and her brother. For the first twenty minutes, the audience would have thought they were watching a conventional narrative. Then, half an hour into the film, we introduced the surrealistic nature of the story. But later I decided that we must establish the surrealism from the beginning, so the audience won’t build an expectation for a standard film. In its current version, the film begins with Munis’s flight from the roof, which could be interpreted as a suicide but also as a leap toward freedom, since the shot is exaggerated. She is also now the narrator, who is telling us a story while flying and observing the world below.

In making the film more artistic and surrealistic, I had to be sure that it does not go in the direction of an extended video installation. Within this somewhat abstract framework, we had to develop a clear logic that hopefully will give the audience strong clues to both the story and the style of the film. By nature, this film is like a puzzle, as we must simultaneously follow four main characters, each on a journey, as well as a country in turmoil. For me, filming Women Without Men has been all about finding the right balance.

Shirin Neshat’s film Women Without Men will be screened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art [June 15], the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego [June 18], and the Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Turin  [Sept. 25]. Her video exhibition of the same title appears at the Kulturhuset, Stockholm, [Oct. 24, 2009-Jan. 10, 2010]. The artist will also have shows at Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris [Sept. 16-Nov. 21], Gladstone Gallery, Brussels [September dates pending], and Marco Noire Contemporary Art, Turin [Sept 24-Nov. 30].

ELEANOR HEARTNEY recently published Art & Today (Phaidon, 2008).

Est. 1892

Women of Allah: An Interview With Exiled Artist Shirin Neshat


The figures in Women of Allah, Shirin Neshat’s collection of early photographs, are at once modest, seductive and actively aggressive. Veiled Iranian women have their exposed flesh overlaid with the elaborate script of Farsi feminist poetry, their eyes aligned inches from the barrel of a gun, or their hands stained red with the blood of martyrdom. Like the decades’ worth of controversial and challenging visual art that followed them, these four monochrome portraits unpick the paradoxes of female Islamic identity and the flaws in Western perceptions of it.

Neshat’s photography and films navigate the intersection between art and politics, East and West, masculine and feminine. Named “Artist of the Decade” by G. Roger Denson for The Huffington Post in 2010, she has received international acclaim, but she is very clear about the politics of her artistic motivation. Recently she explained that, as an Iranian, “an artist like myself finds herself in the position of being the voice, the speaker of my people…art is our weapon, culture is a form of resistance.”


Born in 1957, Neshat grew up in Iran before leaving to study in Los Angeles prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution. She has described her subsequent return, nearly twelve years later, to her homeland under the theocratic regime as “one of the most shocking experiences that I have ever had.”

“I think that a lot of us take for granted the importance of democracy [in the West.] I remember when I was detained in the airport in Iran and I was just terrified because I was aware that I had no way of defending myself.” It is the daily reality of living without democracy that explains why “every Iranian artist, in one form or another is political. Politics have defined our lives.”

In her 1998 video installation Turbulent, two parallel screens are set up in dynamic opposition: on one we see a tensely static audience of men, symbolically partitioned off from the other screen where a lone woman sings in an empty auditorium. Her haunting voice builds our frustration to almost unbearable heights, made more unbearable if the watcher remembers that in Iran today it is illegal for women to sing in public. The figures on the screen pulse before us and we sense their ache to break free from sexual repression. Yet her passionate political criticism is profoundly defined by her Iranian identity. She doesn’t visualise the smashing of the partition in Turbulent; she doesn’t shed the modest veils of her sitters for Women of Allah.

“In Iran,” she tells me, “you don’t even know a way of expressing yourself without self-censoring and working within the parameter of the absence of freedom of expression. We have learnt to be very poetic, and symbolic, and metaphoric in terms of forming an expression. My aesthetic is automatically very safe, in a way, as it gets diluted in poetic language so that the government may not be able to detect the sharp knife.”


Yet Neshat argues that this “has actually empowered artists because they have to be so inventive and savvy to find ways to threaten the government.” She cites the example of a recent Iranian production of Hamlet which veiled its implied criticism of the government so subtly that “whilst every Iranian in the audience understood the politically subversive message, the Head of Censorship for the government didn’t even understand why he’d been sent to look at it.”

If her art is a weapon, however, it is targeted as much at the prejudice she encounters in exile as at the oppression she confronts at home. “I am blown away by the West’s misunderstanding of Islamic values and culture. The Western notion of the superiority of their societies and their need to import their ideas into Eastern societies that they consider more or less barbaric is very arrogant and misperceived.”

In particular, her work addresses the failing of western feminism to appreciate the nuances of women’s lives under Sharia law in Iran. The group of women who progress through expanses of dust-blown desert to the ocean in her video instillation Rapture are not merely oppressed and isolated: they are vigorously resilient. Together, they launch a boat into the crashing waves, their faces emphatically individualised beneath their dark, ubiquitous veils. Neshat’s art invokes the reality that today “there are more Iranian women educated in university than men. Women have become the biggest threat to the government.”

Her first feature film, Women Without Men, won her a Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2009. It was a magical realist exploration of the 1953 CIA-backed coup d’état in Iran which imagined four women’s search for meaning beyond male governance. The women evoke a diverse range of female experience in Iran, from the restless housewife to the prostitute, but together they escape the violent streets and gather in an orchard of mesmerising lushness and mystery. She poignantly describes their solace in each other’s companionship, in their own female, Islamic “homosociety”, as theorist Eve Kosofky Sedswick has termed it. As stereotypes of submissive Islamic women are subverted, she demonstrates how, as she once explained to the journalist Collier Schorr, these women’s “protests are manifested in subtle yet powerful ways” – ways akin, perhaps, to her own artistic statements.

Yet her art aims, through its subtlety, to incite more vigorous, explicit protest. In the year that Women Without Men was released, Iran’s Green Movement flooded the streets of Tehran with the same cry for democracy that the film highlights in the protests of 1953. Her strong female protagonists were being mirrored by modern-day women rising to the forefront of the demonstrations.


It was the role of women in the Green Movement, and later in the Arab Spring, which Neshat found most inspirational. The female protesters were “women who were educated, forward thinking, non-traditional, sexually open, fearless and seriously feminist. Iranian women have found a new voice and their voice is giving me my voice.”

“One thing that I have learnt from the Arab Spring and the Green Movement – and I actually took part in one of the big demonstrations in Egypt – was that the people’s power is quite amazing. For the first time I became a strong believer that change could only come if everyone, absolutely everyone gets out on the streets. Nothing is more frightening to the authorities than sheer numbers of people. They cannot kill enough, they cannot arrest enough, they cannot censor enough, there’s just nothing they can do. The sense of hope becomes very contagious – it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, or educated or not, or young or old…In the Green Movement there were people who never in their lifetime thought that they would get out on the street, and they were talking about it.”

Neshat remains devoted to her political mission as an artist; she has exhibited ten times so far this year, to audiences worldwide, from Seoul to Budapest.  Despite the thousands of miles which have separated her from Iran for decades; despite the fierce censorship of the Islamic regime who brand her work “Anti-revolutionary”; despite the frustrating disconnect between East and West . Or perhaps it is because of all these things; and because she still has hope in the global fight for democracy.

“People think that the Arab Spring and the Green Movement have finished because of the lack of protest, but opposition doesn’t happen only in the form of physical demonstrations, a lot can be done off the streets… And now when we ask people if there’s anything going on underground, they say, “Of course there is, it’s all really hidden but the genie is out of the box.”

In exile, she continues to keep the genie alive.


Interview to Shirin Neshat

The Iranian artist, winner of the Silver Lion at the last Venice Festival, talks about herself to Gabi Scardi: from her nomadic approach to media, to the unresolved relationship with her home.


The artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat has explored identity through her art for more than 30 years. Although based in New York since the age of 17, her main focus has always been her native Iran, especially the plight of Iranian women. She is one of those artists who are driven by the need to see and portray not only the environment from which they come but also that in which they now find themselves. They use the language of art to create a dialogue between the present and the myths of their country of origin, on the one hand, and the culture of the country they have moved to, on the other. Their ubiquitous cultural position instils a need to oppose the automatism of accepted ideas that have never truly been thought through, indeed not thought about at all, and dispense with all kinds of a priori definitions to allow the co-existence of different Weltanschauungen. Long drawn to the film world, Shirin Neshat’s first feature film Women without Men won the Silver Lion at the last Venice Film Festival. With an enigmatic language and the punctilious and perfect style that distinguishes all her work, the artist narrates a number of individual stories that share the reference of a magnificent orchid garden: an inner sanctum, a secluded place in which to escape a routine or brutal routine. The video has just been presented on a tour around the major Italian cities of Milan, Rome, Bologna and Florence. The tour also offered the opportunity to demand that Italy exert pressure on the Iranian government to release the film director Panahi, recently arrested with his family. “Our role as Iranian artists abroad is to focus people’s attention on what is happening in our country” says Neshat.

When and why did you decide to shift from video to full-length films? Do you think you will continue with films? What does this change mean for someone like you, used to working in the visual art field?
As an artist, I have always had a rather nomadic approach to mediums, as you know I started with photography, then video and now I’m making films. I have always loved the idea of starting all over again, learning a new medium is a way of challenging myself. So this development from still images to moving pictures came naturally to me, and in a way it reflects my personality, which tends to have a strong distaste for repetition and is quite fearless about crossing boundaries. But I also think the more I made videos, the more I grew to like the cinema and the notion of storytelling. I see filmmaking as the most complete form of art – it can incorporate photography, painting, choreography, music, performance, narrative and much more. In terms of the practice of art versus filmmaking, making art is a very solitary experience but films are a more communal process that requires artists to come out of their studios and into the world, to work with a team and to discover new cultures and people they would not otherwise have met. There is also a part of me that is greatly attracted to the film audience, in the sense that I find the cinema generally more democratic and closer to the general public. I have grown somewhat frustrated by the notion of artists making precious commodities that are only to be seen in gallery and museum settings, to be collected by a few individuals and museums and, most importantly, that can mostly be appreciated by a well educated and exclusive art-world audience with a good grasp of the history of art. In that respect, the film culture seems far more grass rooted in that it is accessible to everyone without the need for any previous education on the history of films. I have every intention of continuing in both fields and I do not find it necessary to abandon one form for the other. So at the moment I am working on a series of photographs as well as an idea for my next feature film.

What will your next film be?
It is The Palace of Dreams from the novel by Ismail Kadare.

Videos usually imply active spatial practice for the audience. Your videos, in particular, with their juxtaposed screens and multiple projections were very physical experiences. Does the manner of fruition change in the passage from video to cinema? If yes, how?
You are absolutely right, video installations, particularly as I conceived them in the past, became very spatial and sculptural so the audience had a physical experience with the videos as it became immersed in the image. With the feature film, although it remains very visual, I experiment with a narrative style and, most importantly, I learn to work with “characters” in a way I never explored in my past videos. Generally speaking, if I may distinguish between the languages of art and film, I would say art is more about creating “concepts” and films are about “telling stories”. As artists, we cannot presume to simply import our video concepts into films without understanding and respecting the rules of the cinematic language. To make a film that lasts for 90 minutes you need a clear narrative development to captivate the audience in their seats; in galleries and museums, visitors can enter and exit the rooms as they wish.

You seem closely linked to your Iranian origins. Your artworks are always closely connected to the concrete situation in Iran but you have lived in USA for a long time now and you seem to be a citizen of the world. You live in a sort of ubiquitous cultural position. I imagine that this diasporic cultural identity influences your vision…
Indeed, as I feel emotionally, psychologically, culturally and politically divided between East and West, my art also reflects that dichotomy. My obsession with my country, Iran, is due to the personal fact that I have an unresolved relationship with my home. I have lived far from my family and my country without choice and I have felt abandoned in the West without any access to my family ever since I was seventeen years old. Therefore, I harbour some resentment and anger towards the political systems and governments that have determined the course of my life. In a way, my art has become a tool, a way to face up to my personal dilemma yet, as a result of this, I have found myself in a broader dialogue on the social, political and cultural realities of my country and the world at large.

With the current situation in Iran, do you think your artwork could be shown to the public nowadays? Why?
I think absolutely not as long as this government is in place; there is no possibility of the work of an artist such as myself being exhibited.

What kind of engagement should we expect from an artist, in your opinion?
As far as Iranian artists go, oppressive as the current cultural climate in Iran is, they play a great role in their country. Artists, filmmakers, writers, musicians and all people with imagination tend to be the voice of the Iranian people, painstakingly reporting life under the current regime to both Iranians (inside and outside) and to Westerners. Subversive art and artists have therefore become a great threat to the Islamic regime, as the government recognizes their ability to provoke the public and it systematically imposes censorship, harassment and very often arrests.

You have been in Italy for a few weeks and you may have heard about strange things going on here in relation to women such as paparazzi, blackmail in the political milieu and vallettopoli; I sometimes sadly ask myself whether this is a result of regression or of progress (at least women are speaking clearly!). What do you think about that? Do you have any impressions or ideas on the Italian situation?
I must confess I am not very familiar with the plight of Italian women but I have heard how some women have themselves subscribed to the idea of women remaining sexual objects, almost eradicating everything that the Feminist movement achieved for us and this is, indeed, a very troubling regression.

Gabi Scardi’s interview with Shirin Neshat took place on 12 March 2010 at the presentation and preview of the film at the Odeon cinema in Florence. The event, coordinated by Silvia Lucchesi, was organised by Lo schermo dell’arte and FST – Mediateca Toscana Film Commission.

Shirin Neshat, Women without men

Shirin Neshat, Women without men

Shirin Neshat, Women without men

Shirin Neshat, Women without men

Shirin Neshat, Women without men

Shirin Neshat, Women without men

Shirin Neshat, Women without men

Kunstkompass 2015: World’s Top 100 Artists – Top 30 rising art stars and Top 10 historical modern and contemporary artists

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