Write-ups and Critiques

Variations on a Theme of Felt and Fat

The Australian, Febuary 18, 1986

What inclinations were given to sculpture by Joseph Beuys, who died at 64 in Germany several weeks ago, are matters of speculation.

They were certainly more subliminal and indirect than obvious, but in various media events, installations and lectures he reaffirmed the importance of sculpture as a committed activity and that his objects were the result of a spiritual journey.

Those reaffirmationís are clearly evident in recent Australian sculpture; they were not evident enough apparently in the show of British sculpture in Sydney and Melbourne last year to disturb massive prejudices, but there is a fresh consciousness of the particular visual and intellectual role of sculpture abroad today.

Three concurrent shows in New York make this clear: American Eccentric Abstraction at The Blum Helman Gallery, Transformations in Sculpture at the Guggenheim and Working in Brooklyn Sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum.

As a sign of the strange times and of the recognition of the invisible powers of Beuys, his Plight, consisting of an unwrapped grand piano in a cavern of cylindrical rolls of felt standing on end, has just dominated the Anthony d'Offay Gallery in London.

It was the same gallery that installed Stripes from the House of Shaman in 1980, a work that was reinstalled in the National Gallery of Australia by Beuys on a quick, unpublicised trip here.

It is certainly a puzzling piece, as Mildred Kirk points out in her article in Art and Australia (Autumn 1985) and it must have impressed sculptors and others with the notion that is the objects that make an installation effective.

We also saw his famous Eurasia with a stuffed hare on a blackboard, in the Sydney Biennale. Naturally it went unacquired in Australia.

He made lots of small objects and multiples, like a shopping bag that bore his diagram of a democracy superior to the ones we know, a postcard made of a block of wood, the spine of a herring in a multiple box, and 100 felt suits, one of which is in the Power Gallery of Contemporary Art in Sydney.

Some of these have been called bric-a-brac by those who would probably term Meret Oppenheim's fur-lined cup and saucer trivia. Not of course, Robert Hughes, who in his The Shock of the New thinks it is the most notable symbol of lesbian love in the 20th century!

Beuys, even in his gentlest watercolours, is never trivial. They might seem so to those who have tried to give him a profound significance by stressing his role as guru in art and politics and his revival of primitive themes supposedly made unacceptable by the Nazis. That has little to do with his art.


As is well known, he crashed his Stuka during World War II and was saved by nomad Tartars of the Crimea who covered him in fat and wrapped him in felt, two materials that recur in his art, of which he has said: "The outward appearance of every object I make is the equivalent of some aspect of inner human life". He thus gave a leadership to those sculptors who were opposed to the politicisation of aesthetics and those who rejected idiosyncrasy for wider human issues.

As an artist who supported the Green Party, he surprisingly did not support the notion that art must grow from, and be related to, a particular material and cultural environment. For him art was something of a magical ritual, as were his lectures on it in New York, London and Cassel's Documenta, there for 100 days. He covered blackboards with revolutionary slogans and his basic beliefs, more to provoke than to convince. (It was not his fault that the chalk was made permanent with fixative and the blackboards sold).

Art was for him an instrument. As ingredients of it, felt and fat were sources of energy but inert until cut, rolled and heaped. The piano in Plight, an instrument of art, was nothing until a key was struck. Art was to look full potential, near complete and finished. His piano in the Pompidou Centre in Paris is wrapped in felt. Its potential has been silenced; entitled Silence, it emanates soundlessness and stillness.

Such simple basic beliefs, not esoteric conceptual explorations, were the foundation of his art. He used the hare, the deer and, with his honey pump, the bee, as symbolic survivors. In 1969 he fitted a bus with 20 sledges streaming out of the back like St Bernards. Each carried a roll of felt, some fat and a flashlight.

Beuys once told me in Cassel that he would like to come to Australia for some time because of the elbow room. One should not make too much of the fact that he is here in spirit or suggest that his attitudes dominate the sculpture of any locals, such as Adrian Mauriks at the Irving Sculpture centre. But Mauriks, who sometimes throws in a bit of pop or returns to his previous metal sculpture, has caught the spirit of Beuys in a series of totems made from redgum.


A wide, broad pillar of wood is placed on a base, is topped with a huge, wavering lintel, spiked or growing wings, and is open from top to bottom with a jagged hole that can look like a human form.

The silhouette of the whole block and of the deleted area contest each other and the surfaces are painted black, red or white, with splits, inlays of silvers of copper and chisel marks. The details, all robust and never skittish additives enhance the aggressive impact of these formidable monuments.

Not all are stalwart. One, Wingstand and Rainbow Rack, is about a torture table with steps leading to a red cross with spikes, from it rising a hat-rack hung with a pair of discarded wings. It also bears saw-toothed rainbow like sweet instrument of pain.

In another, an armless, pale cream man, his wings shorn off, walks beneath rods of steel pyramid that could be a flogging triangle. Again, the quite uncanny Dreamer, a 3m long table with a steel rack above it, could be an amalgam of torture devices; the rack might be shredders or threatening antennae or simply for holding mind-blemishing magazines.

From the rack hang beautifully carved wooden bones, one swinging like a boat, certainly not for rescues. From each end extend two steel tents looking as if they were made of rib bones attached to spines. Ironically the wooden table that supports all this is washed in deliciously pale colours.

Mauriks can combine paleness with emphatic resoluteness, as in Primal Place II, where roughly shorn plates of pale cream steel gather about a spherical stone suspended by a chain.

Some of the jagged cut-out pieces from the centre of his mammoth works have been transformed into what he ironically calls idols, one covered in grey lead and one with oblongs and squares out of geometrical abstraction.

It is a splendidly compelling show. A step into the garden offers no relief, with Totem I painted white and surmounted with violent wooden wings. It has the energy that Beuys sought and saw in Pollock, whose own Totem II now lies in wait for both believers and infidels in Canberra's National Gallery.

Elwyn Lynn, 1986