Mythological German Artist 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.


On Wolfgang Tillmans Reinvention of the Field of Photography

October 15, 2013

Wolfgang Tillmans: Up Close and Personal

  • WG01.jpg“Central Nervous System” (2013)
  • WG02.jpg“Engadin II” (2013)
  • WG03.jpg“Augenlicht” (2013)
  • WG04.jpg“Karl, Hand on Shoulder, São Paulo” (2012)
  • WG-08a.jpg“Karl Smoking” (2013)
  • WG06.jpg“Outer Ear“ (2012)
  • WG07.jpg“Alyscamps II” (2013)
  • WG05.jpg“Karl, Utoquai 4” (2012)

Wolfgang Tillmans’s newest exhibition, “central nervous system,” signals a return to portraiture-based work and a departure from the pictures in his latest book, “Neue Welt,” which explore the diverse landscapes and life styles of people around the world. Of this shift, Tillmans reflected, “I’ve found that portraiture is a good levelling instrument—it always sends me back to square one.”

The title “central nervous system” refers to Tillmans’s focus on the subtleties of the human body; the work is an in-depth, dramatic offshoot of his early portraiture pieces. The images have a simplistic depth and a frankness, qualities that Tillmans considers an implicit aspect of portraiture photography. “Making a portrait is a fundamental artistic act, and the process is a very direct human exchange,” he said. “The dynamics of vulnerability, exposure, embarrassment, and honesty do not change, ever.” The photographs in this collection highlight a dualism inherent in portrait photography—the work is equally revealing of subject and artist.

The show is on view October 14th through November 24th, at Maureen Paley, in London.


Wolfgang Tillmans’ wandering eye

The German photographer philosophises on the democracy of travel and shares his #tripping stories


All this month, we’re tripping out with daily adventure stories. Iconic journeys, recent travels, sideways looks at out-there places and the sharpest of shots of the world’s underreported zones. Everest to Ibiza. Sahara to Big Sur. Under the sea to higher than God. Check back daily on Right now, we take a closer look at Wolfgang Tillmans’ latest project.

Wolfgang Tillmans‘ Neue Welt (New World), published by Taschen, fearlessly leaps from glossy, infinity-stretching shots of the stars to smog-choked Chinese cityscapes; from close-ups of high-spec car headlights to portrait shots of wide-eyed tarsiers.

The Turner Prize award winner spent four years making short trips that criss-crossed the globe, gathering material for the series; it also marks the first time Tillmans used a digital camera. But Neue Welt isn’t so much a travelogue or an ethnography as much as a photographic document of our times: the interior of a Jurys Inn hotel nestles next to a glossy starscape in a juxtaposition that feels, nevertheless, perfectly natural. We caught up with Tillmans at his signing at Taschen’s London store to talk about avoiding cliché and his approach to digital.

Young man, Jeddah (2012) Wolfgang Tillmans Berlin/London

Dazed Digital: Neue Welt captures images from a diversity of cities and landscapes. What drove you to undertake such an adventure?

Wolfgang Tillmans: After spending the decade from 1999 to 2009 working on abstract pictures and conceptual work, I felt really interested in looking at what the world looks like today, 20 years after I started making my pictures of it for the first time. I gradually began to look out into the world again, and it became more and more solidified to become this new project. Then I made deliberate travels for it and it became this four year project in the making.

DD: How did you go about choosing what kind of destinations you went to?

Wolfgang Tillmans: I choose mythical places from childhood memory like Papua New Guinea, or the furthest away fields like Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, the most southern city in the world. But then also there’s Nottingham, there’s New York, there’s London. It wasn’t about exotic places per se; it was about looking at everything in a new way.

DD: You picked up a digital camera for the first time in this series. What made you decide to start using digital technology?

Wolfgang Tillmans: It came about when I realised that there was a portable lightweight SLR, which had a sensor the size of 35mm film. Before, sensors were much smaller and it just looked different optically. When I realised that the lens that I had on my 35mm camera would perform exactly the same way on the new digital camera, I realised that it would be nostalgic to stay with the old. I thought: “Let’s learn on my own terms in my own time, how to speak this language.”

Jurys Inn (2010) Wolfgang Tillmans Berlin/London

DD: Did your approach to photography change with the technology? 

Wolfgang Tillmans: There isn’t a complete break – 15% of the photos in Neue Welt are still analogue. But I arrived at photography by first working with the first digital photocopier in 1986. Digital printing had always interested me, but film was always finer and sharper and so I never needed to change for that. It sounds weird to talk so much about technology, but it is a very exciting moment in history. New art and new music has happened because of technological developments, so it is actually needed for what is going on.

DD: One of the charges against conventional travel photographer per se is that it exotifies foreignness. How do you engage with that criticism? 

Wolfgang Tillmans: By being honest about the superficiality of the position that I’m coming from. The word ‘superficiality’ is usually used in a negative way, but it is a reality. Some things we can only experience on the surface, and that still is an experience, it doesn’t make that nothing. There is no threshold when a critical depth can be achieved, you know? My next project at Maureen Paley, Central Nervous System, looks for five years at one person. It’s a whole exhibition looking at one person, but at the end, what are we looking at? We are still looking at the surface of the world.

Tukan (2010) Wolfgang Tillmans Berlin/London

DD: The new issue of Dazed & Confused is themed around #tripping. What was the trip that stuck out most for you?

Wolfgang Tillmans: I went to Tanzania; I had never felt any desire to go and see safari animals. But that was also part of the approach that I had, to go and challenge yourself and challenge your own clichés. I was surprised how good it was to like be in this African landscape! All these places, the Iguazu Waterfalls in Brazil or the Sydney Opera House or a lion in Kilimanjaro, they are all real when you’re there. They are not clichés. You have to leave your own jadedness at home, which is hard, but you just go and try not to frown at all the other tourists. It’s democracy.

DD: So there’s not much different between you, and someone with a handheld camera…?

Wolfgang Tillmans: Well, we’re all humans, and we’re all guests on this planet, sometimes wandering about in wonder and amazement. That’s sort of democratic – well it’s not a democratic experience, not everybody can afford it – but looking at the world with open eyes, that is a democratic experience.

Neue Welt is now available on Taschen. More information available here:


Capturing the mood: Wolfgang Tillmans

George Pendle explores the influence of contemporary artist and photographer Wolfgang Tillmans.

Before he became one of the world’s best known photographers, indeed before he even had a camera of his own, the teenage Wolfgang Tillmans became obsessed with a high-end photocopier in his local copy shop. Clipping photographs from newspapers he used the machine to enlarge them repeatedly, dissolving all detail and breaking the pictorial information down into the simple constituent parts that bound the images together.

Tillmans didn’t actually pick up a camera until the early Nineties after he had moved to London and immersed himself in the burgeoning club culture and concomitant AIDS epidemic. With an omnivorous gaze, he began capturing a scene that was both ephemeral and freighted with heartbreak. ‘The tragedy of a disco song, which others would see as superficial or trash music, runs very deep,’ he has said. ‘It’s very real, the narrow line between a night danced away and the potential of death around the corner.’
This elevation of casual debauchery, of bodies commingling into abstraction on the dance floor, of the deep meanings held in the surface of things, became his creed as a photographer. ‘You can’t deny the superficial,’ he has said, ‘because the superficial is what meets the eye.’

Tillmans’ work found its earliest outlet in glossy magazines, in particular i-D, and his style – a haphazard, snapshot aesthetic – was quickly co-opted until it became nearly ubiquitous. Fashion magazines in particular loved the seductive sloppiness of his work and the startling voyeuristic proximity he conjured, albeit in images that were often carefully crafted compositions.

By the time he won the Turner Prize in 2000, becoming the first photographer and foreign-born artist to do so (to the consternation of some: ‘Gay porn photographer snaps up Turner Prize’ said the headline in The Daily Telegraph) his preoccupations had broadened exponentially to encompass city panoramas, Concorde, trees, planets, protests and pants. The subject matter was unruly but it was united by Tillmans’ ability to infuse his subjects not so much with grandeur but with purpose. In Tillmans’ view, ‘Everything has the potential to be something.’
The body warmth emanating from crumpled sheets, the snatched coolness of Tupperware containers in a fridge all bespoke of lives existing in and around them, of pulsing life expressing itself through the static minutiae of the everyday.

Even when, more recently, he turned his back on the camera, making images through the simple effects of developing fluid and dye on photographic paper, his message seemed to stay the same. Folded and creased, these “photos” became almost sculptural, their random shapes and colours mimicking mottled skin and blood corpuscles. As always in his art, Tillmans was seeking out the ties that bind.

George Pendle is an author and journalist who writes about the arts for Frieze, The Times, Financial Times, Cabinet and the Los Angeles Times
Image courtesy of Getty

Posted on 1st October 2012


Wolfgang Tillmans Interview

By Martin Herbert

When ArtReview visited Wolfgang Tillmans recently in his labyrinthine studio in Kreuzberg, Berlin, we found an artist toggling between looking forward and looking back. On the one hand, Tillmans – first photographic artist to win the Turner Prize, nonpareil expander of his medium’s horizons and reach in recent years, etc – was fresh from the triumph of Neue Welt. This years-in-the-making project (showcased both in a 2012 exhibition at the Kunsthalle Zurich and a lavish Taschen book) serves as a surgical inquiry into how, in diverse ways, the world has changed, 20 years after Tillmans began photographing it: cue, for him, a global itinerary of lightning trips, toting a newly adopted digital camera, to everywhere from basement garages in Tasmania to bustling Indian streets, silvery Far Eastern malls to titanic rubbish dumps. On the other hand, he was preparing – alongside a museum exhibition in Lima – his current large show for K21 in Düsseldorf. In an office filled with a big model of that space, its size necessary for the artist to perfect the intricate scalar shifts of his installs, Tillmans talked about his recent past and a more distant one – starting with his plans to include, at K21, some illuminating work from his teenage years…MARTIN HERBERTWhen did you first get a camera of your own?WOLFGANG TILLMANS: Not until I was twenty. I come from a family of avid amateur photographers – my father, my grandparents – and so that medium felt completely precluded for me. Maybe that’s why I didn’t initially put my photographs directly on the wall and only explored found photos, mechanical pictures. Look at these [points out Edinburgh Builders a, b and c (1987) on worktable]. With my mother’s little Rangefinder camera, I photographed a builder working on the opposite house – so the queer gaze is subtly already there [laughs] – and progressively enlarged it across several photocopies so it becomes just a distribution of surface pattern. It’s a kind of noise, but it comes across as super-specific. I still don’t know what this random-or-not information means, but it’s always been of great interest to me. The lucky thing was that I discovered these photocopies as ‘originals’. They had the aura of finished work, yet I didn’t have to paint or draw it. Maybe that was in keeping with me liking electronic music, too – the idea that you can do something expressive without an expressive hand, I was fortunate to have that at an early age. A photocopy is just a sheet of paper, but something happens and it becomes of value, of aesthetic charge.This issue of transformation has never gone away in your work, has it?WT: I’m always interested in the question of when something becomes something, or not, and how do we know? I observe it all the time. One person becomes a dear friend, the other not; this pair of old jeans your mother thinks is rubbish and wants to throw away, and to you it’s your favourite piece of clothing. There’s different attributions of value at different times and stages in one’s life, different people have different vantage points – and this is what Truth Study Center [his ongoing installation project, first shown at Maureen Paley, London, in 2005, intermingling astral photography, newspaper clippings emphasising various types of intolerance, and much more] was concerned with. All of these people claiming to know ‘what it is’, and almost, one could say, an immodesty in assessing value – in not asking ‘where did my evaluation come from, and when did I start thinking about that?’ And I would also like to know what things are, but I also want always to acknowledge that even though I want clear answers, they always evolve over time.And so now you’ve just looked back over 20 years, comparing then and now, for Neue Welt. How did this start? WT: Part of what determined the locations was an interest in borders. At the end of 2008 I went to [the Sicilian island of] Lampedusa and a month later to Israel and travelled all over the borders of Israel, and then on the same trip – though not directly, of course, to Tunisia, to go to the other side of Lampedusa. As so often happens, though, when you backtrack, the seeds of the work lie further back. There’s one photograph in Neue Welt called Growth and that’s from 2004. I had an interest in going against the aesthetic that I’ve become known for, and at first – for a show at Andrea Rosen in 2007 – I thought of making deliberately ugly pictures, but that isn’t an interesting pursuit in itself. Only two years after I started Neue Welt did it become clear that this was the biggest thing I’ve been working on since the Abstract Pictures.When you gathered those together in a book, you also included works like Edinburgh Builders: again, the starting point was earlier – your work doesn’t divide neatly into sections. But from 1998 you did spend a decade focusing on abstraction – the galaxial scanned-and-enlarged darkroom luminograms Freischswimmer and Blushes; the lysergic lumino- and photogram Mental Pictures; bent and crumpled Lighter photo-objects; the series of photographs of curling photographic paper, Paper Drop, to name but a few. WT: Dealing with materiality was a way of dealing with changed contexts in the photographic world. At the end of the 1990s what I felt was needed was this slowdown of picture consumption – which of course seems funny to think about back then, because now there’s an insane speed of picture consumption. But I already felt people were getting careless with it. I wanted to go against that and mess with expectations of what one would see and how one would read this piece of photographic paper. Since 1998, this talking about the photograph as an object has been such a strong focus for me. I’m doing what I do for myself, but of course I’m always doing it in the context of the world it exists in, so if I feel there isn’t enough of something, then that, in a way, constitutes the reason for me to do something about it.For Neue Welt you began using a digital camera for the first time, and set out on deliberately short trips around the world, to these border zones. It’s a project full of rocketing contrasts: in one section of the book, we zoom between car headlights – that you’ve identified as having a new cruelly sharklike design template – to a creamy abstraction, to a boy running down a shantytown street, to a pin-sharp night sky. In a conversation with Beatrix Ruf published in the book, you said, ‘essentially this is about humanism’. What did you mean?

WT: It’s a big word, but I guess what I meant with it is that I don’t want to create a distance between myself and the world that I depict and the viewer. With this triangle one can so easily put up distance and gaps and steps between the three; I find a low threshold of approachability between them more interesting than to build in distance or difference. At the same time, and this is crucial, I’m fully aware that there is difference, that there are huge differences in access, wealth… The difficulty with Neue Welt – which in itself I couldn’t write down as the agenda – was to be open-ended but at the same time come up with specific results that speak about specificity in the most non-prescribed, unplanned way, because if you go somewhere with an idea in mind, you will only find that idea. And if you make drifting the subject, then you also maybe end up with just that, without focus. So there are specific interests [in it]. I’m always reading and following what goes on, and there are certain markers that I find are significant and telling points.

Car headlights…

WT: Yes, or all sorts of things to do with markets and marketing and the transfer of goods.

And you feel like a lot of this is available on the surface? Because it seems this project is tied to surfaces: you’re deliberately skimming the surface of a place, and leaving when it becomes familiar, and what you’re picking up are articulate surfaces.

WT: Yes. Content inscribes itself into surfaces so eloquently, because a surface that is not purely made by nature is usually the result of layers of many people’s interactions with it. With architecture, cityscapes, I’m always fascinated by the layering of different architects, generations of what they thought is right; and with shop displays, what that shop assistant thought in conjunction with the display that was made by that design office – all those wishes and desires to design.

How does a project like this relate, then, to, say, ethnography?

WT: I guess an ethnographer identifies a subject to study, and they want internal coherence and it’s led by an external demonstration of difference. And I wasn’t led by pure expectation of difference, but nor was I led by a romantic longing for what all this human family shares. I guess that was the biggest personal human growth I got from this: learning to accept the similarity and, at the same time, total different-ness of people and places. On the one hand we’re extremely the same, and at the same time we are insurmountably different.

You said in one previous conversation, ‘this is actually really like a laboratory for studying the world in many of its facets and visual manifestations’. I’m slightly uncertain how much emphasis to put on the idea of ‘the world as subject’ in your work. Neue Welt would suggest there’s that kind of whole-grasping ambition at work. Is that the kind of scale you think on?

WT: Undeniably yes, but with a huge disclaimer attached: that it’s an impossible task, and if taken too seriously it could be laden with hubris. But it would also be coy if I said, oh, I’m not dealing with it. I am, because how could I not – because that would mean my fascination would drop off at a point, and my fascination is kind of limitless. It’s not greedy, it’s not trying to piss on every territory, but I mean – economics and economic activity, for example: how important is that to what goes on in almost every aspect of human life?

As you’ve made this marker of 20 years of work, do you feel your vision – your actual ability to look – has changed in that time?

WT: Maybe what I would call the ability to name and discern what my vision records, that has possibly improved. I hope so. Because there is what we choose to see and what we are able to see, and then there’s a lot of things that people don’t choose not to see, but simply aren’t able to see. I hope I’ve stayed attentive. This term, attentive, is the most crucial in my life, in a way. The way we look, that is how we decide to act in this world, and that is then also how society as a whole acts, if you see societies always as an addition, an accumulation of individuals.

How much of a difference has working digitally made to you?

WT: My photography began through using the first digital photocopier, which you saw in those Xeroxes. I happened to come across that in 1986, and understood the possibilities it allowed for making pictures. And then I bought, obviously, an analogue camera and then in 1992 used a large-format Canon copier to make the large-format inkjet prints. So I stayed purely analogue, technically, until 2009 in regard to how the image generation is made, where the image dots come from. That’s always been onto film, and in a way I’m still analogue now because I use the [digital camera’s] sensor really as a film, and I never move pixels around. And I think that’s important because people nowadays just expect that something has been altered in pictures. I find that a bit disturbing.

So this is about truth…

WT: Yes. In my work various ways of transfer, meaning printing, are possible, because this is how an idea becomes form, in a way. But the world as it passes through the lens and is projected onto film or sensor – I find that shouldn’t be tampered with. Because the world already allows for so much absurdity, so many wild conjunctions of events and objects, it would be crazy to think that’s not enough. By not doing retouching additions in my work, I insist that what you see somehow was in front of the lens. I want people to trust this as a basic given. That makes it somehow more powerful than all the pixels I can move around.

So the attraction of digital is on the level of resolution?

WT: Yes. I had found my photographic truth in the grain and information level of 100 ASA fine-grain film. Which I read somewhere carries as much information as a 14-megapixel sensor. So until there were digital portable light cameras that could have 14 megapixels, I thought the idea of going digital was stupid anyway. My approach to photography as a medium has always been that I wanted to approximate what it feels like to look through my eyes, and that seemed very much achieved with 35mm. What was attractive to me about digital cameras of this full-format generation is the extreme variety in speed: that you can set it from 100 ASA to, now, 25,000 ASA. And it really makes certain pictures possible that were impossible before.

For example?

WT: The starry skies. They seem not of a particular time, but if you are in the know, you know this picture is very improbable. Ten years ago you wouldn’t have been able to take this picture, without manipulation. Because after five, seven, eight seconds, stars show up as a line, because of the earth’s rotation. So you’d have to out the camera on a counter-movement, but then the ground would be blurry. For me to take a picture of the northern sky, an astro-photograph, from a flying aircraft, with no movement, that’s such a crazy idea. So I’m glad I went to digital of my own free will, because then a year later Fuji discontinued the fine-grain film that I used.

It seems you’re also more interested in issues of scale now. In the sense that you have these really large enlargements that are pin-sharp as well…

WT: The scale-shift issue has been going on since my first show at Daniel Buchholz, 20 years ago, but what has changed, and really been a challenge for me, is that you can look as close at the large pictures as you want and there’s no dissolution. And that I find is of huge significance – in cultural history, possibly. I don’t want to sound immodest because it’s also something that was given to me by the camera maker, but some of these new pictures – or all of them, in a way – contain more information than the mind can possibly remember. So any super-fine paintings from 1500 with fur that looks super-real, they are still not as fine as these pictures, which are at the same time photographed from the vantage point of my eye, which is always interested in the non-hierarchical point of view. So whereas in the past a 10 x 8 photograph always somehow had to be taken from a privileged point of view, there is somehow a coming together of, on the one hand, this very human perspective and glance, with this precision. It’s something I find personally still perplexing, like: what is going on here? It’s a bit scary. And interestingly, now I’ve gone digital, there’s no digital medium that can show these pictures in their full quality.

So it’s still analogue in the end: you still have to go to the one-off, the print…

WT: There’s no screen that has the depth of information. And so it becomes very much about standing in front of this print, and having the spatial relation and movement around it. So I kind of have great faith in the picture: it hasn’t gone away. Fortunately.

Work by Wolfgang Tillmans is on show at K21, Dusseldorf until 7July 2013 and at Museo de Arte (MALI), Lima, Peru until 16 June 2013.  ‘Neue Welt’ is available in a limited portfolio edition (signed and numbered) from Taschen.



For much of its history, photographic portraiture has somewhat pathetically echoed its precedents in painting, continuing to reflect the compromising relationship between patron and artist. Portraitists often go to confectionary extremes to pad a sitter’s chosen mythology, demonstrated most awkwardly by the work of photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward Steichen, and Annie Liebovitz. Likewise, photographic dissent rarely extends beyond hijacking the presumed objectivity of the process to artificially (and negatively) hyperstimulate our perception of the subject, as demonstrated by Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, and most photojournalists. Both methods depend on and promote the fallacy of the clarifying gesture, the singular image that captures essences and reveals mystic truths. In fact, what photography has more consistently shown, despite its practitioners, is the opposite: the infinite ambiguity of the human experience, a flood of implication that by its elusive nature denies explicit understanding. Genuine portraiture reflects that continuum, rather than attempts to act as an isolated document superior to it.  

The painter Gerhard Richter has said that the amateur’s family snapshot, as an unself-conscious and direct recording of information, is a more reliable method of depiction than the cleverly composed art photograph. In his formulation, both of those attempts at understanding human experience are doomed to frustration anyway, but the snapshot at least is uncontaminated by ridiculous delusions of grandeur. It is, in his words, “pure picture.” Maybe it’s a bit cynical to contend that any single snapshot, as an embodiment of careless resort, is more profound than a purposeful but vain attempt at establishing meaning. But there is great originality in the thought that a lifetime of such images, a compendium of them, the result of an ongoing, fractured, and subconscious but active routine of searching, comprises a more viable kind of compound “portrait” than any single image that teeters dangerously on the verge of propaganda. It’s not merely a matter of volume: Nan Goldin has an ample cache of solipsisms, but their sum never reaches a critical mass that can lift them above the weight of individual anecdotes. They become a foreseeable routine. What might instead render the quotidian as sublime is an approach from oblique angles, from the indirect and always limited information we more realistically know life to afford, so that the attempt at depiction itself reflects our finite capabilities and knowledge of experience. A viable portraiture then might serve not so much as a terminus or distillation, a “decisive moment,” but as a catalyst for reconsideration, and a point of departure rather than one of obviously false finality.


Wolfgang Tillmans’ work is an open-ended example of this kind of portraiture. If the most common criticism of his photography is that it lacks focus and resolve, that same sense of loss and existential capitulation grants his portraiture an anticlimactic fragility that’s nonetheless strong, convincingly intimate, and never once surrenders to patronizing homilies. No single Tillmans portrait fully coalesces or completes itself. No single portrait is ever a portrait. Rather, each gels by the same process as memory, through the unending accretion of multiple and imperfectly formed instances. In comibination, his photographs form a sythesis of glances, always incomplete and peripheral, constantly realigning our knowledge, as snow accumulating over a landscape dynamically and randomly defines the thing observed. There’s no question that Tillmans’ anarchic, threadbare style can be troubling to eyes more conditioned to photography in a mode of perfected majesty. It’s no help sinking to the contemporary indulgence of calling it “real”, but  the work is honest, and gratifyingly upfront in its copious shortcomings. It makes no assumptions and, in a way that is exceedingly rare, never attempts to inform. The totality of Tillmans’ oeuvre, consisting of thousands of pictures of maddening variety, serves as a single, plainspoken document that paradoxically diffuses our knowledge and expectations.  It contradicts all of the demands of historic portraiture, and so is uniquely photographic.

Gil Blank: What’s the basic motivation for your photographic portraiture? Is it at all distinct from the remarkably wide variety of other subjects you seek out?

Wolfgang Tillmans: When I began to define my portraiture, in 1990 to 1991, I wanted to communicate both the feelings I had for my contemporaries as well as the sense I often had of a single person. I wanted to communicate the complexity of that person in its entirety, that lack of a singular reading. I wanted to channel the multilayered character of a personality and its contradictions, the way it’s revealed in clothes, in styles, in attitudes, and the way a person lives. It’s the fractured reality of identity that fascinates me. I didn’t feel myself well represented in the late-eighties media as I was growing up.  Perhaps I did in some magazines like i-D, but everything else depicted people making odd gestures, or acting crazily, or smiling. They were always apologizing for being the way they were, always giving a single reading of their mood, of what they were about. It took me a while to get my own photography of people in line with the way I saw people.

That happened around 1991, when I realized that I needed to strip all the pictorial devices away, so that the subjects wouldn’t have to apologize for who they were, and the picture wouldn’t have to justify its observation. It wouldn’t hint at being more of an artifice than necessary. I got rid of everything that’s artistic in portraiture: interesting lighting, recognizably “special” techniques, and all the different styles that divide us from the subject and are usually considered to be enhancements of the subject or the picture. I found a way of indirect lighting that looks like the absence of artificial light. That’s often been misunderstood as a lack of formality, and dismissed as the dreaded “snapshot aesthetic.” I know what people are referring to when they say that—the immediacy they feel from my pictures—but what’s mistaken about the term is the lack of composition and consideration that it implies.

GB:  But why should that be considered a pejorative term, except in the shallowest reading? Obviously, the “snapshot” label is for some a lazy way of critiquing the aesthetic or formal value of the work, but I’m not so sure that the lack of consideration that it also implies is necessarily a bad thing. It goes directly to Richter’s idea of “pure picture,” of a direct, unmediated pictorial experience that doesn’t suffer from all kinds of overbearing artistic effect.

WT: It does release me from having to meditate on the picture. I take a picture to perceive the world, not to overthink what’s in front of me.  Pictures are an incredibly efficient and economical way of visually absorbing the world. If I have an immediate feeling, then it’s actually a very good language for me to translate that into a picture. I agree with almost everything that is said about the positive side of the snapshot, but not with the conclusion that one could draw from that, that every snapshot is the same.

GB: Despite its apparent ease and immediacy in the short term, your working method requires a certain degree of counterintuitive thinking to be effectively turned into a meaningful life pursuit. It’s a complete abandonment of the patterns of identification that are most familiar to a photographer. For many photographers it’s easier to settle for the clichés of portraiture—the exquisite technique, the overly constituted moment, the conventional signs of an archetypal personality—then it is to forego that, to vacate one’s familiarity and create something that shows few overt signs of consideration. At this point, so much in your work revolves around the seemingly tangential moments, the synthesis of unexpected or apparently unimportant elements, that I wonder if it’s become a conscious part of your process to specifically avoid photographing subjects that are too ideally photographic. There are a few aspirationally iconic pieces—like Deer Hirsch and Untitled (La Gomera)—but is this kind of endowed single image something that you resist?

WT: A lot of them are just given to you when you make yourself open and vulnerable to the human exchange that takes place in the photographic situation. That’s how I try to negotiate a portrait. The desire to control the result, to come away with an interesting image, is simultaneous with the admission that I’m not in fact completely in control of it. Ultimately I have to be as weak as the subject, or as strong. If I go into the situation with a preconceived idea, then I’ll limit the human experience that I might be able to have. The outcome of such a situation is unknowable, and that’s something very hard to bear; people prefer to know that what they do will have a good result.  I’ve possibly developed the faith or strength of letting myself fall each time. I risk not knowing what might come out and I also risk making an important work. That’s what I like about the magazine portraiture that I’ve been doing now for fifteen years. It always sends me back to the zero-point of human interaction, the point of not knowing. I know that I’m likely to make a printable picture, but I’m not forced to make an artwork. And I quite like that, that I have no responsibility to the sitter or anything beyond the act itself. That’s also why I never take commissions from private parties or collectors.

GB:  That would make no sense at all, diverting the centrality of the interpersonal experience.

WT: The essential fragility of the outcome would be compromised; only a truly powerful outcome would be possible. There would be only that useless certainty.

GB: One of the fundamental impulses for any portraitist, especially apparent in your work, is to approach experience, to make sense of what we experience and the people in our lives. Photography, because it’s so accurate in its registration, always contains the implicit hope that we can somehow obtain a vestige of proof, of knowledge: this is how things are, this is what exists, what I know. We live in hope, but it’s an absurd hope, because as soon as you move toward that or try to build on it in pictures, you automatically begin to assert a control over the situation that prevents it from ever being anything beyond your own preconceived ideas. And so for you, it’s vital to maintain that position of vulnerability.

WT: Yes. And of course with friends, I’m like that much more naturally. In the end the pictures that matter to me most are of people that are close to me.

GB: And when you consider the sketch you made for your retrospective at the Tate, which functions like a diagram or flow chart of your working method, you put the “People” category at the very top. It’s quite disorienting, and I imagine purposely so, because you do break things down into large categories, but obscure that with the insertion of smaller and smaller notes, and cross-referencing paths and connections, so that there is no real separation. Everything is cross-contaminated.

WT: But you can separate, for instance, “Crowds/Strangers” from “Friends Sitting.” Then again, that can be extended into “Nightlife,” which gives you a big family of extended friends you don’t immediately know. The whole chart was made in the full knowledge of its own absurdity. Likewise, the catalog for the exhibition, If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters, which is an encyclopedic catalog of over two thousand images from the present back to when I began making pictures, is all about the audacity implicit in the attempt to make a map of my world, something that can never be drawn or defined. The thing that makes working this way both harder and much more interesting is that it’s also how I experience my life: there never are sharply circumscribed experiences or fields. I admire other artists that work in very strict patterns, but it’s interesting to note how that strictness or seriality is often associated with seriousness in our culture, with more thought and more depth. I find it more challenging to try to reconcile all those different fields that constitute experience as I live it day to day.

GB: And that’s what can be so difficult to accept about your work. For years, it was a constant source of aggravation for me. It requires a renunciation of the assumptions we have about photographic forms. A beloved motivation for photographers is the isolation of perfect meanings, singular visions. You’re adamantly seeking the same kind of reconciliation with experience that photographers have always attempted, but you’re doing so by abandoning the status of photographs as exceptional objects, and that naturally disturbs people who are conditioned to placing a high degree of value and faith in them.

WT: Or let’s say the language of them. Because truthfully I’m also after refinement and precision; I’m only abandoning the preferred language of that, the signifiers that give immediate value to something, such as the picture frame. First of all, I see an unframed photograph as an object of great beauty, in its purity as a thin sheet of paper, but I’m also resisting the statement that one image or object is more important than others. I want it to battle it out for itself. That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in singular, great pictures, though. Some images function in different ways, some more or less loudly, but in terms of quality, I would never throw something in that I don’t believe has the potential, on its own, to be really good. The totality will always reflect more of what I think than any single picture can, but the single picture functions as the definitive version of the subject for me here and now.

GB: What? You really mean that?

WT: Yes! That feeling might change in a year’s time, when I have a different angle on the same subject matter. But take the Ecstasy and nightlife experience of early-nineties techno as an example. After ’92, I made very few pictures in nightclubs. Those shots are that feeling for me, that Ecstasy feeling. I wanted to have that and I got it; I’m satisfied that they’re a true reflection of what I felt and thought. I never have the desire to do more of them. Similarly, with the still life images, even though the genre is repeated over the course of thirteen years, I somehow always try to divine what the situation is for me now, in the best possible way, and not necessarily allow twenty variations of that.

GB: How, then, do you determine the overall arc of your picture-taking? If we are to take the pictures as a compendium, an articulated personal history, how, then, do you prioritize the meaningful events in your life?

WT: I quite like the term “quantification.” By observing the number of times I use a certain picture, by seeing how much it shows up in the installations, which ones become a postcard, which ones become featured in books. I know what’s significant in my actual life. Thinking backward I know what felt significant, and though perhaps in the here and now you can never fully face that, I don’t think there’s any need for it either.

GB: At first sight, your work can seem scattershot, and randomized. With more time and attention, connections and coincidences can emerge, with one photograph “activating” others, as you’ve put it. How much of that is planned and controlled, and how much is left open-ended, for the pictures themselves to spontaneously create a unique system of meaning?

WT: I do leave it pretty open to the pictures. I know every one of them; I do have thoughts about them and that was another reason why I did If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters. But the reassessing of pictures isn’t a process that goes on indefinitely. I wanted to wrap up all the pictures that meant something to me. Ultimately, though, they all stay free, and in an installation I never say how they should be read. There’s no narrative that binds them sequentially in the books, even though I know why I placed them as they are.

GB: In your installations, everything is incorporated into a heterogeneous mix: genres, sizes, wall placements, even print formats. But in that book, for the first time, every image was treated the same way: you made them all identical, placed them one after the other in a relentless stream.

WT: There’s a rigorous system of only a few sizes underlying the intended sense of heterogeneity. I’m certainly not embracing everything. Even though there are so many subjects in the work, there are also so many things that aren’t. I tried to show that in the flow chart. It is something specific that I’m looking at, and not everything. It’s not about trying to control the whole world through pictures, or to get the process of seeing and experiencing out of my system. It’s more that I’m trying to bear life, to bear the multiplicity of things, and that’s what people find very hard. They find it hard to bear the lack of answers, so they strive for simple solutions and concepts, for simple ideas. Letting things stand on their own is about giving up control over them, it’s the attempt to bear them. It’s finding the pleasure in that experience, but also giving witness to the fact that there are no simple answers. I do think the work is optimistic, but perhaps in the harder way that an existentialist might come around to that realization of freedom.

GB: Let me then come right out and ask the fundamental questions: What kind of faith do you place in photographs, and portraits in particular, as a way of helping us understand or access personal experience?  Is there any hope, or help, or any need for either?

WT: I like the idea of the photograph as something that joins me to the world, that connects me to others, that I can share. I can get in touch with somebody when they recognize a feeling: “Oh, I felt like that before. I remember jeans hanging on the banister, even though I’ve never seen that exact pair. I’ve seen my oranges on a windowsill.” It’s the sense that “I’m not alone.” That’s the driving force behind sharing these things—that I want to find connections in people. I believe that every thought and idea has to be somehow rendered through personal experience, and then generalized.

GB: Can that kind of approach ever be completed?  Or might it not actually doom itself, a restless desire to move and to know and to see that—because of the foregone conclusion of our own deaths—implies its own impossibility?

WT: Yes, but it is all impossible! Like the Eva Hesse quote I love: “Life doesn’t last, art doesn’t last, it doesn’t matter”!

[Both laugh]

WT: I mean that of course you have to give as much love as possible into your life and your art, not only despite the fact that none of it matters but precisely because of it. I don’t feel a restless desire at the core of my work. I feel it’s about stillness, about calmly looking at the here and now.

These are real issues, the biggest ones, and particularly in regard to portraiture: Why take pictures of others? It’s not the same as taking pictures of non-portrait subject matter. When you show a person to another person, why do you do that? Do you show a role model, do you show an ideal of beauty, or power? Why should somebody else regard someone they don’t know? Why is it necessary for me to circulate pictures of people in books and magazines and exhibitions? Isn’t that part of the omnipresent terror that we’re faced with merely by being alive and part of this non-stop normative process?

GB: Then is that the central affirmation of the work? It won’t rely on the pathetically heroic devices of traditional portraiture, so you force your subjects into a proxy war in which their portrait images “battle it out”, as you say, to somehow identify themselves within a tide of beauty and banality.

WT: I certainly feel a responsibility when using my power to utilize media of any sort, such as an exhibition. I’ve always felt very strongly that whatever I do involves using a position of privilege and power, because I’m the one that’s talking. But I’ve also thought that my point of view deserved to be heard, because I always felt that neither I nor the way that I look at the world was adequately represented. That of course changes, and we’re now living in a completely different image world than we were ten years ago.

GB: One in which there’s tremendous—and perhaps dubious—value placed on perceptions of authenticity and the authentically lived life, particularly in the representations that we fashion of each other. How do you react in your work to that dangerously hypocritical impulse?

WT: First of all, I never denounce it publicly, because we’re all part of the argument. You can’t possibly have an uncompromised relationship to authenticity. As soon as you represent something, it’s always a mediated, invented situation. What is genuine, though, is the desire for authenticity. So, absurdly enough, that’s something that actually is authentic about this moment. Personally speaking, I feel somewhat post-authentic. What’s authentic to me is whatever looks authentic.

GB: Perverse.

WT: Well, that’s the gift of late birth! Certain ideas are just worn to death. All the sorts have been played out. Images had been so outspokenly formulated by the time I started to speak with them that I didn’t feel a need to add to that. I don’t have to be part of any one school. The authenticity label is tricky, because I immediately want to denounce it, to say it’s not true, that everything in the work is consciously constructed, but that’s also untrue. I do respond quite immediately to situations, and I think the pictures should come across on an intuitive level. You shouldn’t have to get caught up in the artifice; you should try to be hit by an authentic experience.

At the most basic level, all I do every day is work with pieces of paper.  I shape colors and dyes on paper, and those objects aren’t the reality they represent. I understood that early on, and it was the beginning of all my work. How does meaning take hold of a piece of paper?  Why does this paper carry a charge? It’s the brain, it’s our humanity that brings life to it. What matters is how we shape the things on the paper, somehow forcing it to become a representation of life, or experience. People always think that a photograph is bodiless, that it’s not an object unto itself but merely a conduit, a carrier of some other value.

GB: And that’s the reasoning behind your darkroom abstraction pieces, to short-circuit photography’s representational value by foregoing lens-based images and simply exposing photographic paper to light by hand.

WT: Yes. I’m trying to challenge people’s assumptions that every photograph is reality by presenting abstract forms that somehow look figurative. People inevitably use all sorts of words and allusions to describe them, saying they look like skin, hairs or wires or sunbursts, but they only bring those associations along because the images are on photographic paper. If they were on canvas, they wouldn’t say the same thing.

GB: But I think that kind of challenge to photography’s formalist character is a well-established concept. More relevant to the work at hand is whether the abstractions are a conscious subversion of the rest of the oeuvre’s totality. Because the uniqueness and aesthetic value of the other images as a totality is so inherently photographic.  The abstractions feel like a deliriously utopian attempt to bring things back to that hypothetical zero-point, the state of surrendering photographic knowledge.


WT: But I always have a good excuse for them because they are purely photographic. They’re as true as my other photographs, because they do exactly what photographs are designed to do.

GB: Which is what? I’m challenging you to spell that out.

WT: They collect light and translate it into dyes. I expose and manipulate light on paper and I let it do exactly what it’s supposed to do. I’m not doctoring the process.

GB: But that’s ridiculous. It’s like saying the only point of language is to produce sounds. Both language and photography only have value in so far as they’re human systems, and that they produce human meanings. Kangaroos have no use for photographs, only we do. And just because I open my mouth and make noise doesn’t mean I’ve said anything. So here’s the trap we’re in: photographs are permanently bound to experience, to the recounting of events with a precision that’s exceptional but incapable of ever completely explaining those events to us. If your abstractions provide none of that explicit signification, however ambiguous, if in fact they are made as negations of meaning, are they really photographs? Perhaps simply by virtue of their process, but I don’t think at all by what you state as their human value as objects.

WT: But they are photographic in pleasure.

GB: What?!

WT: They’re great pleasures for me. They’re a fascinating phenomenon that I take great pleasure in.

GB: That can’t be all there is.

WT: But it is!

GB: All of this can’t be that insubstantial.

WT: But it’s part of that research into how meaning gets onto paper.  Part of that’s hard work, but it’s also being open to the pleasure of being and playing. Without sounding too corny, I think play is very important, very serious. I’m exploring what happens when thinking and being become matter, because photographs don’t just come into existence on their own.

GB: I think I Don’t Want To Get Over You is the key example of that, because it shows within a single image the kind of cross-contamination we see in your work at large, with the abstracting light trails that break open the underlying straight representational image. It has a duality, the connection to experience mated to the desire and the attempt to break free of that condition. Then there’s also the transposition of the image formed automatically by a lens, by a machine, and the trails left by your own hand as the author.

WT: It has that inherent quality of being manmade.

GB: Not just manmade, but Wolfgang-made. It yearns for universality but is tied to your own everyday, like all the other images that are distinctly of their time, of their author.

WT: Because they can’t be achieved any other way. I’ve never been afraid of being of my time, and I often find it problematic when people try to avoid that in order to achieve timelessness. They cut themselves short in the process. All great art is strongly linked to its time. The paradox is how to achieve that universality while acknowledging specificity. It’s quite hard to handle, this open-endedness. The lack of clear answers, handling the contradictions, not thinking, and yet not giving up either. Not going the easier route of pretending that there are simple answers.

© Copyright Gil Blank and Wolfgang Tillmans




Twenty years ago, Wolfgang Tillmans reimagined what a photo could be. Now he’s doing it again.


Billions of photos are shot every year, and about the toughest thing a photographer can do is invent an original, deeply personal, instantly recognizable visual style. In the early nineties, Wolfgang Tillmans did just that, transforming himself into a new kind of artist-photographer of modern life. He’s now so widely imitated and all-purpose that—like Pollock’s tangles or Warhol’s colors—Tillmans’s style is everywhere. It’s part of the culture.

What that style is is hard to encapsulate. For two decades he’s moved among genres, making images large and small, color-saturated and bleached-out; photographing cast-off clothes, cityscapes, still lifes, studio tools, youth culture, and portraits. He’s all over the subject-matter map. One year he’ll be making pictures of the Concorde; the next, of soldiers. But they do have things in common. A Tillmans has slackerlike beauty and nonchalance; a color sense that is more like that of a monochrome painter who works in large or otherwise unbroken fields; an accidental and uncontrived appearance; an attraction to the abstract and fragmented; and a sense of the photograph as an object that (usually unframed) occupies wall space more like a sheet than like a piece of art.

Tillmans’s self-assured, majestic new show at Andrea Rosen especially embraces that last idea. Much of the gallery is hung with scores of unframed pictures of varying scale reaching almost to the ceiling and the floor, some clustered, some isolated. Visiting is like being suspended in a photographic aquarium. Although at first you might think he was just traveling around, snapping the shutter willy-nilly, you soon see that he’s trying, with each picture, to make something powerful and personal out of impossibly clichéd subjects.

In one shot, a man is in the Ganges, but he’s presented from such an odd angle that Tillmans avoids both the hopelessly generic and easy exploitation. A modern Islamic building doesn’t look bombed-out or exotic; instead, it tells us that in this part of the world, people build until they run out of money and then live in their unfinished homes until they can afford to build again. An overhead picture of Dubai forgoes the mirage of the fever-dream oasis, showing us instead the ugly strip city it really is. He gives us boat people, athletes, and Asian markets as if we’d never seen them before. Tillmans is expanding his old aesthetic, producing images even more street, even less effete, and asking with every photo, “How can I make a picture nobody else has?”

Wolfgang Tillmans
Andrea Rosen Gallery.
Through March 13.



Truth Study? Interview with Wolfgang Tillmans

Posted in Art, Interview, Photography by Lorena Muñoz-Alonso on November 15, 2010

This interview was published on the 10th of November 2010 in the issue # 6 of THE LAST OBSERVER, the free weekly newspaper and incremental catalogue of The Last Newspaper exhibition at the New Museum, New York.


‘The Last Observer’ London correspondent Lorena Muñoz-Alonso meets Wolfgang Tillmans, whose table top installation ‘Truth Study center’ is featured in ‘The Last Newspaper’.

A door buzzer is activated on a busy street of East London on a rainy Saturday evening; I push and find myself in Between Bridges, the non-profit gallery space Wolfgang Tillmans opened in 2006 to show artists that “are overlooked in the London scene”. (The current exhibition is by Gerd Arntz, a fairly unknown German artist and activist of the Weimar era.) I climb the spiral staircase to the studio and Tillmans welcomes me upstairs and offers me tea. He is tired but talkative, having just returned from Nottingham, where he has been installing his works for the British Art Show 7. His studio is a huge open space, full of desks and wooden tables, where newspapers and magazines pile under the neon lights. “Last year at the Venice Biennale I had four table works. And I had a whole room table installation (Space, Food, Religion, 2010) at the Serpentine Gallery show. But having The Last Newspaper and the Nottingham show opening in the space of three weeks has reactivated the Truth Study center project in a very significant way”, he says while pointing to the build up of world-wide printed media that towers on every surface of the studio.

What is or are the origins of your Truth Study Center works?

The project started in 2005 with a show in London at Maureen Paley which coincided with the publication of my third book for Taschen, also titled Truth Study center. It was a contradiction, somehow, because the contents of the book had nothing to do with the tables. That first show included sixteen tables. Then, in 2006, I had a big mid–career survey in the U.S., a show that toured between Chicago, Los Angeles and Mexico City which included a twenty-four-table installation. In 2007 I had a show at the Kestner-Gesellschaft in Hannover where I showed thirty tables, which then become part of the exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. So there have been two very big installations so far. The U.S. installation was altered from city to city; I was adding and adapting the contents depending on the context.

So the way you can work on the tables is quite quick and reactive?

Yes, pretty much. The tour was a year and a half long, and they were heady times in the American political arena, so it was interesting being able to incorporate all that to the work. There was a particular piece that was then published in The Guardian called ‘Ten easy steps for a fascist America’ by Naomi Wolf – a very heavy statement indeed. It was very striking and beautifully illustrated, so I made a table incorporating that on the spot. That table piece is again in The Last Newspaper exhibition. Americans don’t really like foreigners to criticise them. They are good at self-criticism, but the moment it’s a foreigner who does it, they can get defensive. But Wolf is American, so that couldn’t be accused of coming from European prejudices.

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans’, Truth Study Center (NY), 2010. Wood, glass, and mixed media. Courtesy the artist and Andrea Rosen Gallery, © Wolfgang Tillmans. Photo: Benoit Pailley. Courtesy New Museum.

How did you begin the process of incorporating the table as a new element in the vocabulary of your practice?

It actually started in 1995 with a show at Portikus in Frankfurt where I used five flat cabinets to show images I had published in magazines. Also in the Turner Prize show in 2000 I used the same idea of laying out elements on a flat horizontal surface, so it was already settling within my practice then. While I was editing the Truth Study center book I came to this really obvious realisation that all my work happens on a table. A table provides a space for a loose arrangement, where things are laid out in a certain way, but can be easily rearranged. On a wall you have to pin or tape the stuff, but a table is more fluid. There is clarity and complete contingency at the same time.

And why did you start using newspapers as raw material in your work?

I had worked with found newspapers before, in the ‘Soldiers’ series (1999). I have to confess I am a bit of a newspaper junkie and have collected them since childhood. I often think that a day’s newspaper contains the essence of the whole world. But I guess that around 2002–2004, the years post 9/11, a clearer picture of the world we live in emerged – all the insanity that surrounded us – after what had seemed like the less politically charged 1990s. I was enraged and concerned and spending a lot of time reading media and thinking about all these different claims to the truth, ‘the big truth’ which was the ultimate justification behind all that violence and those wars. I realised that all the problems that the world faces right now arise from men claiming to possess absolute truths.

So hence the name…

Of course it would be very desirable to have a completely neutral ‘Truth Study center’, but that will never be possible. So even though it has this big title, it is not claiming to be delivering truth, but rather looking at all these different, opposed truths. But it is not at all saying that everything is relative or subjective. I do think there are certain truths that are not negotiable, that some events and attitudes are wrong, and I am straightforward about in the work, which I think is precisely what makes it interesting. It takes a moral stand on the one hand, but on the other is always aware of its absurdity and of its extreme limitations. So it presents all these issues, like the impact of AIDS denial in Africa or the question of the existence or not of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – the whole war came about from a single question: is this true or not?

Are the tables fixed in their arrangements and subjects?

The tables are, or can be, pieces in their own right. They do not always have to come in the same installations. But it’s the same as with a wall installation, when I think a grouping really works, I try to maintain it. But the working process is quite flexible and not set in stone.

Detail of Truth Study Center (NY), 2010. Wood, glass, and mixed media. Courtesy the artist and Andrea Rosen Gallery, © Wolfgang Tillmans. Photo: Latitudes.

So you color–photocopy all the newspaper that are on the tables, which is already a process of translation in itself…

Very much so. That is the essential part of the visual composition, because we have been talking a lot about content but of course if the table works were not interesting to look at, they wouldn’t have an artistic justification. I use the color photocopy because of aesthetic reasons, but also because the color copy is amazingly permanent, as opposed to newspaper. I couldn’t use the original newspaper cause it wouldn’t look good after a year. But media-wise there are also real things, like a lottery ticket, a bus ticket, a vegetable wrapper…

You have a very strong relationship to printed matter. You have even said: “Everything I do happens on paper”, which I think is a simple but very meaningful realisation, with a lot of implications…

I have a double interest in The Last Newspaper show. Not only do I use newspapers and magazines as material, but also my work is heavily featured in printed media and I use media as both generator and distributor of my work.

What are the main subjects of your tables  in The Last Newspaper?

There is one table about soldiers and war, one about religion, another about the depiction of war, games and violence on the internet. I also have some images of airlines and the experience of flying and there is one about Americans’ attitudes to food. There are a lot of critical messages there, but you could find all of them in very mainstream publications. Information and criticality is there for everyone, which is also one of issues I want to highlight in this work.

Detail of Truth Study Center (NY), 2010. Wood, glass, and mixed media. Courtesy the artist and Andrea Rosen Gallery, © Wolfgang Tillmans. Photo: Latitudes.

Is this series your outlet for political expression?

There is definitely a bit of that. I use these works to make statements on subjects that I feel very strongly about but that I can’t or don’t want to tackle in my photographs. At the same time, though, the reason why I started to work with images from the very beginning was because I wanted to be involved with what was going on the world. Questions of taste or of beauty have always been politically charged for me. Do you find two men kissing disgusting or beautiful? That is a question of aesthetics but also of politics. I’ve always had this very strong awareness that every freedom that I enjoy as a gay person has been hard fought for by many people before me, and that gave me a great sense of public responsibility. I think every person counts. I might be very traditional in that sense, but I really think it does matter.

The Last Newspaper is on view from the 6th of October 2010 till the 9th of January 2011 at at the New Museum, New York.

THE LAST OBSERVER is edited by Latitudes

Wolfgang Tillmans’ work is currently part of The British Art Show 7, touring throughout 2011 across the UK:

Nottingham Contemporary 23 October 2010 – 9 January 2011

Hayward Gallery 16 February – 17 April

Glasgow 28 May – 21 August

Plymouth Arts Centre 17 September – 4 December



Wolfgang Tillmans, 1997


Besides being one of our all-time favorite photographers, Wolfgang Tillmans was our cover photographer throughout our first year, helping to establish the index style right from the start. Over the course of the last year, his portraits for us were surprising, poignant, playful, strange, thoughtful, and sexy — in short, everything you would hope for in another human being. With our collaboration coming to an end after six wonderful pictures, we wanted to talk with Wolfgang about his work. We called him at home in London, where he’d just done “the ultimate fashion story” — Kate Moss for Vogue.

PH: How are things in London?
WT: Well, I’m enjoying myself, not for the first time, but …

PH: What’s London like nowadays?
WT: There’s not much change in my perspective, or at least the reasons why I love London have always been the same, and so the international hype around London doesn’t really affect me that much.

PH: Why do you love London?
WT: Well, because of the music, the street, you know, the whole club culture.

PH: I haven’t spent much time in London, but the way people socialize there is very distinctive. It seems different than in America or in Europe. Do you pick up on that?
WT: I find it is different from America, but I’m not sure where the exact difference is. It’s like, the pub rules that you have to drink in certain hours and you have to drink as much as possible in those hours.

BN: Can you be sober and have a good time in London?
WT: I think so, yes. But, I mean, it’s also much more fun being drunk. And that’s one thing I like, that people are pretty unashamed about losing themselves.

PH: Aha!
WT: Which is a nice difference to New York where …

BN: … people are ashamed.
PH: I’ve noticed that the English people I know really like to party.
WT: Yeah, but I think everyone would like to party. Americans like to party as well. It’s just that there are different fashions.

BN: My years of partying are behind me.
PH: We don’t party in New York anymore, you know.
WT: Yeah, it’s all about controlling yourself.

PH: Yes. And anybody else you can get a hold of. [laughter] Well, actually, that makes me think about your photographs. You’re certainly not a control freak. You talked about the freedom of going into a situation without expectations.
WT: Yeah. I have to note that abandoning control of a situation doesn’t mean I’m giving up control of the process, as a whole. So, I’m actually very precise about the way I work. But part of that precision is to know where my precision starts and ends. And there are moments where I can’t control that anymore. Because I can’t control human relations, especially not with people, so I don’t even know.

PH: But you once said something very evocative to me, that you had sort of taught yourself not to look for a photograph, not to look for anything when you went into a situation.
WT: Yeah, because that is like photographing according to a recipe. If you go into a shoot with an idea, you only get that idea and you cut yourself off from the chance of getting a much better picture. And I guess that’s the problem that a lot of photographers probably have — that they don’t trust the situation they are putting themselves into. So they have a safety net and they don’t even try to leave that. But I find it intriguing to expose myself to somebody that I’ve not met, and see what happens. Take a possible alienation as a positive result, and make that into a picture.

BN: Didn’t you once say that you showed the person a little bit of your own vulnerability when you were photographing them?
WT: Yeah. I think because I feel like, pretty much on a par with the person that I photograph. I mean, on a human level, that we are all just human beings, and pretty much made of the same material. I can allow myself to be vulnerable, but I can’t actually pretend that I’m not vulnerable.

PH: It’s a tall order — you’re familiar with the whole dialogue about the power of the photographic gaze, and so forth. Are you working consciously against that? Or is it something you just sort of want to dismiss?
WT: I’m just very aware of the impossibility of that. I mean, look at the Larry Brown cover I did for you. There was a most impossible situation — meeting this fundamental Christian football player in the Crescent Hotel in Dallas, for a luxury breakfast …

PH: I guess that’s not really empowered is it?
WT: Exactly. Or meeting Mira Nair in her editing suite when she’s got all the rest of the world to think about. And so, to pretend that I am in control of the situation would be ridiculous. But somewhere on this planet we meet and have to get through this. So it’s part of my process to make that work for me.

PH: Can I make an analogy, that if the camera has sometimes been thought of as a weapon, that you kind of use it as a toy? I don’t want to call it childlike, but there’s a sort of pop-joy that one gets from your pictures. You also don’t use a lot of equipment, so it’s almost like a little kid going around with an Instamatic, just snapping away.
WT: Yeah, I mean, I find my best work is when I’m positively thrilled by what is in front of me.

PH: What gets me about your photographs, that separates you from other photography today is that you seem to connect with people rather than look at them cynically. And in your pictures, life looks very worth living, you might say. It’s hard for me to express.
WT: It’s also difficult for me, without sounding corny, I guess. But, of course, I love life and I have a positive outlook on things. I have idealistic intentions with my work. And I want to put some image of my vision of humanity into the medium. And I find that basically is a political kind of work.

PH: Yeah, it really comes across.
WT: Because there is this imbalance towards stupid representations of people in today’s media.

PH: And you really are not a snob about people being young outsiders or famous and beautiful. It’s like, you want to take it all in.
WT: Yeah, without actually pretending that I’m … that there is a big family or anything like that. There are certain misconceptions and one of them is that I photograph my friends and my family, and it probably arises because they all look like friends.

PH: I actually thought that was only a small portion of your work.
WT: Yeah.

PH: I imagined you going around on trips and maybe meeting people, or them being sort of random situations?
WT: No, I hardly ever pick people off the streets or in clubs … almost never really.

BN: I’m thinking of the word “democratic,” because when I started looking at more of your photographs, I couldn’t always tell the difference between what were personal pictures, and what was commercial work. And I realized there’s a kind of blurring between them in your work. In other words, with some photographers, their commercial work looks like it’s what they were hired to do. And the other work is personal. But in yours they kind of flow into each other much more.
WT: I just make my work, and there’s only one kind of work that I do. But then, I put it out into the world, and it instantly starts to travel. People start to claim it for whatever field they think it sits in. So I actually don’t control the framework in which my work circulates.
My staged work looks so real that people actually take it for documentary. But, in fact, that is my intention, to disguise the manufacturedness of it. Half of my work, or probably more than that, is staged.

PH: This is contradictory to what you were saying at first, that you went into shoots without pre-expectations.
WT: That’s the thing, I go into an index cover shoot without expectations because there is nothing I can expect because I don’t know who I’m meeting. But there are a lot of themes and images that I have in my head, that I stage with people, with models. And then, in order to distribute them into the world, you use fashion channels. So I use the fashion magazine kind of as my platform to publish my storyboards. I inject my personal visions into the world, by making them look real, or looking like a club shot or like a fashion shot.
But actually, what I do is I enact situations with my models or friends so I can see what they look like. There’s the photo of those people sitting in the trees. Or those people lying on the beach. The woman with her hands wrapped around her head. All those were planned images.

PH: But by “staged” you just mean you move people around a bit?
WT: No, I tell them what to do, and I choose the clothes, I choose the location, and I set them up in their positions.

BN: It sounds a bit like a little scene from a movie …
WT: Yeah, but it’s a kind of post-art photography. It’s no longer about — “Look how much an artist I am, how controlled it is.” It’s confident enough to use photography to its fullest extent without constantly pointing at how I’m controlling the whole process.

PH: Do you identify strongly with the cinema verité tradition, or the street photography tradition?
BN: There was the famous TV series, An American Family, where the everyday life of a California family was filmed in their own house for a whole year.
WT: No, I’m actually not very interested in finding, in collecting these moments. I’m looking for the one definitive picture of a person or a situation.

PH: Who are your favorite photographers?
WT: Nick Knight, I have to name as the first. He’s the best fashion photographer of this moment, I would say. I saw his work in the ’80s in London. He was the first photographer whose name I ever recognized, and the first who taught me that photography is a relevant medium.

BN: Who else do you like?
WT: Well, I don’t really know. I like Andy Warhol as …

PH: As a photographer?
WT: As an image-maker, without so much discerning between the two. Most art that I’m interested in is based somehow on the photographic process, and so you can also say Richter and …

BN: It doesn’t necessarily have to be a photo? It can be painting?
WT: Yeah.

PH: I always get the impression that you started taking pictures when you were like, six years old? You seem to have that kind of natural relationship …
WT: It’s pretty much the opposite, because I tried all sorts of things, but the last was photography. Maybe because my family is such a keen amateur photographer family. So photography was a really kind of un-cool thing … we were forced to view slide shows by my father.
It was really the only medium that I didn’t experiment with. But in ’87 the first black-and-white laser copier from Canon came into town, and I discovered its power to enlarge copies to 400 percent, not with mirrors, but with a digital process. So I started photocopying things — also pictures that I took on holidays, dissolving photographs though the pixillation and the high-magnification of the Canon machine.
Then I needed more photos after I had done a few little shows with that work, so I bought a camera.

BN: When did you buy your first camera?
WT: In ’88. I was 20. And then, after a while of continuing to work on the copier, I realized that the photographs were better than the manipulations. Since I started with manipulating photographs, I never really went into making the process visible.

PH: When you do an exhibition, you still are very much an installation artist who uses photographs.
WT: Yeah, but it’s not exactly so much about remodeling a teenager’s bedroom or an art director’s clipboard, which people sometimes think.

PH: I don’t read it that way at all.
WT: Yeah, I mean, neither do I.

PH: Your installations do a lot with the space in the room.
WT: Yeah, it starts off with … that I want to reflect the way I look at the world, that I have an inclusive vision of the world. That I am aware of the fact that I’m now looking at the sky, but now I’m looking at my feet. And next, looking at the phone. That they are all these different parallel things causing visual sensations and thoughts and ideas. And that I’m interested in various aspects of life, and I want to give them space and representation.

PH: You make photography look easy, like just snapping a picture. Is it easy for you?
WT: It’s probably easier than for other people. But it’s not really easy at all because it’s hard work. It’s not necessarily hard work at that very second, but it’s a lifetime of actually making visual decisions, and training the eye … and training the brain. It’s a lot about thinking about pictures. I find that 80 percent of my time and work is spent actually looking at pictures.

PH: It was so amazing the way you chose cover photographs for us. We had agreed that you would choose the photograph for each cover. And I was so surprised almost every time the photograph came in. They really represented your taking a lot of responsibility for a certain amount of risk.
WT: Yeah, because it is about one particular image. And I find that, in the end, there is only one best picture even though there are a million possibilities. But for that one moment and one purpose, there is only one choice. And when there is one choice, then I’m very prepared to defend that.

PH: But do you struggle over that? Or does the choice come to you naturally?
WT: No, that’s the thing, if I find there are equal choices, I show them. We’re all aware anyway that we’re being photographed, and that’s something that maybe I’m not trying to circumnavigate.

PH: One thing that I’m impressed with is even though you’re still a young person, I find that there’s been a lot of growth in your work in the last couple of years. And it so much seems to reflect growth as a human being. I mean, your pictures seem to be getting more and more expansive and psychologically insightful.
WT: Um … that’s probably the hard thing about what I’m doing. Again, without wanting to sound pretentious or whatever, what I’m really struggling with is to keep that growth factor in there, and not be overrun by all sorts of … it would be so easy to lose the plot now.
It’s not about achieving something for its own sake, and taking pictures for their own sake. But to make conscious decisions and choices, and it includes this constant questioning — “Why am I taking pictures?” Because really, the world is … it has pictures enough. I mean, there are enough pictures out there.

PH: Your picture of Udo Kier was so extraordinary, because it’s not usually how Udo chooses to appear. He usually tries to appear rather magisterial. And in your picture he looks kind of like a little boy.
WT: Yeah.

BN: I felt that Larry Brown came off looking like a mischievous little boy.
WT: Well, that is like …

PH: That’s the magic.
WT: Maybe. That’s what I mean when I say I feel on a par with the people I photograph. I am strongly aware of me being, not a little boy, but a little human being. I very much see other people as that, and only as that. So I’m looking for that, and trying to look through the public persona that first meets the eye.

BN: Now you just photographed Kate Moss …
PH: Actually it would be fascinating to hear about that, because there is somebody who is photographed all the time, who has a very well-known public presence. So what happened with that?
WT: Well, I was going into it after a lot of agonizing about if I really wanted to do it, and I felt really under pressure to succeed.

BN: It was for Vogue, right?
WT: Yeah, American Vogue. And I also really wanted to succeed within those parameters.

PH: Was the assignment to do with clothes, or to do with her?
WT: It was a fashion story on chinoisserie. But the story line was kind of like, me meeting her. So she came to my studio in London — it’s actually where I live — and we spent two days together. It sounds much too romantic, of course, because it was a photo shoot situation with hair and makeup and styling. And so, I was thinking, this can’t work, and it hasn’t worked in the past for me. But then I thought, well, if I’m supposed to be a fashion photographer, I should do the ultimate fashion story — Kate Moss for American Vogue.
I went into it without any preconceptions, without trying to be cynical or clever about fashion. And so I allowed myself to be overwhelmed by her beauty. Because when she really is in front of you, she is just incredibly beautiful.

PH: She is?
WT: Which is quite a revelation, just how that works. I mean, she’s already beautiful when she comes in off the street, but then they do the hair and makeup, and put on clothes, and suddenly it all comes together.
Then when I went to the photo shop to look at the prints, they looked just like Kate Moss. And that was quite incredible, because during the shoot it didn’t look like the complete picture. She is actually about putting together that whole look …

BN: That’s her job.
WT: There has been a lot of endless talk about supermodels, but it was quite impressive how much talent is needed for that. I could see it in front of my eyes, how she completely worked it.

PH: I always wondered about that. What makes that talent? Is it a sense of body language? Or knowing what the camera will see?
WT: She was very aware of the whole process. I mean, she wasn’t trying to be a model. She was completely aware of the irony of the whole thing, making fun, and imitating other models. Making fun about the projection of what she’s supposed to embody. But at the same time, not being really cynical.

PH: So you all must have gotten along very well?
WT: Yeah. It was fun. And also, we — meaning my boyfriend and me — tried to make this as much like our home as possible. So it was probably a different experience for her as well.

BN: Wait a second. When you said she spent two days there, did she actually sleep over and eat with you?
WT: No, no. She stayed in a big hotel or something.

BN: But she didn’t just come in and have her picture taken and leave? You spent time together …
WT: Well, she came in the morning and left in the early evening. The pattern was pretty much just like a fashion shoot. Putting on a new outfit every hour, having the hair done three times an hour, the face touched up. So the things you talk about aren’t incredible.

PH: I’ve always wondered how photographers and film makers keep their concentration when the hair person is busy, and you’re just waiting?
WT: Well, concentration doesn’t necessarily flow all the time. We think that concentration is a continuous thing, but actually it is about just peak moments. So I was actually very happy with the people interrupting when it was necessary, when it was for the good of the whole picture. And it was interesting to see all the things that were unacceptable for a picture, like any bit of hair hanging loose is an instant no-no. The situation was very much about trying to make something that I liked, but that Vogue will still like. It’s probably not the most important thing in my life, but it was something that I’ve been thinking about for quite a while.

BN: Is there anyone that you really want to photograph that you haven’t?
WT: One thing I am interested in is the iconography of our time. Like, the last thing that I saw driving out of New York was a huge billboard of Kate Moss. So that is something that intrigues me, to then photograph her. So I usually answer that question — Michael Jackson. I guess that would be the ultimate.

PH: I met Michael Jackson.
WT: Really? Where?

PH: On a plane to Paris. I saw this guy standing in the front of the plane, and he was wearing a black leather surgical mask and a black cowboy hat …
WT: No!

PH: … and mirrored sunglasses, and black clothes. And I thought, “gosh, this is a very well-dressed hijacker.” But he said “hi” to everybody on the plane and we had a little talk about art. I told him I was an artist and he asked me if I did realistic art. And I said, no, I did abstract art.
BN: You asked him who his favorite artists were.
PH: And they were all Renaissance artists like Leonardo.
WT: Half a year ago he was in Cologne because there’s a big theme park near Cologne, and he had it closed down for a day so he could go there. But then the next day he just walked into Walter Koenig’s and spent two hours buying dozens of art books.

PH: He’s incredibly charismatic.
BN: If you ever get to photograph him you have to take a picture of his hands.
WT: Oh, really?

PH: Yeah, I thought he had the most amazing hands I’d ever seen. And it was very strange because he was all masked and stuff, but when he talked to you, he sat close and established this sort of intimacy, so you had this bizarre feeling of seductiveness and aloofness at the same time. It was very powerful.
WT: Wow. On that level that we all are human beings, it would be interesting to try to make contact with that sort of person. I mean, where is that human being in Michael Jackson?

PH: Well actually, after a five minute conversation I came away with one overwhelming impression, that this person had more will than anybody I had ever met before. He’s very soft-spoken and strange. But he just radiated will. It was unbelievable.
WT: I find that really intriguing. I guess that is something that probably most stars have.

PH: Well, he is more than a star. I also went away with this image of the Renaissance artist doing everything. I mean, he does dance, he does music, he said he does all the videos himself, and he does architecture.
WT: Architecture?

PH: Well, you know, his whole theme park.
WT: Neverland.

PH: Yeah, it’s like an architectural complex of a certain kind. So I mean, he does everything. It’s really impressive, if you think about it.
WT: So he would be the ultimate choice. But then again, it could be anyone, really.

PH: You’ve just had a big museum show in Europe, and now your photos are at the Museum of Modern Art. I get the impression that you’d like to have people looking at them who don’t usually go to museums.
WT: Well, I achieve that through my book publishing practice, and magazine publishing. So when I’m working in a gallery or museum it’s very much about that particular audience. It’s very much about the experience for me of making the most tension and, at the same time, the most equilibrium in one room.
It’s about the five days before the opening that I’ve been working in that room at MoMA. That’s really what I take away from it. And then it comes as a bonus to know that hundreds of thousands of people apparently come, thanks to the Jasper Johns show.

PH: Yeah, he really makes people go to museums that don’t go to museums.
WT: Yeah. MoMA and the galleries in SoHo are actually the only places that make sense on a democratic level. Only the shows at Andrea’s gallery and that MoMA show really gave me the impression that I’m dealing with a real public. The rest of the time, you’re looking at like, 2,000 visitors, so it can’t possibly be only about those viewers. It has to be something about myself that I’m trying to find out … that I use these exhibitions to find something out for myself.

PH: It’s a more purist medium.
WT: Yeah. Yet, it’s like the purist-research of my work. It’s very much about the object, as well. The photograph as object. To find ways of actually doing this impossible thing of showing photographs in a gallery.
People haven’t developed much imagination over the past 150 years to invent new forms of presentation. And so it’s a pretty limited medium as an exhibition medium. It’s very much about, “how can I get this excitement that I have from a print lying on my table into the gallery?”

BN: We’ve come to the end of your relationship with the magazine, which is sad, and I’m wondering what you’re going on to next?
WT: Well, one thing I’m looking at is ways of coating the surface of my prints with something that makes glass and framing permanently redundant.

PH: Oh, how great.
WT: I really want to push that one bit further. I mean, people are actually still thinking it’s a slap-dash grungy presentation. But it’s actually the most purist presentation because there is no glass and frame. It’s just the pure sheet. And so I want to push that forward.

BN: So you’ve got some technical research.
WT: Archival research, because the problem is that museums can’t keep those installations on the wall like that forever. But at the same time, I just really want to have a break. A break from speaking through shows. I just have such a multitude of possibilities to express myself that it has become a bit demanding. Now I want to again generate more pressure inside myself, and think about what I really want to say.

PH: Now, if you went on holiday to the beach, would you leave your camera at home?
WT: It’s not a problem. I take the camera anyway. And maybe I leave it in the hotel. Or maybe take it with me one day. If I have it with me, it’s not a burden and I don’t feel obliged to take a picture. But if I don’t have it with me, I usually don’t come into situations where I say, “Shit, I wish I had my camera.” Because I only take pictures two or three days of the month anyway.

PH: That’s a great job.
WT: Well, the 27 other days I’m thinking about it.

Matthew Day Jackson – Archaeologist as Artist

I chose to select the recent works of Matthew Jackson Day because they are about the body and its disintegration. My own recently photography forays into the decimated sections of Detroit, Cleveland, Houston and New Orleans are about my own attempt to understand on a cosmic level what the planned and unplanned demise of cities means. One of the interesting aspects of my recent travels was to get a feeling for how the local populations were handling their experiences of living on a block that looked as if it had been demolished in a great flood, then set afire. In Detroit men came to their porches and asked me was I here to take pictures of these dead buildings and destroyed homes, so that they could finally be cleared away. I told them that Detroit had just received about 50 million dollars from the federal government to take down 10,000 abandoned homes. As there are 90,000 abandoned homes in Detroit, some whose owners left as much as 50 or 60 years ago, when the major plants began to close, this initial ten thousand is only a beginning to the full address of the problem. Detroit is suffering from a willful neglect over several generations. It’s metropolitan area does not care for the city – yet it does want to build a new half billion dollar sports stadium downtown for its professional hockey team. While I was in Chicago I saw how that city moves quickly to seal up abandoned properties, and does not allow block after block to totally collapse as you see in most of Detroit. So in a way I see my photographs as a form of autopsy of the mind, through capturing images of destroyed private and commercial properties, condemned former factory buildings in urban centers, and the like. In Houston the historic Third Ward, where generations of African-Americans have lived, is a beat-down ghetto that looks as if it were hit by Hurricane Katrina. Yet go a few blocks away in any direction and see the spectacular rise of office towers and condominiums, of huge gracious homes lining beautiful neighborhoods, all carved out of the former working class inner-city Houston are called The  Loop. The Loop is the inner business corridor of Houston. Its where the world’s largest medical center is located. Its where five different business districts reside, including the ultra chic River Oaks and the remarkable downtown Houston skyline. Houston shows what happens when the greater region wants the inner city to thrive. Chicago does the same, as it gentrifies one block at a time on the South Side, now all the way south to the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles.

To see my work visit



Matthew Day Jackson’s New Paintings and Sculpture at Hauser & Wirth Gallery

Text by Samuel CochranPhotography courtesy of Hauser & Wirth
September 9, 2013
Matthew Day Jackson, Enshrouded ParisEnshrouded Paris, 2013.

An arresting array of themes emerge in artist Matthew Day Jackson’s latest body of work, now on view at Hauser & Wirth’s 18th Street gallery in Manhattan. There are astrological cues, chief among them a leitmotif of lunar topography that appears everywhere from a monumental bronze sculpture—based on Rodin’s Burghers of Calais—to a rust-covered plastic wall panel. The latter shares a room with a cartographic model of Paris, which is rendered to stunning effect in rugged relief and Yves Klein blue.

Matthew Day Jackson, Inside/OutsideInside/Outside, 2013.

Elsewhere, the human form is portrayed in various dissected states. A large-scale wall sculpture, for instance, separates the body’s systems, archaeologist-like, into side-by-side cases. For a series of tableaux, meanwhile, Jackson combined charred-wood inlay, silkscreened imagery, twine, metal, and other materials into striking anatomical studies.

Matthew Day Jackson, Reclining NudeReclining Nude, 2013.

The overall spirit is simultaneously that of discovery and destruction. “These disparate icons, images, and materials—they all fit together,” says Jackson. “What I’m trying to create is a sense of cohesion.”

Matthew Day Jackson, Yosemite ValleyLooking into Yosemite Valley, 2013.

Titled “Something Ancient, Something New, Something Stolen, Something Blue,” the exhibition runs through October 19. At 511 West 18th Street, New York City;

More on


Looking Into Yosemite Valley (2013) and Scholar's Stone (2013)

Looking Into Yosemite Valley (2013) and Scholar’s Stone (2013)

Installation view.

Installation view.

Matthew Day Jackson’s Milestones

By Allyson Shiffman

“This may be egotistical to say, but I think there will be some things seen for the first time,” says artist Matthew Day Jackson of his latest exhibition at Hauser & Wirth’s Chelsea space. Titled “Something Ancient, Something New, Something Stolen, Something Blue,” a play on the age-old wedding tradition, Jackson’s show is a marriage of disparate themes that expand to the far reaches of the universe (the surface of the moon is a recurring image). These dissimilar ideas collide in a show that includes everything from dangling flesh in the image of Michelangelo to savage landscapes to a rock sculpture fashioned via 3-D printer.

“What I like to do is lead with a hug and, as we get deeper and deeper in the work, it becomes a strangle hold, and I’ll crush the bones of your body,” says Jackson. “Some of the work is rough and smothering, like being buried alive.” It is an approach best described by what the artist deems as “the horriful.” Jackson’s interpretation of the morbid and grotesque always has an element of palatability, which contributes to the artist’s mounting success. Even the self-portrait of Jackson as a corpse suspended in a tree—the artist does a work depicting himself deceased every 10 years—exhibits a pleasing softness.

Though the show covers a lot of ground, it is evident in the artist’s walkthrough that every minute component is considered. It is the way Jackson pieces together the seemingly unrelated that is most astounding—a practice that extends to the artist’s personal life. “My son is over there,” Jackson says, pointing to the child among those gathered to preview the exhibit. “My wife and I don’t look like each other, but you can see a bit of both of us in our son.”





A Death Staged Over and Over

Matthew Day Jackson Faces Mortality as Part of New Show

more in New York-Culture »


Matthew Day Jackson has died five times, each with a sense of ceremony, and he plans to continue the habit.

One of his latest works, “Me, Dead at 39,” to be unveiled in a momentous show at the Chelsea gallery Hauser & Wirth, is a self-portrait of the artist expired from unknown causes, hanging high above the ground and wrapped in a blanket as eternity looms.

Bjorn LoossMatthew Day Jackson works from his ‘Me, Dead’ series at age 35.

Bjorn Looss Matthew Day Jackson works from his ‘Me, Dead’ series at age 37.



Sarah ThompsonMatthew Day Jackson works from his ‘Me, Dead’ series at age 36.



Philipp BaumgartenArtist Matthew Day Jackson

Tree burial—in which corpses are wrapped, raised and exposed to the elements—is one of several rites that Mr. Jackson has emulated in his “Me, Dead” series, and stems from a fascination with funereal practices across cultures. “There’s a rash of photography of settlers moving across the American plains encountering stilt burials, or tree burial,” he said. “In Tibet, they bury children in baskets in trees.”

In 2009, he began the series with “Me, Dead at 35,” which shows him in a coffin. Another, created when he was 37 years old, places him in a funeral pyre, only his feet visible from the flames. Yet another, “Me, Dead at 38,” depicts him as a skeleton picked clean by vultures.

“We all know that we’re going to die,” Mr. Jackson, now 39, said at his Brooklyn studio. “Some people live in fear of that. Some people are afraid but wring it out.”

“Me, Dead” began as an attempt to purge traits that he wanted put to rest, particularly while preparing for the birth of his first child. “I was always trying to be better, all the time, but there’s really nothing to prove that,” he said. “If there are things you don’t like and you make a public document about how you’re trying to fix it, you have to, or you’re just a phony.”

As the series progressed, with a new photo staged each year around his birthday, some macabre humor sneaked in. “I want them to be funny—they’re ridiculous,” Mr. Jackson said. But he is serious about his work, which mixes sculpture, painting, performance and photography into projects that are often self-examining and expansive in scale.

For “Me, Dead at 39,” he built a metal-studded tree outside his studio, using a forklift and branches from a fallen specimen supplied by an arborist in Prospect Park. From that he hung 15 feet above the ground, wrapped in a blanket that he slept with as a child.

“It kept me warm, and I grew underneath it,” Mr. Jackson said. “It’s a trade blanket, made out of wool, and depending on how many hash marks it has, it denotes a certain value that was traded at trading posts for whatever American Indians had to trade.”

Wrapping himself in it also reminded him of the MRI procedures he has been required to undergo since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2006. “To get past the claustrophobic aspect of it,” he said, “you have to go
inside yourself. It’s like I’m in a coffin.”

Hauser & Wirth partner Marc Payot sees the series as part of a rich lineage. “It is one of the big themes of art, death, and he has no fear to take that on,” Mr. Payot said. “The great and challenging thing about Matt is that he’s risking everything, in every single piece, in every single show.”

A recent morning at the artist’s studio teemed with the consequences of those risks. “Victa,” a working race car to be suspended from the ceiling at Hauser & Wirth, had been taken for a test drive at a New Jersey track the night before—and crashed into a wall. “We’ll fix it,” Mr. Jackson said.

The car will play a role in an array of other works, including walls constructed to evoke a suburban home and an installation that resets a sculpture by Auguste Rodin on the surface of the moon. The mix is indicative of Mr. Jackson’s range, as well as his ability to put disparate elements in the service of a shared human experience.

“It offers me an opportunity,” he said of the collection, “to meditate on what this show is about: bodies.”

A version of this article appeared September 4, 2013, on page A22 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Death Staged Over and Over.



Guests feast on Matthew Day Jackson’s edible life-size sculpture


Friday 27 May 2011


Last week in London, audience participation in art reached a new level – an assembled throng ate an artist. The fashionably decrepit interior of 33 Portland Place – a house whose peeling rooms are now famous for starring in The King’s Speech – played host to a life-size sculpture, or golem, of the American Matthew Day Jackson that had been lovingly made in sponge cake in the south London bakery of the St John restaurant. It was consumed throughout the evening.

“It was surprisingly unsqueamish,” said Sara Harrison, the director of Hauser & Wirth, the gallery which is showing Day Jackson’s work. It helped that the body parts were stuck together with a delicious butter cream, the lungs were made of marzipan and other organs were created from chocolate fondant and a raspberry mousse.

Day Jackson said: “I’m not really afraid of death. Do I want to die? No. But as you go through life you’re continually shedding bits of your self and hopefully you become a better person.” We met at the Bermondsey bakery where two golems were being assembled on slabs by St John’s head chef, Chris Gillard.

The sweet golem has been consumed but the second, a savoury variant made in brawn (calves’ feet and pig’s-head jelly packed with tripe, carrots, leeks and parsley) is in a sealed room. Day Jackson is filming its rapid decomposition. “I’d like it to dissolve into nothing,” he said. “That will be a shift, a change. But nothing really dies. It just changes.”

Matthew Day Jackson: Everything Leads to Another, Hauser & Wirth, London W1 (020 7287 2300) to 30 July


Art July 11th, 2011
  • In Conversation

MATTHEW DAY JACKSON with Charles Schultz

by Charles Schultz

After returning from London where he opened his first solo show, Everyth
ing Leads to Another,
at Hauser and Wirth (May 20 – July 30), Matthew Day Jackson came by the Rail’s headquarters to talk about his work, creative process, and drag racing plans with Artseen contributor Charles Schultz.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Charles Schultz (Rail): I think most people would consider you a sculptor, but you really came to that in your MFA program at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers. You were a printmaker and a painter before then, no?

Matthew Day Jackson: I went to the University of Washington in Seattle for my undergrad and I studied printmaking. After graduating I went to Los Angeles and worked at Gemini as a professional printmaker and was very lucky to meet many of the artists Gemini worked with, most notably Ed Ruscha, Robert Rauschenberg, and Richard Serra. I worked with Richard for about a year and a half while at Gemini, and those were really, really influential times. I started painting when I was in Los Angeles. I had never been taught how to paint. Kind of ironically I was never really taught how to make sculpture either. But I was accepted to Rutgers in painting and printmaking and the first thing that I did when I got there was throw everything away—this is a reoccurring theme throughout, even until now.

Rail: Who were some of the professors that had an impact on you at Rutgers?

Jackson: Hanneline Røgeberg and Thomas Nozkowski and Geoffrey Hendricks were really important to my development. Hanneline was a very important part of my education. I think she saw that I was extremely immature and kind of flailing about.

Rail: That’s not so uncommon. What kind of advice did she have for you? What made her so important?

Jackson: I think she had patience for me, and I like to think that she thought I was worth the patience. There are still things that came from her readings that are part of the work.

In hindsight I really saw the university as something to fight against, which was just an outward expression of my immaturity. This made me sort of un-fun to be around at times.

Rail: Did you come to New York straight after Rutgers?

Jackson: Actually I lived in Brooklyn for my last year at Rutgers. I found New Brunswick to be a pretty depressing place. Ironically, I lived in a totally depressing basement on North Seventh and Berry, underneath what is now a furniture store.

Rail: The sculptures you were making at that time were very craft oriented. Now—almost exactly a decade since you graduated from Rutgers—your work involves a lot of professional fabrication. Has that shift had an influence on your creative approach and process?

Jackson: Not really. I’ve always worked to the maximum of my ability—financially, spiritually, in terms of space, in terms of my physical energy, and all of those things in conjunction at any given point throughout my entire life. In terms of craft, it probably came from growing up around people that were really good at making stuff. My grandfather is an exceptional craftsman, my cousin Skip is a brilliant fabricator; he builds cars from the ground up. My mother is incredibly gifted at making things with her hands. There is a power to making things. On one level it just makes you feel good, like therapy or something, but at the same time when you make something, it’s a measure of proof that you exist.

Rail: I like what you’re saying about the idea of making art as a kind of claim on your existence. One of the things I’ve often thought about when looking at your work and its bountiful references to historic events and famous people is that this is a history you’re affected by. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt your work was not so much pointing to these things as it was claiming them. A statement like, “I’m affected by this history” becomes “this is my history,” and that’s much more empowering.

Jackson: I think “embody” is a better word. It’s not necessarily that I’m claiming history. It’s not even something that I’m truly cognizant of, necessarily. History is a part of every single action, every single thing that we do. We don’t choose it; it kind of chooses us. We are a product of our environment. I think that it’s a matter of seeing things in the world around me, things I read, a photograph on the Internet, things I see riding my bike down the street. There are these moments where its almost like a radar ping. In being who we are, we are constantly sending these signals out to the world, and when you start to get a signal back—that is the thing that’s acknowledging our presence, our vision. And at that moment, that’s the point when you’ve chosen it. We’ve sent the signal out, the signal comes back to us, and at that moment we embody history and as we send these signals out its just showing that we’re aware of doing so.

Rail: I think the idea of recognition is important because it plays heavily into what you’re saying about being aware. The more you open yourself up to different experiences, different perspectives, the more pings you can send out, and the more opportunity you have to be pinged back. But I’m not so sure that everyone realizes when they’re being pinged back. You really have to pay attention to what you are embodying, what is at the root of your motivations.

Matthew Day Jackson, “Study Collection VII,” 2011. Stainless steel shelving, plastic, steel, ceramics, resin, wood, tarpaper. 96 1/8 × 241 × 12 1/4″.

Jackson: That’s true. For me its preverbal, I can’t really quantify it in any other sense. Aware, present, passionate are all things required to maintain an open position. I can tell you where it started though. I think in 2000. There was a Damien Hirst show at Gagosian Gallery that I went to with my grandfather. We are extremely close, like best friends. We argue, argue, argue, argue, and then we’ll have dinner together—its really healthy. I learned so much about how to express who I am verbally through talking with my grandfather. So we went to the Damien Hirst show, and you know, I was pretty vulnerable as a graduate student. I was just beginning to grasp the immensity of the world that I wanted to participate in. Going to the Hirst show where the level of production is so extravagant and the mythos of the artist is practically palpable, everything in that space just gave me a “holy moly!” reaction. My grandpa was like, “What is that crap,” and I was like, “Yeah that sucks too, yeah you suck, that sucks, everything sucks.” And then when I walked out I was like, “Wait, that didn’t suck. Why did I feel that way?” Taste aside, art was something that I cared about. I felt I owed it to myself to give it serious attention rather than just falling back on simple knee-jerk reactions, which are motivated by comfort. So I forced myself to go back many times. I tried to involve myself in the conversation these objects had in relationship to one another. I read a lot about Damien Hirst and really got into it. In the end I actually found myself opened up rather than just reverting to knee jerk reactions and I’ve worked really hard ever since to maintain that openness. I think that is where awareness starts, with openness. Comfort is proof that the devil exists, and that comfort keeps you from being able to actually see or truly experience something. We come with these preconceived notions that we already know what it’s going to be, but we don’t. I mean this is still a struggle, a daily struggle. I’ll die trying to stay open.

Rail: I think there’s a fine
line between discomfort, vulnerability, and insecurity. Insecurity shuts you down, but to be uncomfortable in a situation comes one step before insecurity. At that point you’re not yet self-consumed. It’s the opposite; you’re acutely aware of everything affecting you.

Jackson: Consider the base level. In an emergency situation, the very first thing that kicks in is our creativity. How do I get myself out of this situation? How do I get through it? Of course I don’t believe that’s the best use of creativity. I’m not necessarily saying you have to maintain this moment of discomfort, it’s not like that. But at the very beginning, to start understanding creativity, to start understanding the location of it, to start understanding its essence and its importance—maybe that begins with a traumatic experience.

Rail: When you talk about creativity having a starting point in trauma, Joseph Beuys comes to mind right away. His entire artistic career was born out of a mythic trauma: the “Tartar legend” or “Tartar myth.” Your work came into the popular conscience in 2005 with the Greater New York show and in 2006 with the Whitney Biennial. Those were traumatic years. Did that post-9/11 atmosphere of trauma influence your creative perspectives?

Jackson: No, not really. I think that the formative thing that came from that was the conversation of terrorism. What is terrorism? Who are terrorists? It forced me to look into the history of my country. There’s a large part of the foundation of this country that is born through terrorism. Think about our slave history, or the suppression of political organizations through the ’50s and late ’60s. There are levels of terror that aren’t the work of a band of religious zealots but by the same corporations and government that make up the foundation and backbone of our country. That’s what generated a lot of the earlier work.

Rail: One of your major sculptures from that time is “Sepulcher (Viking Burial Ship),” which was the start of what would become an ongoing series of—for lack of a better word—suicide pieces.

Jackson: They’re not really about suicide though. I mean, it was a willful death, but it was more like an exorcism. When I made that sculpture I wanted to make something that was at once a burial and was built entirely out of everything that I either lived with or made. I wanted to make something that was setting forth, if you think of Richard Serra’s verb list: to cut, to chop, to tear. I was thinking of the boat along the lines of how I learned prepositions as a small child: in the boat, under the boat, next to the boat. In that sense, the boat becomes a sort of locus of where I am in relationship to the ideas that revolve around it. It becomes a device to understand formal structure, to understand the formal aspects of making the sculpture that I was setting forth to make. It’s still an important piece actually. I guess I would say it’s central to my practice. Everything else that came from that is mobilized by that piece. I wanted to make something in the affirmative of what I felt sculpture should be, while at the same time casting away the artist that I no longer wanted to be. I was at once becoming and sort of falling away. And it was really new and exciting. I made it in my living room, and it felt urgent, like a thing that had to be made. I felt that it was a line that I had to draw in the sand, except I was the only person that was going to see whether or not I crossed the line, you know?

Rail: That piece does seem to have a profound sense of energy to it. I don’t know how it couldn’t considering all the personal material that you put into it. You mentioned that piece as a kind of touchstone for much of your later work. Has it all felt as essential?

Jackson: You know, I think that there are different levels of engagement, yet I see every single thing that I make or do as being as important as that. And I think that there will be people that will think that some things are more successful than others, but I don’t see it that way. I don’t make things to satisfy anybody other than myself, which I know is a bit selfish, and maybe ridiculous, but I want to maintain the intensity and the integrity of that initial experience.

Rail: Can you describe that intensity of experience?

Jackson: It’s like smoking crack. You make something and you’re like “whoa!” because it totally goes against everything you are comfortable with, or reveals something you have only seen in a dream. I can’t understate the power of that. But there is also a sense of awe or amazement. You say to yourself, “I, or we, made that and it was really special.” It’s a feeling that lasts about three and a half seconds, and then immediately you’re looking for that next fix and the only way to get it is to follow the formal strategy as set forth by all of the previous work. I think that you always have to follow that. I might be coming from the same nexus of thinking; I may be the same person and this is where the structure lies. In maintaining a fixed position of openness the work can change all the time. I also would say that each work is a failure, and to go about making the same work over and over again would be to live as a fool. It’s the search for that moment and the drive to always get better that are the prime motivators.

Rail: I think the Study Collection series is good example of that kind of change over time. The format is pretty standard—shelves on wall with objects on shelves—but every piece carries a different realm of objects, most of which were actually experiments that didn’t work out technically-speaking, but were still valid evidence of an effort and idea.

Matthew Day Jackson, “Sepulcher,” 2004. Wood, vinyl, fabric. 120 × 96 × 204”. Courtesy the artist and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Jackson: Yeah, absolutely. But you have to remember that the Study Collections feature figure sculpture. I look at them as figures. The way that they are separated is basically by eight-foot units, which is the length of common lumber, plywood, or two-by-fours. I think of that unit in terms of a scale of one, as I would think of my own height as a scale of one. This could be thought of as an expression of the power of the individual, and the influence that individual has on the whole. This is a sort of constructivist notion. The way that all the shelves from top to bottom are divided is based on the basic structure of a human body. Head, torso, hips, femur, shins, feet. The objects on the shelves can relate to one another side by side, or maybe diagonally, but definitely in terms of thinking about the location of thought, the location of one’s soul, one’s libido, the parts of the body that give you support and mobility. But at the same time, the Study Collections are a cross section of the show, and a cross section of who I’ve become in making whatever show that was. And so I think of them also along the lines of self-portraiture, as if these sculptures are material facts of my becoming.

Rail: As if they mark a passage. It’s not exactly a state of “being,” but of “becoming,” which is kind of a liminal space, like a threshold. Would you agree?

Jackson: I am always on the threshold; we all are. So, since I kind of don’t believe in a here or there, I am always somewhere in between. It is sort of like this: I don’t believe in a masterpiece, and I don’t believe in epiphany. These would suggest, respectively, the end of learning, and perhaps a lack of attention. Life is an accumulation of everything, and it is all of this that informs our thinking. In trying to be open I recognize that the past is present, and
as now happens it is subsumed into the mass of history. We live on the edge of the ever-expanding orb of history. “Becoming” is a place to be. Or “becoming” is the place to be.

Rail: That’s interesting. I’ve often thought of the Study Collection pieces as stem cells because they contain all the information, albeit in a highly concentrated form, of the histories and themes that are extrapolated in other works.

Jackson: Yeah, you could think of them that way. But do you know why they’re called Study Collections? In many museums there are parts of the collection that are called the study collection, which are available for academics and researchers to have an intimate relationship with a part of the collection. You can handle pieces of the study collection if you’re writing a paper, or whatever, and actually live with them—experience the object with your hands, without some sort of plastic barrier keeping you separate from it. Really, I hope that people would feel comfortable enough to just go up to the shelf and take parts off of it and investigate it for themselves. If you look, many of the supports aren’t permanently attached. Some of them are, but most of them are actually meant to be taken off, to be handled. It’s really interesting that that’s still a taboo: to handle art. It’s kind of funny. You know in a national park the only animal that’s not allowed off of the path is the human animal because, invariably, it’s going to fuck everything up. It’s a shame that it would be the same for art, but I’m kind of still figuring that out. We’ll see what happens.

Rail: This takes us to the idea of the archive. One of the things I’ve seen in your work, moving from “Sepulcher” to “Chariot” and “Chariot II” to one of your newest sculptures, “Axis Mundi,” is that they all either carry relics or are themselves composed of relics. They become vessels that carry, or embody, these different histories and ideas. Can you talk about how the idea of a relic fits into your work?

Matthew Day Jackson, “Axis Mundi,” 2011. Repurposed cockpit of a B-29 aircraft, aluminium, red oak, glass, steel, plastic, lead, bronze, iron, obsidian, leather, silver, stainless steel, concrete. 146 7/8 × 189 × 232 1/4″.

Jackson: The artifact or relic operates in the same way that reference does in my work. These are simply open doors through which people can enter the work and utilize their own knowledge to decode meaning in any of my work. So, whether it’s a Bruce Nauman reference or the real cockpit from a B-29 bomber, these are things that many people already understand. I love how this creates meanings that I never could have orchestrated, and is essentially an expression of faith not only in the work, but in the viewer as well. This is not how I think about it when I am working, as I am not concerned with the viewer because I could never guess what they like or what would hold their interest. The work will find its friends, which in turn directs me towards kindred spirits as well. I think this has much to do with the Drag Racing Team, not so much the car but rather a conversation of a sort of social sculpture.

Rail: Well, talking about race cars, I understand you’re a fourth generation driver in your family, however I think you may be the first artist to start a super comp dragster racing team as an art project.

Jackson: For me there is a connection here that goes back to seeing my cousin and my uncle’s shop. My cousin built I don’t even know how many racecars. And being around that, around somebody who knew exactly what he was doing—he’s not just a maker; he’s also a practitioner, and a damn good one! I always looked up to him. When I think about it, I really learned how to make much of what I call sculpture by going to his racing shop.

Rail: Will he have any part in the construction of the dragster you’ll be driving?

Jackson: No, he will have a sort of advisory role and is hopefully going to answer really important questions like: What do you do when you second-guess yourself? [Laughs.] He’s been a driving teacher for a very long time as well, so I’ll be calling him a lot to get whatever information I can get from him.

Rail: If I understand correctly, the car that you’re racing will eventually become a sculpture. Could you talk about what that transition means?

Jackson: Sure. I was thinking that as the car moves from the racetrack to the gallery that it transmutes all of its purpose from utility to meaning. If you think about a racecar, it has no extraneous parts. Every single nut and bolt is absolutely necessary. A successful sculpture is the same way; nothing is extraneous. And, so, when the car moves from the racetrack to the showing space—from a car to sculpture—you’ll be able to project this car in your imagination and understand what it’s made for based upon what it’s made of, the location of the materials in reference to the form, and what those things are telling you in terms of its meaning.

Rail: What about the team? You mentioned how the team might function as a kind of social sculpture. Can you talk about that aspect of this project?

Jackson: Well the drag racing team is a nonprofit organization. Any money that’s generated from this project is going to go directly into a grants organization. If the car sells as a sculpture, for instance, that money will go towards this organization. The grant will be a visionary grant, which I know sounds a little hokey but it’s not at all. It will be for people that are on the edge of thinking with regard to their practice, whether it be cooking, modern dance, poetry, art, science. And maybe there’s not an object, maybe there’s not a thing that they can sell, or anything like that. Basically I want to create a grant for people that are pushing our thinking further in any medium.

Rail: It all comes full circle in a sense. I mean, this project is inconceivable without a team of people. So it seems true to form that it would resolve itself in some kind of a community focused program.

Jackson: I think that for me there are moments where you feel very alone, like nobody understands what you’re doing, but it’s incredibly important to push through that. There are very few systems in the city of New York or in the United States in general that will foster the sort of bravery it requires to see through the pressure to fill the status quo. And I think that if I could do one thing that gives one person the feeling of validation, the chance to work out their ideas—that’s what I hope this is will create. The drag racing team is going to have many people involved and I’m totally open to whomever wants to join me. We have a team poet, we have a team photographer, a team video documentarian—we don’t have very many engine guys or gals [laughs]. I don’t know how it will work out; we’ll see what happens!

Rail: Indeed, we shall see. It seems like it has the potential to be a pretty transformative experience in a lot of different dimensions.

Jackson: Transformation, yes—almost certainly. I think of the whole transition as an expression of transmutation too, and this connects back to what we were saying with regard to pings and personal radar. A kind of transmutation, or maybe transference, happens when you’re walking down the street and something goes by you—an advertisement on a bus, let’s say—that makes you realize there’s a particular thing you’ve been wanting to make for a very long time, but you didn’t really know what that thing looked like until the bus passed by. And that’s the point whe
n you realize that art needs to be made about it. I think that in terms of the transfer from utility to meaning, from racetrack to museum—that relationship is very, very clear. It has its own sense of balance, with its fulcrum point directly in the middle. But going back to what I was first saying about the influence of the outside world inspiring a certain part of one’s vision which then gets turned into or transmuted through one’s mind and hands into an object that’s a record of that experience—I’m not entirely sure where the fulcrum is on that.

Rail: What you’re describing is a pretty complex chain of association. This process no doubt repeats itself, but probably rarely in the same exact manner. It’s a bit like a learning curve. It’s a universal experience, not only different for everyone but usually different for the same person, depending on the situation.

Jackson: That’s true, and here’s the other thing: If I can see the outcome of what I’m setting forth, I lose interest in it almost immediately. I think that there is the idea of “learning through making,” which for me was inspired by Larry Bamburg, who is right up on the edge of what sculpture is today. Once the learning is done, the object is complete. It may not be a complete sculpture per se, but the learning experience is expressed. So then the viewer becomes involved in the process of learning. I’m very inspired by that idea, and part of the drag racing team comes straight from that inspiration. I’m heavily, maybe sometimes even to a fault, sort of seduced by some of my friends’ passion and inspiration, but whatever. That’s not a bad place to be.

Rail: Not at all.

Interview by Lauren Ross
. . .
matthew day jackson, life, june 12, 1944, 2009, burned and painted wood, lead
(courtesy grimm, amsterdam)

The first time I visited Matthew Day Jackson’s studio, I asked him to discuss some of the references in his work. He paused thoughtfully, looked at me, and asked, in absolute earnestness, “How much time do you have?” Indeed, the sources for Jackson’s sculptures, paintings, drawings, and photographs are so varied, it’s a challenge to approach them in a reductive manner. Jackson casts a wide net across disciplines of history, art, science, philosophy, sports, music, technology, and popular culture, resulting in works that are anything but homogenous. Reveling in their own contradiction, they are simultaneously quotidian and epic, grave and uplifting, vanquished and optimistic.

Jackson recently completed a residency at MIT where he researched the university archives, culling information on the Apollo 11 moon landing and folding it into particulars relating to J. Robert Oppenheimer and the first atomic bombs, visionary architect/designer Buckminster Fuller, among other sources. The resulting exhibition, “The Immeasurable Distance,” was held at MIT’s List Center before traveling to Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, where it will be on view until January 17, 2010. When we conducted this interview in September, Jackson had just shipped out an exhibition’s worth of work to the Grimm Gallery in Amsterdam (October 10 – November 21, 2009).

matthew day jackson, the immeasurable distance, 2009, mit list visual arts center

Lauren Ross: How do you approach the making of your work? Do you think of it serially or as finite bodies of work that are complete thoughts? Or do you shape it around specific exhibitions?

MATTHEW DAY JACKSON: It changes all the time. I think of my pieces as individual musical tracks, whether it’s 8, 16, 32, or 64, that together comprise a song. They all happen at the same time, interdependently, but each fulfills a certain facet of the greater concern, which is the relationship between my internal and external worlds. As I walk, read, talk to people, listen to music, watch television, movies, YouTube, I see, hear, feel, smell, and taste things that are a mirror of myself. At the same time, I am concerned with objects outside of myself in the greater pantheon of information that makes up the society in which I live. When I’m making an exhibition, it’s kind of like making a play; each character on its own would be nothing without its counterpart or antithesis, like a protagonist and antagonist. If there is one great strategy, it is that magic is afoot, and that I should be curious and explore always.

Ross: So, the work is influenced by your immediate environment and changing conditions in your life?

JACKSON: Yeah, it’s everything. Even in your most ordinary moments, your body is sensing everything around it. Why shouldn’t art-making be like that, but in reverse? It should be like wringing yourself out. Art, for me, is just a way to learn more completely and cohesively about the person I am and the person I’m becoming. As I’m making things, I’m learning new things about myself. Hopefully, that learning can be an element of another person’s learning about [himself or herself]. Maybe just one person outside of myself would be fine.

Ross: Do you think about your audience’s perspective when you make your work? Do you think, “I want this to be as interesting to an art historian as it is to an astrophysicist’’?

JACKSON: I have concerns that an astrophysicist might share—and maybe also a four-year-old child. I examine human predicaments, so universality is kind of built-in. In terms of audience, I do think about locale, like the cultural currency of the place where I’m showing. For example, when I did the show at MIT, my experience with the people there influenced the work.

Ross: Tell me about the show in Amsterdam.

JACKSON: It’s called “Dynamic Maximum Tension,” which is the full version of the word “Dymaxion” which Buckminster Fuller used to describe a principle of using the full potential of material, thinking, and form together. That idea of mashing history, form, art history, and personal concerns together—not simplifying it, but rather letting it be multifaceted and even confused and pulling itself apart—I love that. That’s what I’m after.

matthew day jackson, dymaxion biotron, 2009, stainless steel, plastic, wood, lead, gold, axe handles, neon light
(courtesy grimm, amsterdam)

JACKSON: A lot of the images in the show address the act of falling or being buoyant, whether it’s the burned interior of the lunar module, Joseph Kittinger falling from space, or the bronze cast of the raft from the Mercury space missions. It’s not really the polarities that I’m thinking about, but rather the space in-between. Tension is the thing that keeps everything together, again like a protagonist and an antagonist in a narrative. I guess it’s like an orbit, where there is a balance of forces in play. Apart but connected.

So, a lot of the pieces in the show have to do with atmosphere. I don’t just mean oxygen and such, but everything—the culture that we create that also informs who we are. You’re constantly in culture, it’s constantly telling you who you are, and you’re constantly coming back at it. Producing things that inform culture, like writing, dance, or artwork, is equivalent to terminal velocity. It’s like reaching a point where you can
t fall any faster because the force of gravity is fighting the pressure and the material of the atmosphere.

Ross: One of the things that seems to me to be distinctive about your work is that you draw on such a broad range of, not just disciplines, but modes of thought. For some viewers, the sources might seem totally disparate, but they’re not to you. You see the connection between all of these things.

JACKSON: Absolutely.

Ross: And you don’t seem to subscribe to the idea of dichotomies. Like science and religion, for example, which many people view as opposites, you don’t seem to think of them that way at all.

JACKSON: No, not at all! However, I would say it like this: Science is akin to the spiritual, while technology is akin to religion. It’s not necessarily that I see it all the time, but I do see the interconnectivity of a lot of things, and I’m trying to get to the point where I see the interconnectivity between all things. I imagine that moment when my child will open his or her eyes for the first time, and nothing’s really delineated. Nothing will have the same meaning for him or her that it has for me. I think that for a brief moment, in a child’s eyes, everything is connected. Everything is one, nothing more important than anything else. And I think if I could, in my adult life, get some better understanding of how everything is connected, then I’m doing a good job somehow.

Ross: Buckminster Fuller’s denunciation of specialization, especially the breakdown between the sciences and the humanities, seems really significant to you.

JACKSON: Yeah, it is—not so much Fuller’s forms or artifacts, but his writing. And the basic structure of his thinking, making, and doing has a huge influence. It’s something that we don’t have many models for. Being an interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary artist, there’s a lot of room to be misunderstood, even now. Yeah, he’s a big influence, but he’s one player in a cast in my head. As far as specialization, I’m very much against it, for anything. To specialize is to suppress creativity. And I think creativity is an essential component to being a human being. It’s the invisible thing that connects us all.

matthew day jackson, in search of the miraculous, 2009, cast bronze (black patina), stainless steel
(courtesy grimm, amsterdam)

Ross: You’ve mentioned the idea of characters and narrative a couple of times now. Is there a difference between history and narrative? Or history and fiction?

JACKSON: No, I don’t think so. It’s one of the most interesting predicaments of being a human being—the problem of having just one position in relationship to something that’s happening, when there are 360 degrees of perspective. History, whether I understand it or not, totally informs who I am. It informs everybody, and yet it’s all relative to one’s locale. In the United States, we grow up with these arch-deities of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant—it’s in the realm of mythology. Much of American history, much of all history, does reside in mythology. My work is largely about how history is mythology. These are big events, from the lunar landing, to the Civil War, to western expansion. Also, we share in the formal aspects of these events things that pretty much all cultures deal with.

Ross: I think the way history is usually taught in school is very dry, factual, linear. This made that happen, and that made that happen…

JACKSON: My perspective on pretty much everything is that an event isn’t entirely predicated on the last event. It’s all of the events that lead up to that point. I think that’s another reason why there’s a nonlinear approach to making things and bringing things together. Chronology is part of the mythology as well. The way things have been built up isn’t really the way they happened. At the same time, it’s absolutely necessary to understand that historical events happen in relationship to one another because without knowing that, you just keep doing the same thing. And, actually, I think that’s what constantly happens, a sort of amnesia built into the culture that allows us to continuously step in the same shit.

Ross: So, do you feel that you’re taking a critical stance against the ways events are reported and distorted?

JACKSON: I don’t believe in stances because that would suggest that I’ve arrived somewhere, but in general I believe there’s no line in art, there’s no line in making and being creative. If you follow that thing in your head that creates images, sounds, flavors, smells, or movements, then you should try to see what they look like in real space and time, in front of you, or with your body. As an artist, I just don’t believe in abiding by any sort of line.

Ross: So, if the work is a totally open exploration, are all readings of it valid?

JACKSON: Totally. I can’t control the readings, nor would I want to. Sometimes you hear wild interpretations of something that you’ve made. You’ve made something to try to make that dream in your head real, and then you hear someone else say something that you’ve never thought of before. There’s a certain beauty in that, maybe, for a brief moment because you’ve taken a step outside of yourself. And it’s something that you could never recreate. The vast majority of the things we do every day are powered by our unconscious, and you can’t really control them.

Ross: Speaking of giving up control, you sometimes embrace the element of chance when you work.

JACKSON: I use the element of chance in a lot of things. When I’m casting or doing something new, I generally just leave it kind of fucked up. It’s like a permanently frozen document of my learning how to do something. And often, when I really know how to do something, I lose interest and stop doing it. I think that’s another reason why I make so many different things; there always has to be that challenge, to see if I can do this thing that I’ve dreamt up.

Ross: Well, in the history of science and exploration, the accident has been this incredible catalyst. People set out to explore one thing, but through some random act or accident, something else extraordinary results.

JACKSON: Yeah, but we live in a culture that learns through trauma. I guess we do learn through amazing, joyful things, but whether it’s giant dirigibles bursting into flames or astronauts burning up on reentry into the atmosphere, those are the moments we learn a lot from. We are definitely a culture of aversive training, you know, punishment leaning. That’s how I’ve learned too—not from my parents, but from society. You don’t learn from the moment of joy. And a lot what we’ve learned has been the result of huge sacrifices. That is definitely something that I’m drawn to: the sacrifices [made by] certain individuals, whether it’s intense physical, intellectual, or philosophical sacrifice.

Ross: Your work celebrates a lot of heroes.

JACKSON: Heroes are the people who sacrifice to such a great degree that it shifts knowledge or experience. By examining heroes, I try to make them knowable so as to give myself permission to think about or do things differently. Trying to understand someone like Robert Oppenheimer gives me permission to think differently, but it also reminds me that everyone is capable of doing awful shit.

Ross: Certainly some of those scientists didn’t know, or didn’t intend, for their work to be used towards destructive ends.

JACKSON: That’s the problem when you get the army involved! The only way [the scientists] could do it was with giant funding. They really had no choice in the matter. They thought they were developing a weapon against Hitler. They had no idea that it woul
d be used on a country that was essentially seeking terms for surrender. We wouldn’t let them surrender. We needed a real-time test to see if this device to end all wars would work. It worked and created something just as awful as intended, and changed the world we live in. Reading Oppenheimer’s biography American Prometheus helped me learn about that moment in history and how our government used all of that beautiful thinking to kill indiscriminately.

Ross: Your work is often written about with reference to the failure of utopic thought.

JACKSON: Yeah, but it’s not for lack of trying. The thing is, I see beauty in the people going to Jonestown in Guyana. It was powered by beauty. Yes, there was unquestionably brainwashing and murder, but the motivations to follow this man were gorgeous. Why wouldn’t you want to be with people that you love and not have the pressures of this fucked-up culture that we live in? Why wouldn’t you want to be equal with your peers and be in a community where everybody loves each other? Through sculpture, I’m saying that I see the beauty in this thing. The way that I address it visually suggests that I’m not just talking about failure. I’m interested in motivations because the power for beauty and terror is in all of us.

matthew day jackson, here and now, 2008, formica, alcohol-based wood stain on panel

Ross: Well, earlier you mentioned the idea of cultural amnesia. Have we learned from our mistakes?

JACKSON: Absolutely. Things are getting better. Are they as good as we would like them to be? They never will be. But I have to believe that they will continue to get better. And if that means that I’m looking at the world through rainbow-colored glasses, then call me Elton John.

Ross: Well, your work doesn’t suggest someone who looks at the world through rainbow-colored glasses. It’s unquestionably about mortality.

JACKSON: Some things are pretty gloomy. Also, there’s an aspect of—I can’t think of a better word—“fuck you” in what I’m doing. Art is basically an anarchistic gesture, especially in the society that we live in, America, the artist is a trickster, a delinquent, a degenerate, someone not to be trusted with money or children. Yeah, so there is a dark side. And sometimes it’s more evident. But in the way that I make things, there’s also an obvious joy that undermines the gloominess. That goes back to the tension we were talking about before. How do you make the sculpture in the affirmative? Not in hugs, kisses, rainbows, and shit, but as a positive gesture. A lot of the things that I have been making recently, particularly in the MIT show, are joyful. There’s also humor to some degree, a certain boyish ridiculousness. But in the Grimm show, it’s fairly gloomy. If you were to look at it as a treatise on contemporary culture, it’s a pretty gloomy show. But in making I express a never-ending faith in the power of creativity, and an expression of joy and wonder in challenging myself.

Ross: Recently you’ve been focusing on the 1960s and early 70s. Why are you drawn to that era? Do you see it as being a particularly informative time in American culture?

JACKSON: You had this really powerful moment after 1969; there was the American Indian Movement, Rainbow Coalition, Black Panther Party. All of these things continued, it’s just that the hippies moved out and got jobs. But the dreams of hope and making the world a better place didn’t go away. By highlighting something like the lunar mission, which is like a military maneuver, I’m saying that it really wasn’t the end or the beginning of anything. It was just a different type of tank, a different type of machine, a different type of military vehicle. It was just a continuation of the same old thing. Technologically, scientifically, and spiritually speaking, it was of course, radical.

In my generation of artists, there’s a longing for that sort of collective concern between artists and their peers of the late 60s, as well as a radical shift in how we thought about things. That longing of recognizing that people were brazen enough to prescribe a different way, that’s something that I see all the time. There’s definitely a longing in what I do. But continuing to use the strategies that came to fruition then doesn’t make sense. Now is not the time to regurgitate the formal strategies of 1969 but rather to make new ones. I like to think of myself as a part of a generation of artists that is producing a shift in terms of ideas, art, and cultural production—how stories are told, how mythology and history coexist.

Ross: Who are some of your peers who you think are doing interesting work in that way?

JACKSON: There are way too many, but to name a few, Jay Heikes, Paul Chan, Josephine Meckseper, Larry Bamburg, Rosy Keyser, Cyprien Gaillard, Erin Sheriff, Rachel Harrison, Rashid Johnson, Ann Collier, Guido Van Der Werve, Christina Mackie, Charles Avery, Roger Hiorns, Adam Helms, Hilary Harnischfeger, Kalup Linzy, Will Villalongo…

Ross: You have talked about a kind of generational influence on your thinking.

JACKSON: Yeah, I think a lot of artists in my generation, born in the late 60s to mid-70s, shared similar experiences. We probably spent half of our lives analog and the rest of our lives are now digital. I think that plays a huge part in my basic philosophy of half-make, half-think. It’s about being in the middle space. On one hand, I was raised by people who were alive during the hippie movement, believing that everybody is equal and love is a powerful thing, but on the other, I was riding my skateboard to school, listening to Black Flag on my Walkman. It’s like being in a bunch of different places at the same time.

. . .




Issue 135 November–December 2010 RSS

Matthew Day Jackson


Fetish objects, totems and mementos; historical signs and the paranormal


Matthew Day Jackson is a consummate fetishist. I don’t mean that he’s off in a honey-smothered studio somewhere, smelling shoes or tickling mayonnaise. No, the Brooklyn-based artist has a fetish for fetishes themselves, and not the sexual kind. His art obsesses over specific objects and moments made totemic by their part in a history (whether military, Utopian, counter-cultural, scientific, artistic or automotive) and translates those same objects and moments into exquisitely crafted sculptures and wall-based works that play their own role in a private and tangled narrative. Jackson’s most recent exhibition, a two-part affair at both of Peter Blum’s spaces in New York, reveals a storyteller’s attraction towards mementos which add as much to one world as they reveal about another. In hindsight, this may be the driving force behind his practice since his heralded New York debut five years ago.
In Search of (2010), the 30-minute colour video that gave its name to Jackson’s show at Blum’s Chelsea space, borrows its title, style and sensibility from a 1970s television series (hosted by Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy) that examined mysterious and paranormal phenomena. In Jackson’s nearly pitch-p
erfect remake, the narrator investigates various forms of anthropomorphism: figures allegedly glimpsed in video footage of the Earth shot from outer space; faces gleaned in rock formations supposedly photographed by a disappeared artist named Matthew Day Jackson; and ‘Eidolon Objects’ uncovered in the American southwest which, according to the narrator, are either a collective hallucination made real, extraterrestrial in origin, or nothing more than the sum of their empirical parts.
It is in these complex pedigrees that one first sees Jackson’s fascination with the way things accrue meaning (whether factual or fictional) and transform themselves through narratives and associations – from mere things to artistic material to significant markers to fetish objects and back again. In Study Collection VI (2010), a handful of the video’s Eidolon Objects appear in a stainless steel bookshelf that stretches nearly six metres along the gallery wall. There are vases, x-rays, neon signs, a brass ring so big it could be worn as a necklace, an Eames leg brace (described by the video’s narrator as ‘an intricately worked mask’), and many other incredibly seductive objects displayed like precious artifacts. This is a cabinet of curiosities, where a single item can trigger a story that conflicts and cooperates and confounds itself and its neighbours.
Consider August 6, 1945 (2010): the title of this enormous wall-piece gives the date that the US dropped the ‘Little Boy’ atomic bomb on Hiroshima, but the image rendered in charred wood is a topographic view of Hamburg, which underwent a bombing campaign in 1943 that has been described as ‘the Hiroshima of Germany’. With a sleight of hand and a nudge from history, Jackson sacrifices time and space at the altar of signification. His loaded date, potent map and vivid detail spin their own story; one that supplements the past as it elides it, using the power of time, language and association to build a space that speaks of both bombings but exits somewhere else entirely.
Earlier works such as Sepulcher (2003–4), the viking burial ship made of abandoned art projects flying a Piet Mondrian-inspired sail fashioned from punk T-shirts that Jackson rode to notoriety for the 2005 ‘Greater New York’ show at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, employ a similar method of meaning-making, but in a nascent stage. There, Jackson’s coming-of-age experiences, captured by fetish objects conjuring modern art and punk and his previous creative efforts combine to make a hybrid ship that connects his past with other pasts, while making some new object in the present. In more recent works, he seems to realize that his personal experience isn’t the only place where potent symbols mix and mingle to make something new. Indeed, Jackson’s latest creations suggest that the world, the past, facts, lies, beliefs, and everything else are susceptible to – or shaped by – a similar process.
Unsurprisingly, considering his affinity for these impossibly conjured worlds, Jackson is a Jorge Luis Borges buff, who hasn’t backed away from nodding to the Modernist master of tricky realms and troublesome totems. In 2008, he mounted an exhibition at Nicole Klagsbrun in New York called ‘Drawings from Tlön’, an overt reference to the 1940 story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ (which is also mentioned by name in the video In Search of). In Borges’ story the narrator details his discovery of a group of intellectuals that hope to imagine a new world into being through fictions set adjacent to facts and sheer mental will. ‘The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world,’ Borges writes. ‘Enchanted by its rigour, humanity forgets over and again that it is a rigour of chess masters, not of angels.’ I’m not sure if Jackson’s project is quite as ambitious, or devious, as that, but I’m certain his work is inspired by a similar belief in art’s power to build worlds that become realities complex enough to change the world they inhabit.

Graham T. Beck

Art Press for Vincent Johnson in Photography 2013 at Another Year in LA gallery West Hollywood

Artillery Calendar

Post An Event | View On-going events


Another Year in LA


Artist Name:
Richard Haley, Vincent Johnson, John Knuth, Ann Mitchell, Rachel Sussman

California Toilet: The Sink, by Vincent Johnson (2010)

8687 Melrose Blvd, Suite B267, PDC, West Hollywood, CA 90069

Opening Reception
Thu. Jan 17, 2013 @ 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm

Start Date:
Thu. Jan 17, 2013

End Date:
Fri. Mar 08, 2013

Description: Although there are only five artists (Richard Haley, Vincent Johnson, John Knuth, Ann Mitchell, Rachel Sussman) in PHOTOGRAPHY 2013, the range of imagery in this

Thursday, January 17


Today, January 17th 2013

  • Click to enlarge

    Another Year In LA

  • California Toilet: The Sink, by Vincent Johnson (2010)
  • Design Lab at Pacific Design Center, Suite B267, 8687 Melrose Avenue  / +13232234000 /

  • Tue – Fri 12pm to 5pm

    Richard Haley, Vincent Johnson, John Knuth, Ann Mitchell, Rachel Sussman PHOTOGRAPHY 2013

    Jan 17 – Mar 8, 2013 Reception: Thu Jan 17 5pm

  • Although there are only five artists in PHOTOGRAPHY 2013, the range of imagery in this show is vast.


    -Vincent Johnson

    Los Angeles, California

    July 29, 2012

    Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

    New Abstract Paintings: The Cosmos suite (2012)

    Golden Dream (2012), part of the Cosmos Suite of paintings

    California Toilet, Filthy Light Switch (2010) by Vincent Johnson. Archival Epson print (Private Collection, Miami, Florida). I provided this image as I realized its clear similarity to Golden Dream, which I completed a week ago in my studio in Los Angeles.

    Two at Night (2012) from the Cosmos suite of paintings, Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches

    Cosmos. Oil on canvas  2012 by Vincent Johnson

    Cosmos Red Yellow Green. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson

    Green God. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson

    This new painting series is part of my ongoing exploration of painting materials and techniques from the history of painting. The works combine knowledge of painting practices of both abstract and representation paintings. The works concern themselves purely with the visual power that paintings can do through the manipulation of paint. Some of the underpaintings are allowed to dry for months; some of those are built dark to light, others light to dark. None are made in a single setting. Most are worked and reworked using studio materials. Each new series takes a different approach to the painted surface from how the paint is applied, to varying the painting mediums. This suite concerns itself with the layering of paint by building up the surface and altering and reworking the wet paint with studio tools.

    Two larger paintings will be completed and photographed on Sunday, July 15, 2012 and posted here.

    Vincent Johnson, Grayscale painting: The Storm (2012). Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches, created in studio in Los Angeles, California

    Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

    Vincent Johnson, Nine Grayscale Paintings, Beacon Arts Center, Los Angeles, (2001). Oil on canvas. Each panel is 20×24 inches.
    photograph of silver paint on my hands in studio, Los Angeles, during the creation of Nine Grayscale paintings.
    Vincent Johnson – in Los Angeles studio working on Nine Grayscale Paintings, 2011

    Vincent Johnson

    Los Angeles, California

    Vincent Johnson received his MFA in Fine Art Painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California 1997 and his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was selected for the Baum: An Emerging American Photographer’s Award in 2004 and for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 for the Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. In 2010 he was named a United States Artists project artist. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Art in America, Art Slant and many other publications. His photographic works were most recently shown in the inaugural Pulse Fair Los Angeles. His most recent paintings were shown at the Beacon Arts Center in Los Angeles.


Brazilian Painter of Visual Experience: Beatriz Milhazes

Brazilian painter Beatriz Milhazes brilliant work as a painter is by definition Post Conceptual Abstraction. Her work comes to form literally with the “return to painting” in Brazil in the 1980’s, after the Conceptual Artist era in Brazil had been fully realized. Milhazes works speak not merely of great visual beauty, but also raw energy orchestrated into a high symphonic episode that moves into both the greatest of dark and light. Mihazes continues to work in her small studio n Rio de Janero even with the call for more and more of her exhilarating and unique works, which get much more down and dirty with pattern and design, and break free into moments of explosive color emanating from what sometimes appears to be the salt of the earth turned into a universe of unequaled delight. I am completely aligned with what I see as Milhazes’ idea that art representing the beauty and pleasure of the world elevates us and brings us out of the darkness that can inhabit one’s life. This is something that I have personally dedicated to pursue in my own life’s work as an African American artist based in Los Angeles.

Vincent Johnson

Two at Night (2012) from the Cosmos suite of paintings, Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches, by Vincent Johnson

——Beatriz Milhazes

Beatriz Milhazes: Images of her Tremendous Paintings and Commentary



London: Evolutions and Revolutions

Event Date: 12 – 20, 2010

Beatriz Milhazes came of age during a pivotal moment in Brazilian history. Following the collapse of the military dictatorship when vivid imagery and lush colors were being reintroduced into the local art scene, Milhazes absorbed herself in this new opportunity, pushing color and shape to exciting new levels. For her latest exhibition, Beatriz has created five new paintings and a window mural. The works display new movement in her style as she incorporates geometric abstraction, grid-like compositions and neon colors into her art. As always, Milhazes exhibits a profound command over her unique aesthetic and the show is worth checking out if you’re in London. For more info, click here.

Stephen Friedman Gallery
25-28 Old Burlington Street
London W1S 3AN


Beatriz Milhazes

Milhazes is known for her work juxtaposing Brazilian cultural imagery and references to western Modernist painting.
The daughter of a lawyer and an art historian, Milhazes was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1960.She studied social communication at Faculdades Integradas Hélio Alonso (FACHA), Rio De Janeiro from 1978 to 1981 and studied at the School of Visual Arts (Escola de Artes Visuais – EAV) of Parque Lage, Rio De Janeiro from 1980 to 1982.

Milhazes has had solo and group exhibitions in a number of museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. From 4-21 July 2009, the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris presented a major exhibition of her work.

Milhazes’ paintings are in the permanent collections in many institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Banco Itaú, and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.
Milhazes is represented by Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.

Artista plástica Beatriz Milhazes apresenta suas obras na Galeria Fortes Vilaça

Artista plástica Beatriz Milhazes apresenta suas obras na Galeria Fortes Vilaça
Valéria Gonçalvez/AE Artista plástica carioca Beatriz Milhazes apresenta suas obras na Galeria Fortes Vilaça, em São Paulo


Beatriz Milhazes at Fondation Beyeler

Beatriz Milhazes. Solo exhibition at Fondation Beyeler. Video on VernissageTV:… Foto: Nicolas Rinderspacher.


Art in Review

By Roberta Smith
Published: March 22, 1996

Beatriz Milhazes Edward Thorp Gallery 103 Prince Street SoHo Through April 13

First, a simple assertion: If abstract painting makes a comeback — and it probably will — women will have a lot to do with it. Support for that thought can be found in several SoHo galleries this month, and especially in the singularly impressive solo debut of Beatriz Milhazes, a Brazilian artist in her mid-30’s who was included in this season’s Carnegie International in Pittsburgh.

Simultaneously festive, tawdry and melancholy, Ms. Milhazes’s elaborately patterned paintings have a strange faded glory and a sure intelligence, with a layering of references, forms and colors that keeps the mind in constant motion. Her drifting, spherical patterns often cluster toward the top of her canvases like lanterns (or chandeliers) at a party, or luscious pieces of fruit on a laden tree. They can seem related to the Pattern and Decoration painting of 1970’s artists like Miriam Schapiro and Robert Kushner, or, more recently, the work of Philip Taaffe and Fred Tomaselli. But something in her work’s emotional tone; colors, and thin, shiny surfaces aligns it with the less abstract efforts of artists like Manuel Ocampo and Julio Galan, who also come from Roman Catholic post-colonial cultures.

The list of applied arts, crafts and women’s work evoked by these more or less floral patterns is marvelously dizzying. Without getting too disjunctive about it, they conjure lace making, beading, crocheting, stenciling, open metalwork, furniture decoration, hand-painted signs, wrapping paper and wallpaper. For breathing room, there are flat areas of color broken by bits of drawing that suggest both old, deteriorating walls and modernist monochromes.

Ms. Milhazes’s motifs rarely behave with decorative precision — they aren’t arranged symmetrically, nor do they repeat regularly — which also weighs them toward painting. So does her palette, which is dissonant in both appearance and allusion. For example, in “In Albis,” a deep blackish blue, suitable to depict the robe of the Virgin Mary, jostles a shiny sour green that has the flavor of a backwater saloon, while rosette designs are highlighted with a hot pink that come from a different century altogether.

Ms. Milhazes juggles a lot and drops almost nothing in these paintings. They show an artist looking deep into herself and her cultural roots and figuring what to give painting that it hasn’t quite had before. ROBERTA SMITH


Beatriz Milhazes : Natural forms + rigorous geometry
Beatriz Milhazes
Natural forms + rigorous geometry
Linda Chenit, January 26, 2009
Beatriz Milhazes/Bibi, 2003
Beatriz Milhazes/Bibi, 2003

The Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain is pleased to present an exhibition of the work of Beatriz Milhazes, one of the most celebrated Brazilian visual artists today. Offering an overview of her work of the past decade, the exhibition will include a selection of large-format acrylic paintings as well as a remarkable new collage that she has created specifically for the show. The Fondation Cartier has also commissioned the artist to produce a special architectural installation for the exhibition. Using a technique closely related to collage, she will apply motifs made of translucent adhesive vinyl directly onto the glass walls of the Fondation Cartier, creating an effect that is evocative of stained-glass. Reflecting her interest both in natural forms and rigorous geometry, this striking installation will enter into a powerful visual dialogue with the architecture of Jean Nouvel and the surrounding garden.

Beatriz Milhazes/Coisa Linda, 2002
Beatriz Milhazes/Coisa Linda, 2002

Brazilian Heritage

The work of Beatriz Milhazes occupies a unique position between Latin American and Western traditions. It is thus not surprising that she showed an early interest in the work of Brazilian writer and poet, Oswald de Andrade (1890–1954) and that of his wellknown companion, the painter Tarsila do Amaral (1886–1973). Andrade’s Manifesto Antropofago (1928) called upon Brazilian artists to develop their own unique culture by “devouring” European styles and melding them with elements derived from local culture. Tarsila do Amaral’s painting expressed this philosophy, combining the bright colors and tropical imagery of Brazil with the surrealism she discovered in Europe. Inspired by her predecessors, Beatriz Milhazes embraces a dizzying kaleidoscope of influences, following an approach that she describes as “culture eating culture.” Her canvases have an undeniably Brazilian flavor, filled with an abundance of brightly colored, highly decorative motifs. Much of the artist’s inspiration comes from the high and low art present in her native country, including sources as varied as ceramics, lacework, jewelry design, carnival decoration, and Colonial baroque architecture.
Beatriz Milhazes/A chuva, 1996

Beatriz Milhazes/A chuva, 1996
Beatriz Milhazes/Yogurt, 2008
Beatriz Milhazes/Yogurt, 2008

The delicate arabesques of tropical flowers and leaves have also found their way into her painting, revealing the artist’s fascination for luxurious vegetation. Other references for these works, which revisit the traditional genres of landscape and still-life, range from the contemplative works of Albert Eckhout – a 17th century Dutch painter who recorded the plants and animals of Brazil – to the modernist landscape designs of Roberto Burle Marx, known for his design of Copacabana beach promenade in 1970.

Beatriz Milhazes/Havai 2003
Beatriz Milhazes/Havai 2003

European Modernism

The paintings of Beatriz Milhazes express many of the formal preoccupations inherent in the history of abstract painting, from the vibrant color of Matisse to the rigorous structural composition of Mondrian. The underlying square fields of color that serve as the background for many of her works and the overlaying motifs, call to mind the work of early modernist abstract artists such as Kupka, Klee, and Léger. The artist has stated: “I am seeking geometrical structures, but with freedom of form and imagery taken from different worlds. Classical music, particularly the opera, as well as popular music such as bossa nova or tropicalia, motivate the “choreographed spontaneity” of the artist’s compositions. Stripes, rays, lines and circular forms evoke a synchronized rhythm while the dynamics of color articulate harmony and dissonance.
Beatriz Milhazes/Beatriz Milhazes

Beatriz Milhazes/Beatriz Milhazes

This clearly relates Milhazes compositions to those of other 20th century masters who have explored the relationship between music and art, such as Kandinsky and Delaunay. The use of intensely vibrant colors, such as fuchsia, gold or orange, endows her canvases with an explosive energy that many have compared to the breathtaking rhythm of fireworks.

Beatriz Milhazes/Ice Grape, 2008
Beatriz Milhazes/Ice Grape, 2008
Beatriz Milhazes/Set design for Tempo de Verão (Summertime),by Marcia Milhazes Contemporary Dance Company, 2006
Beatriz Milhazes/Set design for Tempo de Verão (Summertime),by Marcia Milhazes Contemporary Dance Company, 2006

Artistic Technique

To create this elaborate network of forms, Milhazes has developed a technique that is closely related to monotype and collage. The artist first paints the motifs and drawings of her work on translucent plastic sheets. She then applies them to the canvas and peels the plastic off, superimposing images and colors in a variety of combinations. During the transfer process, part of the motif sometimes tears, leaving portions of itself behind. These accidents create interesting surfaces marred by subtle imperfections. The slow and laborious process leads to rich palimpsests of overlaid images, some fully present, some masked, some only ghostly silhouettes.
Beatriz Milhazes/Taschen Store, New York City, NY, 2007

Beatriz Milhazes/Taschen Store, New York City, NY, 2007

During the past several years, the artistic production of Beatriz Milhazes has continued to expand, recently branching out into arenas such as, theatre sets, site-specific installations, and design work, including fabric and tapestry. She has also created two artist’s books, one in conjunction with the MoMA and one with the Thomas Dane Gallery, London, which explore the realms of printmaking and collage. Through her diversity of practice and multiplicity of sources, Beatriz Milhazes erases all distinctions between the high and the low, the national and the international, the classical and the contemporary, leaving her free to explore the entire realm of visual expression.

Beatriz Milhazes/In My Dreams
Beatriz Milhazes/In My Dreams

Beatriz Milhazes Bio_Express

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1960, Beatriz Milhazes entered Rio’s renowned Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage in the early 1980s. She emerged on the Brazilian art scene in the midst of what was known as “the return to painting” of the Geraçao Oitenta (the 1980s Generation), which followed the more austere conceptualist art that dominated the country in the 1970s.

Beatriz Milhazes
Beatriz Milhazes

Beatriz Milhazes

From April 4 to June 21, 2009Born in 1960 in Rio de Janeiro, Beatriz Milhazes emerged on the Brazilian art scene in the mid-1980s. Exhibited in many galleries and several international biennials, her work is represented in the collections of some of the world’s greatest museums.Intricately layered with a profusion of ornamental motifs, her vibrant and hypnotic paintings refer to sources as diverse as the Colonial baroque, high modernism, and popular Brazilian art.
For her exhibition at the Fondation Cartier, the artist presents a focused selection of large format acrylic paintings, chosen from her work of the past decade, as well as a monumental collage created especially for the show. She has also realized a monumental commission for the building’s glass façades. Her striking installations play with natural light to create a powerful visual dialogue with the architecture of Jean Nouvel and the surrounding garden.

Color Inspiration: Beatriz Milhazes

By evad // April 10, 2008

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1961, Beatriz Milhazes works in the pure aesthetic style of the Pattern and Decoration movement. Influenced by her native land of Brazil, her vibrant and bold use of color and patterns create work that is as much playful, free and psychedelic, as it is geometric, organized and rhythmic.

The Pattern and Decoration movement was not originally popular in the art world because of the movements lack of political statements and stances, “art for arts sake:” “Though playful and innovative, especially in the use of materials, Pattern and Decoration didn’t make much of an impact in the art world. It was dismissed as frivolous, with the work regarded as purely decorative and thus not warranting serious critical or curatorial attention.” (NYT: Fresh Eyes on a Colorful Movement) What was deemed not worth talking about has now gained global visibility since its beginnings in the 70’s and 80’s.

Photo from

The Decoration and Pattern movement is not completely detached from society and the world around it. I feel the art, and artists involved, take a very positive stance that speaks not from the created politics and mottos of the mind, but from love and the appreciation for the beauty that surrounds us. And this philosophy of focusing more on the pleasures of life, rather than its hardships, is very evident in the shapes, colors and patterns of each of Milhazes’ piece.

Photo from James Cohan Gallery


Many of these explosions of colour originate in her small, compact studio, where she has been based since 1987. It is situated right next door to Rio’s luscious botanical gardens, and, inevitably, the forms and patterns of the flowers – delicate swirls and leaf-like shapes – have found their way into her paintings. She has also “taken advantage of the atmosphere of the city”, with its rich urban mix incorporating chitão (the cheap, colourful Brazilian fabric), jewellery, embroidery and folk art. Other influences range from architectural – the work of Roberto Burle Marx, the landscape architect and garden designer who created the five-kilometre Copacabana beach promenade in Rio – to Pop symbols such as Emilio Pucci fabric patterns. Painterly inspiration comes from the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Albert Eckhout, who travelled through colonial Brazil, and the Brazilian Modernist Tarsila do Amaral, as well as Mondrian, Matisse and Bridget Riley.
In the Studio,

Photo from James Cohan Gallery

Creative Process

“Evidence of her terms of reference can be found pinned to the walls of her studio – magazine fragments, postcards and pieces of clothing, as well as some of her own drawings.” She begins with an idea of colors and images, but “nothing is clear until the end”. And, maybe surprisingly, Milhazes is “very discipline in her creative routine.” (In the Studio)

She also incorporates a wide range of materials, including many that were original inspirations for the very piece:

In Cacao, for example, the gold foil squares of Ghiradelli chocolates play against the pastel packaging of Lindt, Lacta, and Nestle bars. Milhazes embellishes this brightly patterned surface with yet more floral shapes, here mostly cut from shimmering pieces of holographic paper. While some viewers may blanch at such sensory overload, preferring the relative austerity of a classic Cubist collage, I for one appreciate Milhazes’s decorative indulgence. Like the flowers and chocolates that partially inspire them, her works remain unstinting sources of pleasure.
Art in America, “Beatriz Milhazes at James Cohan”

Selected Work

Mariposa, 2004, acrylic on canvas, 98 x 98 inches Photo from James Cohan Gallery

An explosion of ornament is certainly apparent in Mariposa, where a pink and flesh-toned ground supports dozens of blooming flowers, including a dazzling dahlia whose deep violet core gradually fades to lavender petals. These floral fireworks are anchored on the right by a dark filigree of French curves that transforms the entire composition into a magnificent brooch.
Art in America, “Beatriz Milhazes at James Cohan”

Peace and Love, 2005-2006, Installation, Gloucester Road Tube StationPhoto by paulbence

Entitled Peace and Love, this monumental commission occupies an entire side of the station and creates a visual dialogue with both the architecture and the constant movement of trains and travelers within.

Each of the nineteen vaulted arches on the District Line platform at Gloucester Road contains a part of a dense, tightly-knit composition which skilfully combines many complex elements into an elegantly balanced whole. The work, like the station, has its own rhythm. The images run across the arches, creating their own momentum and mirroring the movement of the passengers and the trains inside the station. The vibrant colour and exuberant shapes within the work keep the viewer’s gaze in constant motion.
Peace and Love

More Work

Photo from

Photo from

Photo from

Photo by didier

Photo by smallbox

Photo by Bree Apperley

Photo by Bree Apperley

Title Photo from James Cohan Gallery
 Thursday, January 7, 2010

Artist: Beatriz Milhazes

I first noticed the work of Beatriz Milhazes in the March 08 issue of Elle Decor. The article features the Victorian apartment of Rosa de la Cruz Bonfiglio which is steeped in art from painting to drawing and sculpture. Not surprising, Rosa’s parents are major collectors in Miami who have opened their contemporary-art-packed mansion in Key Biscayne to the public.

Courtesy of Elle Decor, below are 2 photos from Rosa’s apartment featuring work from Milhazes.

Artist Beatriz Milhazes was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1960. Milhazes has work in the permanent collections of, among others, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I love her use of color incorporating elements of modern design with her own spin of Brazilian culture.

Beatriz Milhazes:
“No Fear of Beauty”

Her opulent compositions have made Beatriz Milhazes one of the best-known Brazilian painters in the world. Matisse, Op Art, the brilliant colors of the carnival-a wide range of influences merge in her stunning paintings. Achim Drucks introduces the artist, who lives in Rio de Janeiro and is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection.

Beatriz Milhazes, Beleza Pura, 2006; Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin

Beatriz Milhazes, Beleza Pura, 2006; Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin
Beatriz Milhazes, Rosa branca no centro, 1997; Deutsche Bank Collection; © Courtesy Stephen Friedman Gallery and Galeria Camargo Vilaco, São Paulo

Beatriz Milhazes, Rosa branca no centro, 1997; Deutsche Bank Collection; © Courtesy Stephen Friedman Gallery and Galeria Camargo Vilaco, São Paulo
Beatriz Milhazes, O Pato, 1996/1998; Deutsche Bank Collection; © Courtesy Stephen Friedman Gallery and Galeria Camargo Vilaco, São Paulo

Beatriz Milhazes, O Pato, 1996/1998; Deutsche Bank Collection; © Courtesy Stephen Friedman Gallery and Galeria Camargo Vilaco, São Paulo
Beatriz Milhazes, Bala de Leite, 2005; Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin

Beatriz Milhazes, Bala de Leite, 2005; Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin
Beatriz Milhazes, O Elefante Azul, 2002; Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin

Beatriz Milhazes, O Elefante Azul, 2002; Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin
Beatriz Milhazes, O Espelho (The mirror), 2000; Deutsche Bank Collection; © Courtesy Stephen Friedman Gallery and Galeria Camargo Vilaco, São Paulo

Beatriz Milhazes, O Espelho (The mirror), 2000; Deutsche Bank Collection; © Courtesy Stephen Friedman Gallery and Galeria Camargo Vilaco, São Paulo
Beatriz Milhazes, O Sabado, 2000; Deutsche Bank Collection; © Courtesy Stephen Friedman Gallery and Galeria Camargo Vilaco, São Paulo

Beatriz Milhazes, O Sabado, 2000; Deutsche Bank Collection; © Courtesy Stephen Friedman Gallery and Galeria Camargo Vilaco, São Paulo
Beatriz Milhazes; Chokito, 2006; Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin

Beatriz Milhazes; Chokito, 2006; Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin
Beatriz Milhazes,Nega Maluca, 2006; Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin

Beatriz Milhazes,Nega Maluca, 2006; Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin
Beatriz Milhazes, Sul da América, 2002; Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin

Beatriz Milhazes, Sul da América, 2002; Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin
An explosion of form and color; circles of beautiful turquoise and silver surfaces, between them a blossom painted in hues of lilac that looks as though it had been made with a Spirograph set. The 1960s drawing tool also seems to have been used to draw the other violet spirals on the large-scale canvas. More stylized flowers hover around them, curlicues recalling seventies wallpaper; together with discs in orange and gold hues, they partially cover a massive black square-Malevich’s icon of a radically reduced abstraction is on the verge of being swallowed up by a colorful armada of ornamental forms.Beleza Pura, pure beauty, is the title Beatriz Milhazes gave her painting from 2006-it seems programmatic for the work of the artist, who was born in 1960 in Rio de Janeiro. “The word decorative is normally pejorative when it’s applied to art. I don’t have any fear of beauty,” she declared in 2006. Her title also refers to the hit of the same name by the singer Caetano Veloso, one of the chief figures of the Tropicalismo movement of the late sixties. Without being explicitly political, the vital energy of this movement of artists and musicians was directed against cultural monotony as it was propagated by the Brazilian military regime at that time. Folklore elements blended with American and European influences.Her paintings are the product “…of the mad struggle between baroque figuration and rigorous construction,” as Richard Armstrong, the current director of the New York Guggenheim Museum, formulates it. Armstrong was one of the first curators outside Brazil to take notice of the artist. In 1995, he invited her to take part in Carnegie International, the exhibition that led to her international breakthrough. In 2003 she represented Brazil at the Venice Biennale.But Milhazes’s painting with its disappearing black square can also be taken as a reference to another influential artistic movement in the country-Modernismo. One of the most important representatives of this Brazilian answer to the early European avant-garde movements was the writer Oswald de Andrade. In his Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibalistic Manifesto) of 1928, he developed his own, Brazilian version of modernism under the motto “Instead of pushing the foreign away, eat it.” He countered dominant European culture with tropical growth, naivety, savagery, and poetry. He recommended ingesting the most enriching parts of European culture, transforming them, and simply throwing the rest away.This strategy of transformation is crucial to Milhazes’s work. She operates from a variety of sources: along with the most important protagonist of Modernismo, Tarsila de Amaral, whose paintings blend European influences with indigenous forms, she cites Henri Matisse’s cut-outs and color combinations and the dynamism of Piet Mondrian’s late work as sources of inspiration-such as his famous painting Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43). Op Art influences and the wild fabric patterns of Emilio Pucci collide with decorative motifs from colonial architecture. The floral and plant forms she uses in many of her works-including O Pato (1996/98) from the Deutsche Bank Collection-were not made from nature, but based on various different models including Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits, tablecloths, and the “exotic” jewelry Miriam Haskell made for Carmen Miranda, the “Brazilian Bombshell” who conquered Hollywood in the 1940s and who embodied, in her bizarre costumes and fruit-bowl hats, the exaggerated cliché of the temperamental South American woman. Milhazes re-imports this phenomenon of exoticism, so to speak.The tension in Milhazes’s work is not only between figuration and abstraction, but also between the global and local influences that merge in her work. “I am an abstract painter and I speak an international language, but my interest is in things and behaviors that can only be found in Brazil,” she explained in a conversation with the musician Arto Lindsay. And this can mean the delirium of colors and forms at the Carnival in Rio, the melancholy bossas of Antônio Carlos Jobim, or the wave-shaped patterned promenades the landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx designed for the Copacabana beach.To many viewers, her brilliantly colored painting seems typical for Brazil-an error, as Milhazes explains in a catalogue to her project for the Fondation Cartier in Paris: “We don’t have a strong tradition of painting in Brazil, and especially not painting with color. When I became internationally known as a Brazilian painter, the international audience thought that I came out of a strong tradition of Brazilian painting. This is because there is a general lack of information on Latin American art. Due to Spanish colonization, some countries like Mexico or Venezuela have a strong painting tradition. This is not the case for Brazil. The most important and well-known Brazilian art is conceptual and constructivist. There is no special interest in color. Brazil is a colorful country, but its art isn’t. That is why people get confused. I use elements from my culture, and color is one of them, but I’m the only one to do so.”Pink, dusty rose, turquoise, orange-red-her silkscreen Rosa branca no centro from 1997 in the Deutsche Bank Collection is drenched in intense color. A stylized flower appears in the middle, surrounded by circles of pearls and filigree patterns reminiscent of lace tablecloths. Milhazes’s paintings are rarely arranged around a center as this one is, which lends it a kind of quietude. The images usually seem as though one spectacular explosion of color outshone the next, like fireworks. The precise compositions prevent the paintings from falling apart into individual elements; despite all their differences and tensions, they cohere as a whole.This is also due to Milhazes’s unusual working process. She worked with collage early in her career by introducing fabrics into her paintings. In the late 1980s, she began to draw the contours of her flowers and mandalas on transparent plastic foil, coloring them in with acrylic paint and then cutting them out after they dried. She can then shift these forms around on the canvas until they find their final position, where Milhazes adheres them to the
surface with the colored side down and then pulls off the plastic backing, which she often uses for other paintings. This is why identical shapes often appear in different paintings. The artist explains: “I like the resulting smooth texture, the way in which the painting seems ‘frozen’ in time. I love painting, but I do not want the texture of the brushstrokes or the ‘hand’ of the painter to be visible on my canvases.”This “anti-expressive” strategy makes her paintings appear cool, while the process of construction remains visible. This process takes place entirely on the canvas; Milhazes does not use sketches for her paintings, and the transference of painted forms doesn’t always go perfectly. The paint tears, or a portion remains stuck on the plastic foil. The resulting irregularities seem like points of erosion and give the surfaces the impression of being weathered. Her canvases recall palimpsests in which multiple layers of time are superimposed.This sets her paintings apart from Bridget Riley’s flawless, purist Op Art compositions. The 2001 Riley show at the Dia Art Foundation left such an impression on Milhazes that she began experimenting with rectangles and straight lines for the first time. Since then, the range of her paintings has expanded further. She’s gone back to her early collages, this time adding variously colored paper to her works instead of fabrics-shiny, metallic-blue candy-wrapper paper, marbled wrapping paper, chocolate wrappers. In this way, she further intensifies the overabundance of visual stimuli that characterizes all her work. She directs the viewer’s gaze around the picture surface, without providing anywhere for it to rest. Milhazes’s paintings hover between a stunning ornamental beauty and an overload of forms, colors, styles, and quotes. It is not the kind of beauty in which the eye can rest, however; instead, it absorbs the gaze and threatens to overpower the viewer.

Modern Motifs, With Echoes of Brazil

Published: October 24, 2008

STANDING in a back exhibition space at James Cohan Gallery in Chelsea, the Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes sounded like a rigorous Constructivist as she discussed her four latest paintings, which were propped against the walls.

Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery

“Popeye” (2008)

Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery

“Summertime” (2004) a chandelier designed as a set piece for her sister Marcia’s dance company. Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery

Courtesy Maharam

“Horto,” a textile design.

Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery

“Ice Grape” (2008)

Joao Wainer

Beatriz Milhazes, has a solo show at James Cohan Gallery in Chelsea.

 “This one is based on squares, kind of a grid,” she said, pointing to “Mulatinho,” whose blocks of color are broken up by dots, rippling stripes, paisleylike ornaments, stylized flowers and a piece of carefully painted fruit.

Mr. Cohan, her dealer, who had just walked into the room, started laughing. “You and Mondrian,” he said.

Although Ms. Milhazes clearly considers herself a geometric abstractionist, those are hardly the first words that spring to mind when regarding her work, the focus of a solo show at the gallery.

Squares often come laced with lines and dots, circles frequently mutate into eye-popping targets, and everything is laden with motifs that evoke the multilayered culture of her home, Rio de Janeiro. There are arabesques, roses and doily patterns, borrowed from Brazilian Baroque, colonial and folk art; flowers and plants inspired by the city’s botanical garden, which is next door to her studio; and thick wavy stripes — a nod to the undulating Op Art-inspired mosaic pavement that the Brazilian landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx created in 1970 for the promenade at Copacabana Beach.

Yet Ms. Milhazes, 48, maintains that her compositions are essentially geometric. “Sometimes I put the square behind,” she said, referring to the initial layer of the painting, “and I build up things on top of it. The squares may disappear, but they are still a reference for me to think about composition. And I’ve always been very loyal to my ideas.”

Today her career seems as jampacked as her paintings themselves. In addition to the show at James Cohan, which runs through Nov. 15, her first major career survey is on view at the Pinacoteca do Estado in São Paulo, Brazil. By early November, within a span of a month, three limited-edition projects — a tapestry, a textile design and an artist’s book — will have been issued. She has also just completed a new site-specific window installation for a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. (Sometime next year she will create a similar piece for the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center in New York.)

Then there is “Gamboa,” a sculptural installation that will be unveiled on Nov. 1 at Prospect.1, the contemporary-art biennial in New Orleans. Ms. Milhazes intends to transform one room of a 19th-century mint building into a shimmering chandelier hung with globes and flowers, all of which have been fabricated by workers at one of the many samba schools in Rio.

“It didn’t make any sense to organize a room with paintings,” Ms. Milhazes said of the project. “New Orleans was always about the vitality, the dancing and the music. So I link it — the carnival in New Orleans with the Carnaval in Rio. It will make this kind of dialogue between two cities.”

Growing up under the former military dictatorship in Brazil, Ms. Milhazes did not have access to the mainstream art world. Although Brazil has had an avant-garde art scene since the 1930s, opportunities for young artists in Rio were limited in the early 1980s, when she embarked on her career. Back then Latin American collectors typically focused on work from past eras. “We didn’t have any voice,” Ms. Milhazes said of her colleagues from that time.

For a young painter who longed to see the work of 20th-century masters like Mondrian and Matisse, the situation was especially arid. “Twenty-five years ago, if you didn’t travel, you never would see paintings,” she said. And today, she noted, painting is still only an undercurrent in Brazil’s art scene. “We have strong contemporary art,” she said, “but more in conceptualism and installation. So I am quite isolated here.”

But isolation also helped Ms. Milhazes develop her rather unusual working process. “You don’t have the history on your back,” she explained. She starts by painting with acrylic on sheets of plastic, working motif by motif, creating each image in reverse as if she were making a print.

Once a motif is dry she glues the painted side to the canvas, almost as if it were a decal, and then peels off the plastic to reveal a surface that looks handmade but is nearly unmarked by brushstrokes. Then she continues layering as if she were making a collage. When she developed this method in the late ’80s, she said, “it opened a huge door for me.”

The door opened further in 1992, when the Brazilian curator and critic Paulo Herkenhoff brought three Americans to Ms. Milhazes’s studio: Richard Armstrong, then a curator at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh and now the incoming director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York; Madeleine Grynsztejn, then a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago and now director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago; and Fred Henry, president of the Bohen Foundation, a nonprofit group that commissions new works of art.

Mr. Henry soon became a devoted collector, and Mr. Armstrong eventually invited Ms. Milhazes to participate in the 1995 Carnegie International. “That was the opening,” she said. Through the Carnegie, she met a New York dealer, Edward Thorp, who began showing her work in SoHo the next year. Her career quickly became multinational. Now she frequently shows in Europe, especially London, as well as in Latin America, Asia and New York.

Ms. Grynsztejn said Ms. Milhazes’s widespread appeal lies in the fact that she is a “glocal” artist — someone whose work is grounded in the international language of modernism while also firmly rooted in her own place and time. “What I really loved about the work,” she said, “was the way that it merged figuration and abstraction, and even decoration and craft, within the highly intellectual enterprise of formal abstraction.”

She was also fascinated by the strong echoes of local culture in Ms. Milhazes’s work. After leaving the studio, she recalled, “I remember very vividly that when we sat down to lunch, the plastic tablecloth that covered the restaurant tables had the same bright, busy patterns” as Ms. Milhazes’s paintings. Later that day she experienced another jolt of déjà vu while passing the ornamental facade of a Baroque church. At that point, she said, “I understood that that vernacular had infiltrated at a very high level into Beatriz’s work.”

Yet despite the Brazilian feel of her work, there is nothing else quite like it in Brazilian art, past or present, said Adriano Pedrosa, a curator in São Paulo who has known Ms. Milhazes for years. “She seems to have a quite close relationship with Brazilian art history,” he said, “but that’s because she’s appropriating things.”

He also sees her oeuvre as being related to Antropofagia, a Brazilian movement of the ’20s and ’30s whose name means cannibalism. Mr. Pedrosa described it as “this concept where the Brazilian native artist appropriates foreign elements and digests them to produce something personal and unique.”

In fact Ms. Milhazes often says her major influence is Tarsila, a Brazilian painter who came out of that movement, as well as Mondrian and Matisse.

“In the beginning,” she said, “I felt a connection between Spanish Latin American and Brazilian, which is more Portuguese: the Baroque churches, the costumes, the ruffles, things that have volume or a sculptural shape.”

But ultimately, she said, although she wanted to incorporate all those things into her work, “I wanted to put them together based on a geometric composition. Because at the end of the day, I was only interested in structure and order.”

More Articles in Arts » A version of this article appeared in print on October 26, 2008, on page AR22 of the New York edition.

Beatriz Milhazes’ colourful canvasses

The Whitechapel Gallery’s Iwona Blazwick on why she’s co-curating a show by the Brazilian artist

Beatriz Milhazes, As Irmas (The Sisters) (2003)<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
Multi-coloured screenprint on Waterford 638g paper<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
131.4 x 151.2cm (51¾ x 59 5/8in)<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
Beatriz Milhazes, As Irmas (The Sisters) (2003)
Multi-coloured screenprint on Waterford 638g paper
131.4 x 151.2cm (51¾ x 59 5/8in)

Windsor Gallery, 3125 Windsor Boulevard, Vero Beach, Florida, 32963

From: 3 December 2011
Until: 29 February 2012

Beatriz Milhazes: Screenprints 1996 – 2011

One of the standout shows at the upcoming Art Basel Miami promises to be the result of a collaboration between the Whitechapel Gallery and The Gallery At Windsor, Florida.

The show, Beatriz Milhazes: Screenprints 1996-2011 will explore the process Brazilian artist Beatrice Milhazes uses to create her bold and abstract artworks. Born in Rio in 1960, Milhaze is the daughter of a lawyer and an art historian. After her initial studies in social communication she turned to art, studying at Rio’s Escola de Artes Visuais (EAV) of Parque Lage.

The show also sees Iwona Blazwick, Whitechapel Director and former head of exhibitions and displays at the Tate, return to her curatorial roots.

“I looked at the programme and decided it would be more interesting to go south rather than north,” Blazwick tells Phaidon. “There’s an amazing community of art worlders from across The States at Miami Art Basel, but also Latin America. And I thought it would be interesting to reach out to a new community.”

Beatriz Milhazes, O Pato (1996 – 98)
Beatriz Milhazes, O Pato (1996 – 98)

The Whitechapel has always had a strong connection with Brazilian art (the gallery hosted the first UK show by Brazilian visual artist Hélio Oiticica in 1969 and has shown many Brazilian and Mexican artists over the years). With Brazil such a powerhouse at the moment the timing of the new show seems doubly resonant.

Blazwick was introduced to the work of Milhazes at Tate Modern when the artist was commissioned to create a mural at the end of level 7. “It was sensational and spanned the width of the building,” she says. “It’s absolutely extraordinary – a very immersive environment.

“The natural environment is omnipresent in Rio. It’s on the sea, there’s rainforest all around it but there’s also a darkness and an edginess and poverty. Beatriz’s work absorbs and celebrates that as well. She looks at traditional forms you might find in church interiors or peasant fabrics, love of lace and decoration and the excess of Carnival where the super poor become kings and queen for a day – or a week as it happens. You get these amazing head dresses festooned with glitter false eyelashes and all the rest of it. It’s very sparkly, very bling and about a conspicuous display of wealth and she draws that into her work. So there are all these different kinds of influences and an acknowledgement of the darkness of it and the oppressive nature of it.”

Beatriz Milhazes, Noite de Verão (Summer night) (2006)

Beatriz Milhazes, Noite de Verão (Summer night) (2006)

Eagle-eyed Phaidon readers might also spot the influence of Bridget Riley in some of Milhazes’ pieces from around 2003.

“There’s no European art visible in Brazil – no Matisses none of that great early foundational stuff that we’re accustomed to,” said Blazwick. “She only saw it in reproductions when she was at art school, books and magazines. Then the first time she went to New York she saw show by Bridget Riley and Sonia Delaunay. For her it wasn’t a trajectory across the 20th century from Delaunay in 1906 to Riley in 2000 – she saw them in the same time frame and they blew her away. The two bodies of work were profoundly affecting for her. And she discovered the stripe!”

At the time, Milhazes was already pursuing an idea of revolving forms where the viewer’s eye can never rest. “She wants this idea of a very dynamic pictorial surface,” continues Blazwick, “where that idea of revolution on every level is this idea of never having a beginning or an end or a centre. She talks about the eye being constantly drawn back and forth across the surface of her images. And she uses abstract geometry to give it a perspectival depth. She uses what the vertical and horizontal can give in sense of creating a sense of space, of layering of things seen through other things.”

Beatriz Milhazes: Screenprints 1996-2011runs from December 3 – February 28, 2012

Portrait of Beatriz Milhazes by Luis Gomes (2007) Portrait of Beatriz Milhazes by Luis Gomes (2007)

Malba – Fundación Costantini

Beatriz Milhazes at Malba – Fundación Costantini, Buenos Aires
Beatriz Milhazes, Bye, bye love, 2012.

Panamericano. Beatriz Milhazes. Paintings 1999–2012

14 September–19 November, 2012

Malba – Fundación Costantini, Buenos Aires
Avda. Figueroa Alcorta 3415
Buenos Aires, Argentina

Guest curator: Frédéric Paul

Malba – Fundación Costantini is pleased to announce Panamericano. Beatriz Milhazes. Paintings 1999–2012, a selection of about thirty recent paintings by the renowned artist Beatriz Milhazes (born 1960 in Rio de Janeiro, where she lives and works), as well as a scenographic work specially designed for the gallery on the museum’s second floor. This is the first solo exhibit for Milhazes in a Latin American institution outside of her country, and it has been produced entirely by Malba.

Curated by Frédéric Paul, the exhibit focuses on the past ten years of the artist’s work, gathering pieces that are primarily from private and public collections in Brazil and the United States. Among these are two works on loan for the first time from the Guggenheim Museum in New York and one from the Museu de Arte Moderna in São Paulo. The local public will also have its first chance to place in their new context as part of the private collection of Eduardo F. Costantini, two important works, O mágico (2001) and Pierrot e Colombina (2009–10), which open and close this important decade for the artist.

The title of the exhibit, Panamericano, alludes to the to-and-fro between North and South, between new West and old West, a central theme of Milhazes. Exotic outside of Brazil, she continues to be so within it as well, and today she is recognized as one of that country’s most important artists.

“Numerous figurative elements are at play in Beatriz Milhazes’ paintings, but they appear there neutralized in relation to the real, which serves as their model. Her flowers are motifs of flowers. Her fruits are motifs of fruits. And it is without a doubt this reduction of their general form and the elimination of their substance which allow them to interact in the abstract painting with other forms from the decorative realm,” analyzes Frédéric Paul.

For the occasion of this exhibit, Malba has published a 124-page, Spanish-English bilingual catalogue, the first Spanish-language reference publication on a retrospective exhibit of Milhazes’ work. This book contains the essay “Beatriz Milhazes or The Advantages of Never Leaving the Labyrinth in Painting,” by curator Frédéric Paul; as well as the re-edition and the first translation to Spanish of two key texts about the artist: “Beatriz Milhazes – The Brazilian Trove” by critic and curator Paulo Herkenhoff, first published in 2001 for her exhibit at the Ikon Gallery (England) and at the Birmingham Museum of Art (United States), and an interview with fashion designer Christian Lacroix, which was originally published in Beatriz Milhazes/Avenida Brasil (Frédéric Paul ed., Domaine de Kerguéhennec, Centre d’art contemporain, 2004).

The artist
In 2003 Beatriz Milhazes represented Brasil at the 50th Venice Biennale. She also participated in São Paulo’s International Biennials (1998, 2004) and Shanghai, China’s Biennial (2006). Her most recently museum shows include Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, São Paulo (2008); Fondation Cartier, Paris (2009); Fondation Beyeler, Basel (2011), among others. Her works are found in the collections of museums such as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) in New York and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, in Madrid.


Beatriz Milhazes. Hawaii, 2003. Screenprint. Edition : 40. 52 x 46 in. (132 x 117 cm.). Compliments of Durham Press.

Solo Show
Beatriz MilhazesIssue #84 Mar – May 2012United States, Vero Beach

Whitechapel Gallery
Silvia Medina

Beatriz Milhazes’ pictorial work begins with a confluence of artistic movements in her socio-cultural environment, from Tropicalia to Bossa Nova, dancing to the rhythm of the sublime and exotic beauty of her native Rio de Janeiro. Milhazes recreates the ancestral legacy of Rio’s sweet romanticism, fused to contemporary realities.

Many of the blossoming, colorful, spring-like images we see in Milhazes’ painting originate in her small and compact studio, where the artist, born in Rio de Janeiro in 1960, has worked since 1987. It is located right next to the city’s lush Botanical Gardens; inevitably, she finds there the inspiration for her flowery shapes and patterns, her delicate whirlpools, her leaf-like figures.

The artist has also been influenced by the atmosphere of her native city and its rich urban admixture, and her work incorporates chitão (the cheap, colorful Brazilian fabric), jewels, embroideries, and symbols from popular culture. Other influences include architecture—particularly the work of Roberto Burle Marx, the landscape artist and garden designer who created the Copacabana boardwalk—and pop icons such as Emilio Pucci’s fabric patterns. Her pictorial inspiration comes from Seventeenth-Century European artist Albert Eckhout, who traveled through colonial Brazil, and from Tarsila do Amaral, the modernist Brazilian artist, as well as Matisse, Mondrian, Le Parc, Bridget Riley, and Frank Stella.

Milhazes’ flowers are not a commentary on color, print, arabesques, or empty decorations, but on their role rituals, conceptualizing a vital parade of printing in her everyday environment; so, her inspiration emanates from transculturation and its endless aesthetic potential.

Milhazes’ art finds support on the precepts of the serigraphic pictorial tradition and in her experimentation with mixed techniques from contemporary art. Her paintings reveal for us a variety of readings and aesthetic paradigms, establishing a play of conceptualization where her work expresses the fact that description is unnecessary because it can mar the interpretive freedom of the artistic image.

Beleza Pura is the title Milhazes gave painting starting in 2006. “The word ‘decorative’ is usually pejorative when applied to art. I am not afraid of beauty,” she declared that year. The title also refers to a hit song of the same name by Caetano Veloso, one of the central figures in 1960s Tropicalia. While not explicitly political, the vital energy of that movement of artists and musicians was directed against cultural monotony during the military dictatorship in Brazil. Elements of folklore mixed with American and European influences are also present in Milhazes’ work.

Her paintings are the product “…of the crazy struggle between baroque figuration and rigorous construction,” as noted by Richard Armstrong, the current director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Armstrong was one of the first observers outside Brazil to make note of this artist. In 1995, he invited Milhazes to participate in the Carnegie International. In 2003, Milhazes represented Brazil at the Venice Biennale.

Milhazes’ work navigates toward the dancing circle of love. That carnival of passions surrounded by lush beaches and bohemian music, offers us the flavor and versatile rhythms of her tropical Olympus, where Latin America’s magical realism fertilizes the sanctuary she has built, proposing a fascinating mixture where orishás and angels come together in perfect harmony. Milhazes’ carnival is a confluence of poetics that emanate from the soul, evoking the warm lyricism that seduces the glamorous of her inner Rio de Janeiro.

Such glamour is also due to Milhazes’ unusual work process. Early in her career she worked with collages, through the introduction of fabric into her paintings. In the late 1980s, she began to draw the outlines of her flowers and mandalas on a transparent plastic sheet, coloring them with acrylic paint, and then cutting them out after drying. Afterwards she switches these shapes around the canvas until they find their final position; there they are attached to the canvas with the color surface facing down and the plastic cover is pulled away, often to be used in other works.

For the past decade, the range of her paintings has broadened even more. She has returned to her earlier collages, now adding paper in various colors rather than fabric; she uses a shining metallic blue, candy wrappers, marble paper, and chocolate wrappers. In this way, the overabundance of visual stimuli that characterizes her entire oeuvre is newly emphasized. Milhazes drives the viewer’s gaze around the surface of the work, without place for pause. Her works move between great ornamental beauty and an overload of shapes, colors, styles, and artistic assumptions.

Beatriz Milhazes

by Adriano Pedrosa

BOMB 78/Winter 2002, Artists on Artists

Beatriz Milhazes, My Baby, 2000, acrylic on canvas, 70×70”. All images courtesy of Edward Throp Gallery, New York.

Beatriz Milhazes’s paintings are executed in a small studio next to Rio de Janeiro’s luscious botanical gardens. The local flavor found in her work comes not as much from the picturesque location of the artist’s studio, but rather through the asphyxiating quality of her complex and overwhelming compositions, which somehow translate the specific site in which they are produced. Despite the multitude of colors and figures, seemingly appropriated from flora and fauna, populating Milhazes’s canvases, these paintings are above all urban — in a very Carioca fashion. Rio’s long-held image of opulence, epitomized by its beautiful scenery, has become enmeshed with associations of the violence found in its streets. Despite the exuberance and apparent joy in Milhazes’s paintings, they are implacably serious, with more than a dash of irony. It is revelatory to discover that they are not particularly easy to live with, and more than one collector has admitted to being misled by their irresistible lure.

In fact, tropical flora and fauna, Brazilian or not, have made their way into Milhazes’s canvases through several mediating layers and sources other than nature itself — call it secondhand experience in situ. A certain tropical fruit, for example, has been appropriated from the Dutch painter Albert Eckhout (who traveled through colonial Brazil in the 17th century), and rendered in blue.

Milhazes’s painting technique itself has mediating qualities: after painting most of her figures in acrylic paint on sheets of transparent plastic, she considers different possibilities of placement and position before gluing them to the canvas. These paintings are packed with references from high and low origins, both local and international, contemporary and historical: Brazilian Baroque imagery, sixties peace signs, carnival decorations, real and invented pieces of jewelry, embroidery, and lace. Modernism is a strong source here, from Brazilian masters such as Tarsila do Amaral (the leading figure of Brazilian Antropofagia) to foreign ones, such as Mondrian (think Boogie Woogie) and Matisse (especially the cutouts). Decoration is a major concern, again with local and foreign references, from Brazilian midcentury elements (through landscape architect Burle Marx) to more international ones (such as Art Deco motifs). The melting pot of sources from various times and territories is developed further in the making of the paintings, with the different elements either maintaining their characters or losing them in the vast and articulate net of references that make up Milhazes’s particularly New World lexicon. All this through a precisely constructed composition at once tight and tense, and an elaborate play of layers which at times short-circuits the relationship between pictorial background and foreground. A painting by Milhazes is like a rare Amazonian plant, both ravishing and deceiving, full of tricks and treats; as you approach it, you may discover that it is in fact carnivorous, and above all, a creation of human imagination.

Beatriz Milhazes, The Prize, 2000, acrylic on canvas, 39.5×39.5”.


Issue 40 May 1998 RSS

Beatriz Milhazes

Edward Thorp Gallery, New York, USA

Beatriz Milhazes’ work speaks of foreign things in a familiar language. This would perhaps account for much of the recent positive reception of this Brazilian painter in North American and European art circles. Facing one of her works, viewers may be pleased to recognise stereotypical elements that they have more or less carelessly constructed of the tropics (and Brazil stands in here, quite fittingly, for that vast, mysterious and sensual continent).

Milhazes is perhaps the only artist in Brazil to have critically addressed the exotic imagery identified with the country, doing so through the dextrous use of Modernist pictorial language. In her vividly coloured and intricately constructed paintings, Milhazes sets up an engaging play between low ‘foreign’ references and high European language. Figurative and abstract elements appropriated from tropical fauna and flora, folk art and craft, local pop culture, low fashion, jewellery, embroidery and lace, carnival and the colonial baroque are her major thematic sources, though recently Milhazes has also expanded her repertoire to include elements of a more ‘international’ origin (from Art Deco to 50s design motifs). Her palette of dazzling colours and hues could be taken, at a first glance, as being typically ‘native’; unsurprisingly, the use of black and white is scarce. Despite the unexpected colour juxtapositions, the overall result has a tense yet balanced pictorial effect (quasi-symmetry is one of the cunning compositional devices). In front of these carefully packed compositions with their elaborate play between figures, grounds, transparency and superimposition, your eye may wander through (if not fall prey to) labyrinthine trajectories.

It is curious to see how Milhazes’ paintings migrate from her studio in Rio to her gallery in SoHo. At her relatively small work space near the city’s beautiful Botanical Gardens (the flora, the fauna!), the paintings ­ which are rarely larger than 2.5 x 2.5 m ­ invade the compact rooms. There, due to the exiguous space (and far from Edward Thorp’s spacious white cube), the luscious, misleading and engulfing tableaux push you against the wall and force you to inspect the painting’s surface. Milhazes’ technique is to paint onto plastic, peel off the dried acrylic and glue it to the canvas. As a result, the brush strokes are still detectable, yet they have been frozen mid-way through the painting process, bearing a slick yet still gestural, duplicitous character (a feature which distinguishes her work from that of Pittman and Taaffe, two North American painters to whom she has been compared).

Milhazes’ painting bears an uneasy ironic character. In one painting a certain tropical fruit is in fact appropriated from Eckhout ­ the Dutch painter who travelled through Brazil in the 18th century ­ and rendered in blue. One enthusiastic New York reviewer described her paintings as ‘rare Amazonian plants’. But if the works are (stereo)typically Brazilian or Latin American, as Milhazes’ foreign commentators often proclaim, they play off this character with a less picturesque, less Edenic tone. The paintings are full of fictitious elements, small strategic forgeries and seemingly irreconcilable juxtapositions. Above all, they impose a sense of excess and confinement (in form and content) that is enlightening, suffocating and disorienting.

Adriano Pedrosa


-Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles, California

July 29, 2012

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

New Abstract Paintings: The Cosmos suite (2012)

Golden Dream (2012), part of the Cosmos Suite of paintings

California Toilet, Filthy Light Switch (2010) by Vincent Johnson. Archival Epson print (Private Collection, Miami, Florida). I provided this image as I realized its clear similarity to Golden Dream, which I completed a week ago in my studio in Los Angeles.

Two at Night (2012) from the Cosmos suite of paintings, Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches

Cosmos. Oil on canvas  2012 by Vincent Johnson

Cosmos Red Yellow Green. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson

Green God. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson

This new painting series is part of my ongoing exploration of painting materials and techniques from the history of painting. The works combine knowledge of painting practices of both abstract and representation paintings. The works concern themselves purely with the visual power that paintings can do through the manipulation of paint. Some of the underpaintings are allowed to dry for months; some of those are built dark to light, others light to dark. None are made in a single setting. Most are worked and reworked using studio materials. Each new series takes a different approach to the painted surface from how the paint is applied, to varying the painting mediums. This suite concerns itself with the layering of paint by building up the surface and altering and reworking the wet paint with studio tools.

Two larger paintings will be completed and photographed on Sunday, July 15, 2012 and posted here.

Vincent Johnson, Grayscale painting: The Storm (2012). Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches, created in studio in Los Angeles, California

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

Vincent Johnson, Nine Grayscale Paintings, Beacon Arts Center, Los Angeles, (2001). Oil on canvas. Each panel is 20×24 inches.
photograph of silver paint on my hands in studio, Los Angeles, during the creation of Nine Grayscale paintings.
Vincent Johnson – in Los Angeles studio working on Nine Grayscale Paintings, 2011

Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles, California

Vincent Johnson received his MFA in Fine Art Painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California 1997 and his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was selected for the Baum: An Emerging American Photographer’s Award in 2004 and for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 for the Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. In 2010 he was named a United States Artists project artist. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Art in America, Art Slant and many other publications. His photographic works were most recently shown in the inaugural Pulse Fair Los Angeles. His most recent paintings were shown at the Beacon Arts Center in Los Angeles.


Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin
10.09. – 05.11.2011The work of Rio de Janeiro born artist Beatriz Milhazes (1960) calls to mind cross-cultural references ranging from local flora, Rio’s urban verve or Brazilian Baroque.
Credits (from top): Beatriz Milhazes – Spring Love, 2010 // Mundy, 2011 // Manjary, 2011 //

Create a free website or blog at