Joseph Beuys and “40 Years of Drawing” – a major retrospective in London

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Joseph Beuys Untitled, Undated Gilded bronze on pencil or charcoal drawing Image: 21 x 29,7 cm (8.27 x 11.69 in) Photo: Charles Duprat (Via Thaddaeus Ropac)

Presenting almost 100 works on paper from the Joseph Beuys family for the first time in the UK, Joseph Beuys: 40 Years of Drawing is the first major exhibition dedicated solely to the artist’s drawings to take place in London for 30 years.

The drawings on view span the four decades of Beuys’s creative output; from the early representational works of the 1940s and 1950s to the conceptual sketches created from the mid-1960s that reflect the radical shift in his practice when drawings became integral devices related to the performances and sculptures he produced in the 1970s and 1980s.

To mark the exhibition, Antony Gormley has been invited to curate a standalone room of Beuys’s drawings, which are placed in conversation with his own works on paper. Titled SENSE: Beuys / Gormley, this presentation highlights the continuing influence of Beuys’s legacy on many artists working today.

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Joseph Beuys Untitled (Girl), 1956 Pencil on paper Sheet: 29.7 x 21 cm (11.69 x 8.27 in) Photo: Charles Duprat (Via Thaddaeus Ropac)

Beuys and I found in drawing a fertile ground, which runs parallel to those actions that we have found necessary to make on and with the world.
— Antony Gormley

Crucially, Beuys did not conceive of his works on paper as studies or preparatory material for projects in other mediums. Instead, he experienced the physical act of drawing as the primary means through which to crystallise his conceptual thinking. Gormley, who has developed a strong personal relationship with Beuys’s work, similarly describes drawing as a ‘form of physical thinking’ fundamental to his wider process of artistic creation, stating that, for him, ‘a day without drawing is a day lost.’

Carving out his place at the forefront of post-war art, Beuys understood drawing to underpin all aspects of his multifaceted practice, encompassing his work as a sculptor, pioneering performance artist, theorist, teacher, environmentalist and political activist. He experimented with drawing, collage and watercolour to give physical form to his ideas.

At the time of the foundational 1993 exhibition dedicated to the artist’s drawings at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, co-curator Ann Temkin recounted, ‘Beuys has been described by those who knew him as constantly drawing; he drew while travelling, while watching TV, while in private discussion, while in performance. Beuys’s attitude towards drawing implied it to be as intrinsic to him as breathing.’

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Joseph Beuys o. T. (Petticoat), 1951 Ferreous watercolour and pencil on squared paper Sheet: 17 x 11.4 cm Framed: 68 x 52.5 x 3 cm Photo: Charles Duprat (Via Thaddaeus Ropac)

Drawing is the first visible form in my works… the first visible thing of the form of the thought, the changing point from the invisible powers to the visible thing… It’s really a special kind of thought, brought down onto a surface, be it flat or be it rounded, be it a solid support like a blackboard or be it a flexible thing like paper or leather or parchment, or whatever kind of surface. — Joseph Beuys (1984)

In the 1950s, Beuys continued his investigation into spiritual forms of post-war reconstruction through the theme of the female nude. Archetypal female figures, articulated using sparse lines of pencil and thin washes of watercolour, spring across sheets of paper, functioning as bridges between spiritual and earthly realms. Depersonalised and with their bodies routinely cropped by the dynamic compositions of the works, these figures are often depicted either holding children or next to amphora-like vessels that echo the shape of their exaggerated hips, characterising the women as symbols of fertility and regeneration.

The 1960s marked a significant shift in Beuys’s approach to drawing, along with a renewed commitment to political themes. Actively engaging with the interdisciplinary Fluxus movement, he produced ‘scores’ (conceptual sketches) connected to his burgeoning performance practice. Responding to the context of a divided Germany, the earliest of these performances, also referred to as ‘Actions’, frequently centred on the theme of Eurasia: the continental landmass invoked as a utopian borderless state in Beuys’s project of political and spiritual reform.

Joseph Beuys Untitled honey pot 1949
Joseph Beuys Untitled (honey pot), 1949 Pencil on torn envelope, mounted on paper coated with ferrous watercolour or Beize Sheet: 29.5 x 21 cm (11.61 x 8.27 in) Photo: Charles Duprat

Undertaken in 1967, the drawing Untitled (Score for Eurasienstab) relates to the Action of the same name (performed in Vienna, 1967; Antwerp, 1968) in which Beuys symbolically united the four corners of the supercontinent using a staff (stab). A hooked rod connects an outline of Germany to Asia, while crosses constructed from further iterations of the staff echo crucifixes, serving as symbols of rebirth. These elements recur in Beuys’s sustained exploration of the theme, which includes the important sculptural work Eurasia Siberian Symphony 1963 (1966) held in MoMA’s permanent collection. This assemblage of objects features a blackboard inscribed with the name of the supercontinent and an image of a truncated cross, situating the visual language of the Eurasian theme within his wider modes of artistic production.

Beuys continued to embrace innovation within his drawing practice throughout his career. In the 1970s, he extended the space in which the creative act could take place to the public arena, as represented by the blackboards featured in the exhibition. The blackboards were tools employed by the artist during the lectures he delivered to live audiences. As he spoke, Beuys drew on the boards with white chalk in a process he termed ‘auditive drawing’, demonstrating his belief that concepts could be conveyed in graphic forms that transcended linguistic expression.

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Joseph Beuys Untitled, undated Pencil and opaque watercolour, yellow abrasion Paper: 23 x 16.5 cm (9.06 x 6.5 in). Photo: Charles DupratJoseph Beuys Untitled, undated Pencil and opaque watercolour, yellow abrasion Paper: 23 x 16.5 cm (9.06 x 6.5 in). Photo: Charles Duprat (Via Thaddaeus Ropac)

In the final decade of his artistic career, Beuys returned to his earlier themes, reimagining them within the context of his later work. This cyclical aspect of his practice is epitomised by an untitled collage shown in the exhibition, which features a 1949 drawing of the head and neck of an antlered elk on a sheet torn from a spiral notebook. In 1981, the image was translated into a lithograph edition. Beuys then attached the sketch to a larger sheet of paper and overlaid it with a dried leaf from a tulip tree, evoking his early plant collages. The second life of the original work demonstrates Beuys’s conviction that ‘drawing holds a special meaning for me, because in the early drawings… everything is in principle already foreshadowed.’

Considered together, the works presented in Joseph Beuys: 40 Years of Drawing demonstrate how themes, materials and techniques recur and are reimagined by the artist throughout his oeuvre, asserting the primacy of drawing in his pioneering approach to artmaking.

Joseph Beuys. 40 Years of Drawing and SENSE: Beuys / Gormley A conversation through drawing opened at Thaddaeus Ropac in London 19 January – 22 March 2023. (Via Thaddaeus Ropac)

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