There was a time in the 1970s and early ’80s when Joseph Beuys’ name was on the lips of every self-respecting art lover. His liberating expansion of what art could be infuriated the conservative establishment and energized generations of fellow artists and gallery goers. Together with Andy Warhol (temperamentally Beuys’ polar opposite), no one since Marcel Duchamp had so shaken up how we categorize art, and his legacy is crucial for an understanding of today’s scene, from Ai Wei Wei to Marina Abramovic. Yet such are the vagaries of fame, and such the specificities of Beuys’ work, that younger generations now have difficulty placing his legacy. If Andres Veiel’s “Beuys” is meant to change this, the effort unfortunately fails. Messily organized and unable to convey the revolutionary importance of Beuys’ vision, the documentary will have little impact and will likely be relegated to museum screenings.
In remarkably prescient ways, Beuys knew how to use his distinctive image to make inaccessible performance art seem comprehensible and practically friendly (Abramovic should take lessons on that score). With his deeply sunken eyes and semi-skeletal face, likely the result of malnutrition during the War, he bore a passing resemblance to Max Schreck, yet the trademark hat, dowdy vest and, most of all, broad, ready smile belied his potentially forbidding aspect. Beuys embodied Picasso’s statement that art is “an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy,” with the enemy being the establishment in all its forms, especially those who use capitalism to numb democracy.
Veiel (“Black Box BRD”) attempts to wrestle with a very broad overview of Beuys’ character and methodology in the opening section, mentioning a few of his most iconic works, including “7,000 Oaks” and his felt-shrouded piano installation. From there, he jumps back for a cursory mention of the artist’s early life in Cleves, followed by a longer discussion of a 1944 plane crash when he was a Luftwaffe rear-gunner. Beuys famously used this trauma as a sort of origin myth, claiming he was wrapped in animal fat to keep warm before hospitalization; Veiel makes no attempt to counter the fat story, which has largely been debunked, although Beuys frequently used it to explain why he used animal fat in some of his installations (his father’s margarine factory surely is a clue).
Nothing in the documentary is contextualized: A montage of the artist’s early graphic work is presented without any discussion, which means there’s no sense of his development nor of the ways he used various media. Curiously, it then jumps to 1965 and his groundbreaking installation “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” (reimagined by Abramovic in 2005).
From there, Veiel moves through other works, stopping a while to look at the installation that earned him fame in New York, “I Like America and America Likes Me.” Beuys’ rocky relationship with the Düsseldorf Art Academy is referenced, and there’s much footage of him being questioned on stage about “what is art?” Characteristically, his answers were always generous and full of humor, but that didn’t endear him to those who continued to scratch their heads at his insistence on the term’s limitless nature.
In the press notes, Veiel says he filmed about 20 interviews and originally cut the film in an entirely different way; now there are only five talking heads (Beuys’ wife and two sons are thanked in the credits but do not appear apart from photographs). The re-editing decision could be the problem, as it feels the director and his team simply don’t know how to organize such a vast amount of material.
Frustratingly, there’s no historical context. Beuys’ heyday came during a period of volatile political-artistic ferment, from the Red Brigade to Fassbinder’s feverish output, and to ignore this seems downright perverse considering the political nature of the artist’s work. Beuys expert Caroline Tisdall boldly calls “7,000 Oaks” one of the most important art projects of the 20th century, but such an extraordinary statement cries out for further discussion, which is delivered.
About the only visible structure in the documentary is the clever use of contact sheets, which allows Veiel to zero in on a particular photo or group of photos and then enter that moment. One wise decision made was to only show Beuys’ installations in footage from the time, rather than as they appear now in museums. Seeing them as they were created, or with the artist in the room, makes them come alive, whereas their importance pales in the sanitary confines of a gallery space. Beuys’ vision was dynamic and challenging; he still needs a documentary to capture not just the man, but his impact.