In the late 1970s, Joseph Beuys became the art world’s equivalent of a pop star. His felt and bronze sculptural installations formed a biographical archaeology that took desiccated German symbols and put them (and German history) on view. It did not hurt that Beuys had had a dramatic wartime experience as a pilot and P.O.W. and was also a photogenic and prodigious, press-savvy, self-promoter. His fierce attacks on German institutions made him acceptable internationally, although Beuys’s opposition to the Vietnam War kept him from visiting America until 1974.
The artist’s personal drama is at work in a new exhibition at the Dia Center for the Arts that runs until 13 June: “Joseph Beuys: drawings after the Codices Madrid of Leonardo da Vinci”. The drawings come from a bound limited edition of sketches that Beuys made in 1975. Many of the works were done while travelling in Kenya. Their inspiration, Leonardo’s Codices Madrid, are writings and sketches on art and scientific subjects made by the Renaissance genius between 1493 and 1505.
The notebooks were thought to have been owned by Philip V of Spain but they were lost until 1965 because of a filing error when the royal collection was transferred to the National Library in Madrid in the early nineteenth century. Much of the writing is in Leonardo’s backward “mirror-writing”.
For Beuys, the drawings were an opportune point of departure, even though the rebellious German declared in 1961, “I will leave aside such so-called greats or masterpieces, as it is very questionable why they are most important.”
As a young man, Beuys had hoped to follow a career in medicine, but World War II intervened. In 1947, he entered the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, where he claimed to encounter the same specialised and rigid approach to art that he dreaded in academic science.
Beuys’s drawings are anything but scientific diagrams. Rather, they are dreamy, personal allegories that use landscape and other elements to explore his own biography and feelings. Mountains, we are told in an explanatory essay, evoke the artist’s wartime experiences as a soldier in Italy. And mountains counterposed to a hastily sketched bee play his masculine side against his feminine side, speculates Beuys specialist Ann Temkin in the handsomely republished edition of the Beuys drawings.
Other drawings offer Beuys’s personal version of shapes that evoke Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, anatomical manuals of the human head, or the female body in profile. Some seem deliberately vague, although Ms Temkin argues that their indecipherability might mean that their subject is energy itself, a theme that Beuys addressed frequently. Beuys considered the felt that he used in his sculpture to be storehouses of energy, like batteries.
Beuys himself would probably have welcomed as many interpretations of the drawings as there were viewers to see them. Many of the pages resemble the blackboard writings that Beuys made in the 1970s, when he and other activists tried to establish the Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research (FIU). A radical democrat, Beuys was dismissed from his teaching post at the Düsseldorf Art Academy in 1972 for supporting an open admissions policy at the school and for admitting to his own courses students who had been rejected. One drawing reads: “Die Erde spricht; fluchtartig Parteien verlassen.” (the earth speaks; abandon political parties head-over-heels.)
The private notebook or sketchbook is often cited as a window onto the creative process of a thinker or artist. (An essay by Cornelia Lauf addresses the role of the artist’s book.) Indeed, according to the Leonardo specialist Martin Kemp, who contributed an essay to the new edition of the Beuys drawings, both Leonardo and Beuys used the notebook as a field for experiment. But whereas Leonardo used his Codices to achieve “materialised thought,” Beuys had other goals in mind, Professor Kemp argues. Beuys’s real interest was in language and concepts, and not with the visualisation of scientific thought.
The Dia Center exhibition is expected to attract what remains of Beuys’s once substantial following in New York. A much larger Beuys survey was planned for this season at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo, but was cancelled after the museum decided to close that branch for a major renovation. The last extensive Beuys exhibition in New York was at the Guggenheim in 1979.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Beuys takes notes on Leonardo'