Hear Expert Commentary
Speaker: Hannah Klemm
Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Saint Louis Art Museum
Joseph Beuys holds an almost mythical position in the pantheon of postwar German art. He was an important teacher, political activist, and artist. Beuys believed that art and life were inextricable, that art could change society, and that everyone could be an artist. Beuys was a multimedia and multidimensional artist, never intending his practice to be singular in its interpretation or presentation. In his work Beuys endowed humble, everyday objects and actions with spiritual meaning. He was famously charismatic and created an iconic public persona, combining the performance of self with political action.
Beuys served as professor of monumental sculpture at the Düsseldorf Art Academy from 1961 to 1972. He believed that art should compel conversation, communication, progressive social action, and be open to everyone. Acting on this belief, throughout the 1960s Beuys implemented an open enrollment policy in his class, accepting any student who wished to study with him.
Throughout the 1970s, as part of his performance art practice, Beuys lectured extensively on art and politics—specifically, on the task of creating a genuinely democratic society. He started using blackboards to write on during his lectures. While the blackboards played an important didactic function as a site for information during the lecture, Beuys deliberately saved the blackboards with their writing, often exhibiting them as autonomous works of art almost as soon as they were created.
This work, Urbis II, was a blackboard drawing from a performance Beuys did in Rome in 1972. These public discussions exemplified Beuys’s role as artist, teacher, and activist. On this chalkboard Beuys sketched out the points of this talk. At the center he wrote LIBERTÀ, which is Italian for freedom. Beuys often linked freedom to creativity, art, and expression. The three main headings for this lecture are, from left to right: Freiheit, or freedom; Demokratie, or democracy; and Sozialismus, or socialism. Beuys was an avid supporter of and activist for Democratic Socialism, believing that the state should take care of people’s basic needs. He felt this would allow individuals the freedom to develop innovative ways of thinking and would, in turn, support overall societal well-being.
With the blackboard drawings such as this one, Beuys liberated drawing from associations with private, individual artistic acts. Rather, it became a function and document of a communal action. The blackboard drawings also take on performative meaning—functioning as a lasting document of the relationship between artist, audience, and artwork. It was really social relationships that were Beuys’s primary area of concern, and works like Urbis II allow us to continue to explore and discuss fleeting, collective performative moments long after the lecture is over.