Joseph Beuys and the “After-Auschwitz” Sublime

  • Gene Ray
Part of the Studies in European Culture and History book series (SECH)


In one of his last major public addresses, delivered at the Münchner Kammerspiele in November 1985 as part of the lecture series “Talking About One’s Own Country,” Joseph Beuys reflected on his decision to become an artist. After beginning studies in the natural sciences, he concluded that his “possibility” would not be realized within the confines of a narrow scientific specialty. His “gift” or “ability” (Fähigkeit) was rather “to give a comprehensive impetus to the task that the people [Volk] had.” (Volk, he explains, refers to a language community, not to a race.) He turned to art and developed a notion of sculpture that began with language and concepts, because that enabled him to produce “forward-looking images.” But his decision had also to do, he continued, with his realization that such an art, linked to the German language and to the people who speak it, “was also the only way to overcome all the still racially driven machinations, terrible sins, and not for describing black marks, without losing sight of them for even a moment.”1


Object Group Black Mark Public History Public Persona Glass Case 
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  1. 7.
    Levin, “Introduction,” in Carin Kuoni, ed., Energy Plan for the Western Man: Joseph Beuys in America (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1990), p. 2.Google Scholar
  2. 8.
    Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol, Preliminary Notes for a Critique,” Artforum (January 1980) and reprinted in Buchloh, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000). On the influence of this text in America, see Christopher Phillips, “Back to Beuys,” Art in America (September 1993), p. 90; and David Levi Strauss, “American Beuys: ‘I Like America and America Likes Me’,” Parkett 26 (December 1990), p. 124. Buchloh’s essay also looms large behind the structure of the Tate Gallery, Liverpool’s 1994 critical forum on Beuys. See David Thistlewood, ed., Joseph Beuys: Diverging Critiques (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press and Tate Gallery Liverpool, 1995).Google Scholar
  3. 9.
    Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Rosalind Krauss, and Annette Michelson, “Joseph Beuys at the Guggenheim,” October 12 (Spring 1980), p. 17.Google Scholar
  4. 10.
    Interpretations attempting to put Beuys “on the couch,” in order to argue that his art enacts a personal catharsis of the war years have only tended to confuse matters by reinforcing the focus on the artist’s account of his private history. See e.g., Donald Kuspit, “Joseph Beuys: The Body of the Artist,” Artforum (Summer 1991) and reprinted in Thistlewood, ed., Joseph Beuys: Diverging Critiques, pp. 95–105.Google Scholar
  5. 11.
    For the generally accepted chronology, see Götz Adriani, Winifried Konnertz, and Karin Thomas, Joseph Beuys (Cologne: Dumont, 1994). The challenge to Beuys’s account of the war years begins with Buchloh’s 1980 Artforum essay, already cited. For a recent version of that challenge, see Frank Gieseke and Albert Markert, Flieger, Filz, und Vaterland: Eine Erweiterte Beuys Biographie (Berlin: Elefanten Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  6. 13.
    Monument for Auschwitz (1958) and Design for Auschwitz (1957), in Franz Joseph van der Grinten, “Beuys Beitrag zum Wettbewerb für das Auschwitzmonument,” in Inge Lorenz, ed., Joseph Beuys Symposium Kranenburg 1995 (Basel: Museum Schloß Moyland and Weise Verlag, 1995), pp. 199–203. The first had been published previously as fig. 71 in Franz Joseph and Hans van der Grinten, Joseph Beuys: Wasserfarben/Watercolours, 1936–1963 (Frankfurt/Main, 1975), pp. 48–9; and as fig. 31 in Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, p. 22.Google Scholar
  7. 14.
    Figures 279a–f, 280, 281, and 282 in Eckhart Gillen, ed., Deutschlandbilder: Kunst aus einem geteilten Land (Cologne: Dumont, 1997), pp. 272–3.Google Scholar
  8. 18.
    “Wahrzeichen,” in the written text accompanying Beuys’s proposal, quoted by Van der Grinten, in Lorenz, ed., Joseph Beuys Symposium Kranenburg 1995, p. 200.Google Scholar
  9. 21.
    Max Reithmann, “In the Rubblefield of German History: Questions to Joseph Beuys,” in Gene Ray, ed., Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy (New York: Distributed Art Publishers; Sarasota, FL: Ringling Museum of Art, 2001), pp. 164–8.Google Scholar
  10. 22.
    Plate 40 in Ann Temkin and Bernice Rose, Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art; New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1993), p. 150; pl. 48 in Schirmer, ed., Essential Joseph Beuys; and pl. 59/cat. 151 in Zweite, Joseph Beuys: Natur Materie Form. Google Scholar
  11. 45.
    Torso, dated 1949–51, discussed as fig. 2 in Pamela Kort, Lehmbruck/Beuys (Cologne: Michael Werner, 1997), n.p.Google Scholar
  12. 47.
    Of the four versions, one is in Frankfurt, another in Philadelphia. See Mark Rosenthal, Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein auf Hirsch (Frankfurt/Main: Museum für Moderne Kunst, 1990), p. 32.Google Scholar
  13. 52.
    “Joseph Beuys,” in Penthouse 106 (1980), p. 98; and cited by Kramer, Deutschlandbilder, p. 261.Google Scholar
  14. 54.
    The basic elements of this thesis were advanced by Adorno in 1959, in WTP. The thesis was developed and elaborated along more technically Freudian lines by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern, Grundlagen kollektiven Verhaltens (Munich: Piper Verlag, 1967); in English as The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior, B. Placzek, trans. (New York: Grove Press, 1975).Google Scholar
  15. 55.
    Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), pp. 87–128.Google Scholar
  16. 59.
    See Peter Weiss, The Investigation, Jon Swan and Ulu Grosbard, trans. (New York: Atheneum, 1966), pp. 257 and 259.Google Scholar

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© Gene Ray 2005

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  • Gene Ray

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