Allan Antliff, Joseph Beuys.

Author:Whiteley, Gillian
Position:Book review

Allan Antliff, Joseph Beuys

London: Phaidon, 2014; 146pp; ISBN 978-0-7148-6134-0

As Antliff argues, Joseph Beuys continues to be a 'polarizing figure' both within and beyond the art world. This new monograph focuses on Beuys's provocative 'actions' of the 1960s and 1970s which disturbed, baffled, and sometimes enraged, viewers and critics alike. In one infamous ritualistic performance at Schelma Gallery, Dusseldorf--How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965)--the artist, his head covered in gold leaf and honey, whispered inaudibly for three hours to the carcass of a dead hare. Besides addressing the brutalities of Nazism, such artistic 'actions' had a cathartic role for Beuys as he had been on active service during the war as a dive-bomber pilot. Subsequently, Beuys's shamanistic activities were mythologised and the cult of the charismatic artist has obfuscated the nuanced political attention which his work deserves.

Despite the extensive body of literature on Beuys, Antliffhas added a vital ingredient thus far overlooked: Beuys's anarchism. Oddly, Antliff omitted Beuys from Art and Anarchy, but redresses this here by rebutting Hal Foster's portrayal of Beuys as a 'neo avant-garde' artist 'severed from all utopian and political aspirations' (see Foster et al, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Anti-Modernism, Post-Modernism, New York, 2011). Instead, Antliff makes a powerful case not only for Beuys's relationship to anarchism (specifically, the ideas of Gustave Landauer) but for his relevance for contemporary 'direct action' movements. Indeed, Antliff highlights the currency of Beuys's preoccupations: his ecological and environmental concerns encapsulated in the co-founding of the West German Green Party (1980); after being dismissed from his professorship in 1972, his challenging of authoritarian, hegemonic forms of knowledge through initiating the Free International University; his aspirations for direct and cooperative action through the Organisation for Direct Democracy through Referendum; his conviction that art (through his concept of 'social sculpture' and 'everyone an artist') could empower creativity for all and contribute a means of transforming society.

Besides providing a chronological overview of the artist's life and work, the book is organised around ten 'Focus' sections...

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