Beuys and Fluxus

John Cage                                            Image    Rob Croes / Anefo / CC0

The early phase of Fluxus was essentially initiated by John Cage and some of his students of experimental composition in New York in 1959. Cage introduced the use of everyday objects and the element of chance to music, something that Fluxus artists incorporated into their practices, performances and attitudes. It was Cage’s students who took it on board to organise venues for experimental and performance art. More often than not a Lithuanian American, George Maciunas, would be in the audience at these performances. It is he, in fact, who is credited both with giving the movement its name, Fluxus (meaning ‘flowing’) and with quite quickly becoming the driving force behind what was to develop into a loose-knit group of international artists, architects, composers and designers, who built a reputation for performing ‘happenings’ and for assembling a series of highly influential artists' multiples.

This description of Fluxus given at neatly sums up some of the elements that characterise this group of artists:
"Like the Futurists and the Dadaists before them, Fluxus artists did not agree with the authority of museums to determine the value of art, nor did they believe that one must be educated to view and understand a piece of art. Fluxus not only wanted art to be available to the masses, they also wanted everyone to produce art all the time. It is often difficult to define Fluxus, as many Fluxus artists claim that the act of defining the movement is, in fact, too limiting and reductive.” However one can see why Maciunas initially referred to Fluxus as 'neo-dadaism'.

Beuys’ association with the Fluxus artists was to have a profound effect on him.  How different were their semi-spontaneous performances in front of live audiences to the drawings and medium-based sculptures that mainly constituted his work up to this point – notwithstanding his use of unusual and commonplace materials. Through their work he witnessed the power of performance and the effects it had on an audience; he recognised how effective it was as a way of challenging accepted norms and creating a potent channel of communication.

Fluxus’ artists evaporated the boundaries between visual art, music, literature, poetry, performance and everyday life. All this Beuys experienced as liberating, expansive and irresistible. He eventually became deeply involved, but he was never "officially" recognised as a member. Beuys reflecting on this period notes: “My Fluxus activities began in 1962, when I spoke with Nan June Paik about all possible activities which one could make and possibly should make. At some point we met with Maciunas, who was with the American army in Wiesbaden, to discuss organisational questions, the planning of programmes, and the possibility of tours. After that we had to discuss who one could get together for such activities. Yes, we three worked together to organise something in various places at such Fluxus Festivals. While Macuinas and Paik concentrated on the Wiesbaden Action, which took place in 1962 and in which I, although I was on the list of participants, for some reason could not take part, prepared the Dusseldorf Festival for the following year at the Academy. In 1962 I myself did not take part in any actions.” (in Adriani et al pg 77)

Beuys did, however, go on to perform, either alone or in conjunction with various artists, more than 40 concerts and individual spiritual “actions” right up until his death in 1986.

It is probably true to say that through Fluxus Beuys gleaned valuable lessons into techniques of communication which held him in good stead in his classes at the Academy and for his later didactic approach to art, or, as Cornelia Lauf puts it: “once he had incorporated the lessons of Paik, Cage, and Maciunas, he could render his own body of work more original, more daring, and more open to interpretation. The new form of his work could now be fused with a personal message, one that had more to do with his earliest education than with international tendencies in art.” He could also see how, by involving an audience (conceptually, at least), the authority of the artist could be relinquished somewhat, resulting in a more shared experience where viewers are invariably led into both asking questions of themselves and into discussion.

Fluxus also had a direct effect on Beuys’ students. According to Petra Richter “Beuys hardly touched upon any of the contemporary movements in art during his first years at the Academy, but referred them to Leonardo da Vinci, van Gogh, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Edvard Munch and Brancusi. ‘He was forever warning us,’ Klaus Beck remembers, ‘about adopting new fashions. He was always dead against them, and always treated them with a great deal of scepticism.’ However, from 1963 on, Beuys provoked a discourse on contemporary art by inviting Fluxus artists [to the Academy] and by his own performance actions.” (Richter ‘Beuys: To be a teacher is my greatest work of art!’)

Having been settled in as a teacher at the Academy for two years, Beuys was sufficiently excited and emboldened by his contacts with Fluxus to invite them to ‘perform’ at the Academy, when he co-organised the festival “FESTUM FLUXORUM FLUXUS, MUSIC AND ANTIMUSIC – The INSTRUMENTAL THEATRE”.  This took the form of a colloquium over two consecutive evenings for Academy students (Adriani). As part of an associated concert Beuys' first "action", which he called ‘Composition for Two Musicians”, took place here on 2nd  February, 1963 . On the second evening he performed “Siberian Symphony, First Movement”. Tomas Schmit recalls “

The hall was both times packed out (and this by no means, as it would be nowadays, because Beuys was there). There was a good atmosphere. Yes, that was when Beuys appeared for the first time in our midst, performed one of his pieces, and confused the audience as well as the performers for the rest of the evening by playing happily with a spotlight." (Tomas Schmit, "If I Remember Rightly," Art and Artists, October 1972: 37, as quoted in Lauf). 

Beuys describes his second ‘action’ thus: “The Siberian Symphony was in itself a composition for piano. It began with a free movement that I composed myself and then I blended in a piece from Erik Satie, the piano would then be prepared with small clay hills, but first the hare would be hung on the slanting blackboard. In each of these small hills a bough would be placed, then, like an electrical overhead wire, a cable would be lead from the piano to the hare, and the heart would be taken out of the hare. That was all; the hare was actually dead. That was the composition, and it had for the most part sound; then something else would be written on the blackboard. He would write a whole series of sentences on the blackboard with chalk ….What I wanted to achieve with the hare and which came forth for the first time at this concert was a contextual reference to expression, to birth and death, to shocking the public”. (Adriani et al pg 91)

Image:  Wikipedia

The poster for the event provides a glimpse into the number and variety of artist-performers. And here, taken from a short passage in Uwe M Schneede’s “Joseph Beuys Die Aktionen” pg 21, one gets a flavour of some of the actual activities:

Robert Watts standard piece ‘Two Inches’ followed: Tomas Schmit and Emmett Williams stretched a 5cm wide band across the stage and cut it.

Jon Hendricks continues: "George Maciunas’ In Memoriam to Adriano Olivetti was performed by Schmit, Paik, Køpcke. Vostell. Spoerri. Williams, Trowbridge, Bengt af Klintberg and Maciunas: As soon as their number appeared on the calculating machine scroll score, the artists saluted and looked at the clock, leaning forward, imitating the call of a bird, sat down and opened or closed an umbrella. With George Brechts’ Drip Music, Maciunas stood on a high ladder and with great concentration dripped water from a large jug into a small vessel on the ground. After the performance of Dick Higgins' Constellation, Joseph Beuys appeared for the first time that evening."

A handwritten, duplicated program from Maciunas, posted on the door to the action room, recorded two contributions by Beuys: composition for 2 musicians and Siberian ... 4th part.

A manifesto written by Maciunas and printed by Beuys was thrown into the audience on the first evening as part of Patterson's Paper Piece. Among other things, it states: “PURGE the world of bourgeois sickness, “intellectual”, professional & commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, mathematical art - PURGE THE WORLD OF “EUROPANISM” ! ... PROMOTE A REVOLUTIONARY FLOOD AND TIDE IN ART. Promote living art, anti-art, promote NON ART REALITY, to be fully grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals ... FUSE the cadres of cultural, social and political revolutionaries into united front & action. "

 Emmett Williams adds: "Most people who had anything to do with Fluxus disliked this purging manifesto, or otherwise viewed it as one of George's exuberances. And besides, most Fluxus artists had long ago declared war on the establishment and endeavoured in their own works to bridge the gap between art and life.”

Beuys actions (as he would go on the call such activities) were taking on a different nature to the rest of the Fluxus artists’ performances. According to Beuys, Siberian Symphony contained the essence of all of his future activities and constructed, in his opinion, a broader concept of what Fluxus could have been. (Lucrezia De Domizio Durini: The Felt Hat pg 28).

He sums up Fluxus’s shortcomings for him here: “All the Fluxus people were sensitive spirits, they attempted and experienced a great deal. Especially in the area of atmosphere. Whenever possible they pointed to the dramatic effectiveness of materials, without attempting to establish anything precisely conceptual. What they lacked was a real theory, a recognisable underlying structure with a clearly marked goal. They held a mirror in front of people, without using it to lead to a betterment of their condition. Despite this I can say that the Fluxus actions had a value, because they made, along the way, conscious attempts to produce an important development”. (Adriani et al pg 86 my emphasis).

Clearly Beuys was working through ideas on how art could play a wider role in society and his actions began to take on a didactic and therapeutic dimension. However, the occasion in 1964 when he performed an action as part of a programme of events with the somewhat preposterous but descriptive title of ‘Actions/Agit-Pop/De-Collage/Happening/Events/Antiart/L’Autrisme/Art Total/Refluxus’, a ‘Festival of New Art’, by chance proved another turning point for Beuys. Many Fluxus artists participated in this event which was staged at Technische Hochschule in Aachen on a date that was the twentieth anniversary of the attempt to assassinate Hitler. Beuys’ event was titled ‘Kukei/Akopee-nein/Brown cross/Fat corners/Model for fat corners’.  Caroline Tisdall quotes Beuys in Becker and Vostell ‘Happenings/Fluxus/Pop Art/Nouveau Réalisme’ 1965: 

‘After making a quiet sculpture with ultra-violet beams I filled a grand piano with geometric shapes, sweets, dried oak leaves, marjoram, a postcard of Aachen Cathedral and soap powder. Very loosely, so that it was still playable, but the tone was altered by the filling...The piano was not ruined by me but by its previous owners. It had been part of the interior décor...The intention: healing chaos, amorphous healing, in a particular direction through which the frozen and rigid forms of the past, and of social convention, are dissolved and warmed, and future form becomes possible.’

‘Then I heated up a stove and melted the blocks of fat, warming it in this Fat Chest – that was the Kukei! I never reached the Model fat corner part of my programme because in between was an action with a copper rod wrapped in felt, now in the Ströher Collection. When I lifted this felt-covered copper rod above my head, the whole place exploded. It worked like a catalyst, this small object and simple an electric current”

That was when right-wing students stormed the stage and one punched Beuys so his nose bled dramatically. The police were called to stop the riot: they were still unaccustomed to such perplexing cultural violence. This put an end to the programme of events, but discussion continued deep into the night – the first of many throughout the years to come. Typically, too, Beuys was attacked by both right and left – as degenerate by the right, and as lacking in dialectic by the left. In this case the survivors of 20 July were also critical of what they mistakenly took to be his lack of respect.  (Tisdall ‘Joseph Beuys’ 1979)

After Beuys had been punched, and after a short retaliatory punch and scuffle, he returned to the stage, picked up a mounted crucifix and, using  his left arm he held it up shoulder-high towards his bloodied face whilst raising his right arm straight up into the near vertical position of a Roman salute (or, more contentiously as a possible Nazi salute?). Remarkably, and in hindsight fortuitously, a photographer, Heinrich Riebesehl, captured this pose in what has become a very well known image. Beuys concluded this episode amidst the pandemonium by throwing chocolates into the audience in what seema a very composed and light-hearted manner, 

Jan Verwoert in his article “The Boss: On the Unresolved Question of Authority in Joseph Beuys’ Oeuvre and Public Image” makes some very interesting observations about Beuys’ bloodied-nose pose:

In one sense, Beuys’ pose has an accusatory character: he holds a mirror up to the students, interprets their violence as tendentially fascist, and presents himself as their victim. In another sense, however, the pose is also clearly triumphant. In combination with the Roman salute and the defiant gaze, the crucifix in his outstretched arm conveys the message that Christ shall be victorious. In the end, the martyr, here embodied by the bleeding artist, will prevail. Beuys thus intuitively drew on several registers of body language at the same time to produce an impromptu pose of auratic authority, presenting himself as accuser, victor, and martyr all at once. The impromptu character of the pose, in turn, shows how Beuys, through free improvisation, managed to orchestrate the chaos that he had himself provoked. The example of the events in Aachen thus demonstrates impressively the extent to which Beuys’ artistic practice is based on his intuitive ability to improvise freely in unclarified situations, to absorb the energies released in the situation, and manifest them in strong—if contradictory—gestures. Yet, the example also shows that the gestures he uses to manifest the absorbed tensions are taken from a repertoire of postures for the staging of auratic authority. One possible explanation of this may be that, when improvising, Beuys intuitively fell back on familiar gestures of authority that enabled him to control the situation for the moment. If, however, we take into account the observation that Beuys was not just displaying his own emotions but in fact reflecting the tensions inherent in a given situation, this suggests another conclusion: namely, that Beuys channeled the violent energies of collective conflict over the foundation of authority that was in the air at the moment.

This particular performance of Beuys, the controversy surrounding the event, and aided by Heinrich Riebesehl's spectacular photograph brought Beuys even more to the attention of the German media — an attention which he was to cultivate for the rest of his life and which, of course, spilled over into, and had repercussions for, the Academy and Beuys' teaching there.

And at Aachen Beuys learned a lesson that he also turned to his advantage for the rest of his life and which he later articulated as:

provocation always causes something to come alive.

In the programme for the Fluxus Festival in Aachen, Beuys had included a narrative text entitled ‘Lebenslauf/Werklauf’ (Life Course/Work Course). This was a selected biography where every event was depicted as an art event. For example, he began with his birth in 1921 which was described as “Kleve exhibition of a wound drawn together with an adhesive bandage’” and concluded in 1964 with “Beuys recommends that the Berlin Wall be elevated by 5cm (better proportions!)”. Beuys had begun the process of making every aspect of life a creative process and belonging within the realm of art.

Also in this Festival Beuys had used what was to become a favoured material – fat. In part of the Kukei action he melted blocks of fat on a two-plate electric burner. However, his use of unusual materials in his own work was not new. For example, as early as 1947 & 1952 he had produced a series of “Queen Bee’ sculptures using a similar material, wax, and he continued to experiment with all kinds of organic and inorganic materials in his paintings, assemblages, installations and actions throughout his life.

Some of the materials from Beuys workshop on display at Kurhaus Kleve 

 Image: Cliff Gorman

It wasn’t until this year,1964, that Beuys also formally introduced his own artworks to his students at the Academy. Petra Richter writes: The awareness of new movements and trends in art resulted in the utilisation of found objects and unconventional materials. This process of awareness was partially triggered by Beuys’s presentation of his ‘Fat Chair’ (1964) during the Academy’s Open Week at the end of the winter semester in 1964. One of Beuys’s students, Klaus Beck, recalls the occasion:

During the winter semester’s Open House Week, Beuys complained that the teachers themselves didn’t exhibit any of their own works. He then brought along a kitchen chair and a large quantity of margarine and patted the margarine on the seat of the chair with a wooden paddle so that it sloped like a wedge. We saw nothing unusual in this and none of us realized that we had before us an incunabulum of art. At that time Beuys had told us nothing about his “energy concept” or the like. We simply considered the making of this “fat chair” to be a rather unspectacular action. I was entrusted with the task of painting one of the walls white so that the chair could be hung up on it.

In creating this object, Beuys had visualised a new concept of art and had for the very first time confronted both the students of his class and the students of the Academy in general with his own specific notion of art materials and with the problem of transformation. It symbolised the end of the traditional concept of art, although it was not understood by many of his students and seemed to them as enigmatic as Beuys’s first action at the Art Academy on the 2nd and 3rd of February 1963, when his ‘Siberian Symphony 1st Movement’ during the 'Festum Fluxorum. Fluxus. Music and Antimusic. The Instrumental Theater' had an explosive effect, not only calling traditional notions of art into question but also changing the artistic approach of his students and their way of working. (Richter in Beuys: ‘To be a teacher is my greatest work of art!’ My emphasis) 

It is worth remembering that Beuys had attempted to deal with the concept of heat in sculpture many years previously, saying to Adriani: ‘it was already clear to me in 1952 that it would be extremely interesting to bring it [the heat concept] to expression in sculpture. I knew at that time that these elements play a sculptural role’. By 1964 he had found several materials that he felt could ideally be used to do just that. Especially, felt... an (organically-based) insulator of heat; (inorganic) conductor of heat; and most interestingly, the most ideal material of all, (organic) fat…used to demonstrate the constant transformations of materials in the different conditions of warmth between a chaotic state and a formed state. At this stage I should point out that although Beuys was very interested in science his use of the term ‘heat’ should not necessarily, and certainly not always, be understood in its usual scientific definition, indeed in its widest terms it could be more closely aligned with the word ‘love’.

As Allan Antliff puts it in his book ‘Joseph Beuys’ pg 20 “Beuys posited that the activity of sculpting was an expression of our transformative power to change materials from a condition of chaotic fluidity to ordered form, mirroring processes that permeate nature and are an expression of living energy. Later, to aid understanding, he drew up a schematic diagram illustrating the conceptual principles of transition undergirding his sculptural work in lead, fat, honey, copper and other energy-conducive materials”.

Not only did fat and felt help in the material articulation of his theory of sculpture but these materials were important constituents of what was to become a well-known (partly mythical) autobiographical story of his recovery after his JU-87 plane crashed in the Crimea in WWII. Beuys: “They {Tartars] covered my body with grease to help regenerate warmth and wrapped me in felt as an insulator to keep the warmth in”.

As all this became more widely known and spoken about in the press, so Beuys the man, and his ideas, attracted more and more attention (and notoriety?) and more and more students wanted to attend his class at the Academy. And Beuys began to spend more time in his class discussing issues such as this theory of sculpture. Clearly his own work was beginning to influence his teaching, but his students did also begin to influence his art. Whereas Beuys - wanting his students to explore their own talents - had originally kept much of his own work and exhibitions hidden from the classroom, now he was using his expanded concept of art to provide them with a theoretical framework to find their own ideological bearings. His teaching process intended to push thinking & experience beyond traditional notions of art and into the whole of life. He conceived of a universal art that would penetrate all spheres of life and enable people to tap into their submerged creative potential. As Petra Richter says: “From the middle of the Sixties, Beuys’s ‘Extended Art Concept’ and ‘Theory of Sculpture’ began to play an increasingly important role in his teaching. Because of Beuys’s opinion that students should receive an all-around training – he therefore rejected a one-sidedly rational curriculum – he integrated irrational elements into the learning process, through his actions, for example.”  Through discussion and performance, Beuys’ classroom became an art experience meant to educate & inform and, indeed, teaching became not only an extension of his conceptual agenda but the very pinnacle. Beuys went onto say that “Education is the most important aspect of my art”. And as Carl-Peter Buschkühle asks in ‘Joseph Beuys as Teacher and Social Sculptor’, what was to be educated? Man’s creativity, and educating creativity through art means educating all the abilities, all the mental skills of an individual. Beuys stressed the education of artistic thinking, that is, the integration of rationality and intuition. Art for Beuys helps to integrate perception, emotion, critical reflection and imagination. It is a revolutionary power: “la rivoluzione siamo noi”[We are the revolution].