Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys: Bernice Rose

Electric Sphinx, 1977

Joseph Beuys, Electric Sphinx, 1977

Bernice Rose: It is always extremely difficult to discuss drawing.

Joseph Beuys: It is. As soon as you start to talk about drawing, you speak of a very complex sort of philosophy. Since drawing is a primordial result of the author, producer, artist, or whatever, you can learn about how things come into reality. Drawing for me already exists in the thought. If the complete invisible means of thinking are not in a form, it will never result in a good drawing. My thinking on drawings as a special form of materialized thought is this: they are the beginning of changing the material condition of the world, through sculpture, architecture, mechanics, or engineering, for instance, where drawing ends not only with the traditional artist's concept.

BR: By traditional do you mean descriptive drawing?

JB: Yes, and I fancy tradition is very important, but ... a historical point of change is Marcel Duchamp. For me there ends the empty concept of modern art, and modern art is the last end of traditional art. From the point of view of my theory, after modern art anthropological art starts. Anthropological art, principally, is related to everybody's creativity, to the constituents of everybody's productivity. Creativity is no longer specific to people who are working with colors, to painters; it's no longer specific to people who are working with form, to sculptors. Everybody's formulation and environments—let's also say social relationships—have to be seen from the point of view of creativity, of art, and the principles of form. In Germany we have this fantastic word, gestalt; it exists also in some sense in English. A drawing is the first visible form in my work, the first visible 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 rounded, be it a solid support like a black-board or a flexible thing like paper, leather, or parchment, or whatever kind of surface ... even a wall.

BR: Do you think of it at an extension of writing?

JB: Naturally and logically. If the origin of the drawing is the form, the shape of the invisible thought, logically one can make a decision between an image and a word. And because the thought is the most essential issue in understanding the turning point from modern art to anthropological art, it is crucial in this constellation to speak about ideas. Therefore in my production there are sometimes words, sentences, or even blackboards consisting only of ideas, words formulated into ideas. Those ideas on blackboards are related to the problem of the future, to the gestalt, or form, of everything: of the ecological, global entity of humankind's social order, of economic order, of networks of communication, of information theory, of all those things. These concerns are already present in the beginning of my drawings, to one could say I started to draw to widen the intensity and energy of the idea, to bring it so life, also to provoke something with this kind of writing, which is an act of imagination. People state, "I cannot understand this. If you speak a sentence, if you write a word I can understand it; but if you make a kind of constellation with forms I cannot understand it." The difficult act of communicating with this free imagination—with forms—and with the word and sentence provides a very good opportunity to discuss the idea and the meaning and the importance and the necessity of art.

BR: So that the drawing is a way of teaching about the primary impulse of art?

JB: Yes. It is a very important mode of teaching and being taught about what humankind's creativity means. It is a way of coming nearer to the idea of the anthropological, nearer to the consciousness of the changing mentality of human beings in modern life. A drawing is an ideal means of coming nearer to the whole, to the fullness of what humankind means and what social order means. I don't relate drawing only to the so-called artist. The drawing is the most important thing in other fields too, in designing an airplane, in physics, or in chemistry The drawings are the first visible, materialized thoughts.

BR: An you saying that drawing is a description of thought?

JB: Yes, but I think it is even more than a description. Often it ends with a description, especially in the scientific fields. Yet even there it is not merely a description of the thought, since during this process of transfer from the invisible to the visible there come other creative strata, such as working with your hand.

BR: You discover something when you do it?

JB: Yes, the senses. All of a sudden you have not only to deal with the thought, but you have also incorporated the senses—balance, sight, hearing, touch. Everything comes together: the thought becomes modified by other creative strata within the anthropological entity, the human being. The feeling that comes from what one could term a "soul" combines with the thought and produces a much more interesting constellation of the creative process. Very often you have also incorporated some will power, energy, which is really something different from the thought. Bringing all those creative powers together leads to a kind of product: an elemental utterance in the form of a drawing. This is a transfer from the invisible to the visible; every kind of creative stratum is implied. And then the last, most important thing is that some transfers from the invisible to the visible end with a sound, since the most important production of human beings is language. One could also say that sound, which disappears after it is cast out, is a kind of drawing.

This wide understanding, this wider understanding of drawing is very important for me. The spoken word is a formulation, implantation, of form onto the world. There is less physicality: it disappears with the sound. But I hope that a lot of words are applied onto a receiver who is an intelligent being—that's communication. So that physically it ends but in the receiver there starts a new process, and perhaps this leads to a whole new beginning. An auditory drawing reaches a receiver, and maybe the receiver starts to draw. This kind of transfer ... is one of the essentials. It sounds a little bit abstract, this reason why I try to draw, to start this experience in the field of art.

BR: What do you mean by abstract?

JB: Even though I speak about art like a critic analyzing some product of artists, it is the anthropological process of transfer from the spiritual world into the physical world that has interested me more than any other thing. One could call it theory, but for me it's not abstract; it's the most concrete, let's say, science, the beginning of a concrete anthropology. Very often nowadays people speak about anthropologists like Levi-Straus, who are interested—and that's a positive thing—in the behavior of older cultures, in the patterns of the daily lives of the Hopi Indians, and all those things. It started with Margaret Mead and others who came from the United States in the forties or fifties and got interested in older cultures, in shamanism. This interest in anthropological research is widespread. But sometimes it is only a kind of regression, going back to older cultures. My interest was never to go back to the past, to the old origins. I was interested in originating things, in giving people an example from older cultures at the moment in our culture when everything is determined from the materialistic point of view, when everything goes along the line of the so-called exact natural-science model. People want to analyze, they want to weigh and measure, they want to have proof for everything, so they work with the so-called exact natural-science model. Which is also a very positive thing, but it is unable to take in the wholeness of the problems.

l am not so interested in older tribal behaviors. There seems to be a contradiction, as I told you, in that I very often use this model of a shaman or images from older cultures, or what looks to be from very old, primitive cultures, ideas of behavior. ... I use them to give people a wider understanding of the world, which was in fact part of older cultures.

BR: Are they emblematic of certain ideas? Are they meant when you see them to immediately convey a name of ideas in a codified form?

JB: Yes, sure. The codified and the emblem are a natural result of the imagination. . . . I use the idea of making the thing with a special kind of intensity .... and immediately it becomes an emblem, because it doesn't respond to rational understanding: this means this. The enigmatic thing creates the energy to de-riddle it, to come into another way of understanding. You could also talk about a theosophical determination, “astralization", for instance, which is far from the current terminology in science; they don't acknowledge such an idea.

BR: What is it?

JB: What I speak about is art as astral body. This means the whole energy complex, which is much more than the rational ... what they call in industry brainstorming, analyzing, making everything rational. This means a much greater insight into all the powers of humankind, nature, and all the interdependents, even into the field of what one called in the past a religious energy. Let's speak about all those things. In such a religion there are gods, there are angels, there are other beings, there are cooperators with humankind, and there are also elemental spirits in nature which either help us or which are enemies. All this seeing of natural power becomes clearly related to the human being. It makes clear what the value of life is, makes the value of life a very high value. Then the alienation disappears, since normally people in the modern world are pressed to do specialized work by the megastructures of such economies, be they communist or capitalist—neither system cares for the unfolding of the ability and creativity of the people. Under those conditions, dignity and the unfolding of this inner life end; they are nor possible in a world which alienates everybody's work because it tries to reduce human life to only a biological being .... Somewhere the biological being starts, and then it dies. What is the sense of it? That is surely not humankind; that is the methodology and materialistic understanding of science. I have nothing against it, but it is a devilishly one-sided methodology. I was interested to change from science ...

BR: Yes.

JB: ... and to try to stimulate all those powers and to discuss them. Initially, I trained a little bit in an art school and discussed with the teachers this thing I came very organically to form, where language, gestures, sounds, information played an important role. The result was ... a kind of performance where other people were in the discussion within the art world. And after this experiment, I found it better and better as a theory for anthropological art. From another point of view I call it also social art, because it has so do with everybody. It does not have to do with me; it goes away from the ego, or the egoistic drives and urges. It is a technique which runs through the community or through the environment or through the social body.

All of a sudden even the social body, which in the past was an abstract thing in the mind of the people, becomes under this constellation a living being, and it needs ecological treatment. Hence the idea of ecology . .. It has to do with nature, with the social body, with the individual, with the individual psyche in its whole constellation, and with the constellation of groups and other peoples. The things which always cause difficulties—war, destruction of nature, the debasing of nature, and the alienation of humankind's creativity—have to be overcome through a very complex gestalt, where the drawing plays an important role as a starting point.

BR: Starting to enunciate the concept so that it begins communicating…

JB: That's right. Drawing is very often a starting point. It has a special value in itself. Sometimes also it ends with the drawing. The idea is shaped and proved, and when I see it has ended and is finished on the drawing I see no reason to develop a sculpture out of the drawing, as if the drawing were a preparatory work for a later sculpture.

BR: There are two questions, the first being the material aspect. The installations that are formed the sculpture that's formed in this whole ecological ground and given the idea of communication and action that lead; to those structures—for instance, the one that's in Schaffhausen now a very big installation, with the piano and so forth—would that have been a sculpture which was initially an action?

JB: Right.

BR: Does that then remain as a kind of anthropological evidence of the action . . . as well as a poetic evidence, and then one can relive the action through the evidence?

JB: Yes, right. Sometimes one cannot fulfil it to the fullest. For instance, Directional Forces is a result of an action I did with people in London during the course of three weeks. It was a permanent discussion, a permanent dialogue. One could call this environment a kind of document of an action. You cannot reproduce the life which was present during the action, all the people young and old, the scientists and naive people and workers, even friends and people from the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Art] where I did it—all those implications of life you can never bring to it. So it is a document of the thing. But the interesting thing is, this document shows a stage in a concept which is now very interesting for people. You can easily describe all the ideas which are written on this blackboard. You can write them down, and you can make a kind of reproduction of the action from the point of view of what was going on with ideas, structures, proposals, and provocations, surely, too. When human beings are trying to overcome something, it is interesting to make a creation from that stage of development. For those involved—let's say the Green Political Party, which is now even sitting in Parliament—for them it is very interesting to see what was a complex of ideas discussed fifteen years ago and how it has developed: Did we shift further or did we stay back from this point of view which was interesting fifteen years ago, or ten years ago? So this document is not a fetish at all. You can use it as a scientific means.

BR: In that sense its ecologically useful. And that extends also to the trees being planted.[1] That's a farther, an enlarged concept of that kind of ecological recycling.

JB: Right. It is mentioned on the blackboards. Finding ways to make these ecological things real is having its effect now. What was once an utterance—what I call a drawing in sound waves, which came to an eardrum and was well received by intelligent people—led to a real undertaking. And this undertaking is now a sculptural thing, really. As you say, it is a word, a label. But you have to care for the trees, transport the trees, see if the trees are healthy or nor healthy, contract with the foresters, dig holes, plant them; then comes the stone, as a monumental accent to the thing. There is a consequence of this action. It is not only a fetish. Surely for some people it is completely incomprehensible—those who are not willing to de-riddle it or to go into the mood of it, who are not patient enough to see the thing because it is not easily understood. . . You have to study it. There are also reports from the action; you can hear some tapes, you can research, you can read what I told you of the theory at the time. There are a lot of things which work together.

BR: You talk about modern society and its desire always for the material.

JB: In modern society there is a desire for material; everything is so strongly materialized that you often think: "What is it with human beings? Are they still human beings or not?" People have to few instincts left in them. Their whole being is already so debased—not through their own fault but through the fault of the existing economical system. I can't understand, for instance, that workers are supposed to go into a factory where they know they will be affected immediately by some chemicals; where the worker himself, his family, his children, will get cancer. I cannot understand this kind of working without any real reaction, without any protest, without a strong refusal, let's say, of how big industry, the states, the governments, the political parties, are oppressing the people. We have to find a way out, otherwise we will go under very soon, it's true. We will get more and more poisoned, people will die, children will get deformed. Energy is also lost, and energy is a very important part of creativity. Creativity is not a sentimental thing where some people are able to work like Leonardo da Vinci. Creativity is a very common part of every human being. Therefore I say every human being has to be considered an artist; that is the most dignified way to come nearer to the problem of regeneration, or awareness. We have to find a way out of this catastrophe. This starts with the consciousness: the soul, feeling, and will.

BR: You, as an artist, though, produce a particular expression; you produce a particular formal context in your work. If we grant that all people are artists, then the ones whom we normally call artists, like Leonardo or whomever, who produce a particular product, so to speak—that has a kind of identity. And what you do has a kind of identity, too, that separates it from what other people do.

JB: Right. For my identity it is most important nor to stress the stylistic side of the thing, not end with the formal side. In modem art there is a very important impulse at the last stage of traditional art—lets say with Mondrian, Beckmann, all the different concepts, the cubistic concepts, the surrealistic concepts. Surely they were also asking for a better society. But they only told it; they didn't find a method for bringing it into life, how to bring it to the people, how to work with the kind of understanding of art which would become the form of the social body itself. Now people have to find some methodology to fulfill those wishes. For me the only method that remains for people to overcome bad things in the world is art. Certainly you have to speak a lot, and permanantly, on art. Children have to become educated in ways other than in the universities, where people are filled with materialistic understanding—career instincts, competition instincts, how you can study and all you can study, how every bit will later provide a better income, let the other guy there work on art. That is very unsocial. To grow through those hindrances I think the only thing that remains is the weapon and power of art. But then you have to widen the understanding of art.

BR: In other words the idea of style is restrictive?

JB: Yes. Art must not end where the museum exists, where the art historian exists, where the so-called art education in state schools has a small, not very vital existence. Lives are not determined by this activity. Nowadays lives are determined by the economic order, of the capitalist or communist world, and the result is the destruction of nature and the destruction of social ability.

BR: How do you avoid the notion of this restricted idea of art that constitutes style?

JB: I have nothing against style. Style is a very important thing. If you compare other products with an art product, it has to have a kind of style, surely. But style must not be the goal. It is an instrument to go further. Modern art very often ends with style, with the formulation. We have to develop and go on and bring up all those methodologies and instruments to result in some changing of the social body, to bring it up as an artwork. I'm really convinced that humankind will not survive without having realized the social body, the social order, into a kind of artwork. Everybody asks for quality. This word alone means how a thing is shaped. It does not mean how many beans I have in the pot. Everything is quantified nowadays. Yet the longing for quality exists in people. Quality is also beauty for nutrition. If a salad is poisoned, it can still look beautiful. But people don't believe these salads; they are looking for a hidden quality which is healthy. It's a kind of medicine which has the quality of an artwork. So the art—this is what I call anthropological art—therefore is also very interesting for a farmer, for a forester, for people in every field of activity. The idea of art is the only possible way to bring about another society. The only aim will be the quality of everything, the beauty of everything, the art character of everything. I find it very natural. It's not very complicated to understand.

BR: So that art is exemplary.

JB: Art is exemplary for every human activity. I relate it to labor. The next consequence is—and this is really revolutionary—that labor is only about quality and form, as in art. The only economical value is this creativity of people and what comes out of the creativity of people; that means the product. They will see that money cannot be capital. They will soon recognize that the only capital of humankind is ability and creativity, being an artist in every field of life. Then they will come organically to another social order. They will take all of the money out of the field of economy, since money has nothing to do with economy. Money can be a good regulator, but has nothing to do with the economical field. It has to exist in the democratic field to regulate human rights; then people will have realized democracy. Without changing the position of money you will never reach democracy

BR: In Stuttgart I saw one of the versions, of Marcel Duchamp’s Chocolate Grinder, and it reminded me, in Munich I had just seen something of yours, A Chocolate Object.

JB: Ah yes, that is a very nice thing. It is this piece of a cloth with the chocolate grinder.

BR: I would like to talk a little bit about the materials that you use, and the material of drawing and how it extends also into the realm of scupture and how they interrelate.

JB: Most of the drawings consist only of pencil. Then a character of drawing appears which consists of, let's say, fluid materials, be it watercolor, normal watercolor, or often I also use chemical reactions on the surface—chemical reactions which lead to a kind of color, but only on the surface. Then there is hare's blood; also my own blood applied sometimes. Very important for me was . . . this so-called braunkreuz (brown cross), where I was looking for a color which was not at all experienced as a color, which was a substance; a kind of sculptural expression which was a color but was not a color. I tried a lot with the gray, which has similarities to felt, the color of the felt, since I use only, or ninety-nine percent only, gray felt. I tried with this gray, but it was too delicate for me, or too painterly an expression, so I developed a very primitive sculpture where you paint floors this brownish thing. There are a lot of things which I call drawings, nevertheless they are mostly—what is the term? It's not a line, it is a surface, it's a full surface, or at least big complexes of this stuff. I call all those things drawings because ! do not have such a specialized understanding of a drawing, that a drawing mostly exists of line or scribbling or making shadowy effects with the pencil.

BR: It can start with the material.

JB: I was looking for a substance which was not a color, which was not sculpture. I found this braunkreuz. I call it braunkreuz to stress the idea that it has a kind of substance. Naturally it is also a metaphor, it alludes to this idea of having an unusual substance.

BR: You can mold that in the same way—it's primordial stuff to use in the same way that you use drawing.

JB: Yes.

BR: The blood is also a part of the idea of the transfer of energy and the way that it changes on the surface? It changes from one thing chemically when its fluid and changes chemically on the surface?

JB: Yes, that's right. But I also want to have a kind of stuff which is unimportant as a primary sculptural means, for instance, any kind of clay, any kind of flexible substance. I wanted to not have a special color: not a cool, not a warm, not a red, not a blue, not a yellow, not a gray. I was looking for a neutral kind of substance. The best word I find is the idea of the substance, what one calls in Germany Urstoff.

BR: It has no particular association before you begin with it, no particular art association. It was, so to speak, free.

JB: Yes.

BR: Are you doing any drawing now?

JB: Sometimes. I am working more on such structures as blackboards and things, but sometimes also I make a drawing, sure.

BR: But you still think of drawing as very traditionally on the piece of paper.

JB: Sure, why not. The best thing about drawing is that you take a pencil and you take any surface and you make it, you write it down. I see no reason to find a better thing than this. Maybe in the fissure. The only thing which interests me in a way is to work with big drawings, very big drawings.

BR: I’m very interested in this idea of the large drawings. la a sense the blackboard pieces are like large drawings.

JB: Yes, but there is a reason to make it large. I am not interested in repeating the concept of blackboards. The blackboard is not a means which is used in a studio. It only appears in a dialogue, principally.

There is no blackboard which was done only with the idea of making a blackboard. Any blackboard which exists was done in a kind of performance, or dialogue, with many people. In Japan, for instance, I made a performance with Nam June Paik, and immediately a black-board appeared, very naturally. Three or four blackboards—we were doing the discussions and doing all the dialogues—appeared with the action. I never made them artificially.

BR: Drawing is really something that you do privately, working alone.

JB: Yes.

BR: What would constitute a necessity to do those large drawings?

JB: A necessity means that it was necessary to find the bigness of the drawing important. Until now I have found that the size of my drawings is precisely the most effective thing. To be completely normal, sometimes even a cheap piece of paper is drawn on, an actual piece of paper, and I try it, and I know it is down. It is a kind of notation. A big thing immediately has a decorative impact, and that is exactly what I try to avoid. Nevertheless, I sometimes think that I will start again with a more systematic kind of drawing when I find a solution for the problem, to make bigger sizes.

BR: It changes the space of the conception, yes?

JB: Immediately.

BR: Do you think about it a good deal?

JB: No. I made a lot of drawings, and I feel that it makes no sense to enlarge this quantity of drawings anymore. I stopped this kind of drawing in the beginning of the seventies. I wait for a moment when there is a new idea for a drawing. I don't know if I will find this thing.

BR: The action doesn't always have to start with as drawing now.

JB: No. If there is now a necessity to draw, it is about structures. Sometimes I make a kind of drawing in preparation for a performance. Recently in Japan, for instance, I made the drawing when the performance was already running. I had the intention to make some structures, a kind of time structure, consisting only of elliptical points, with short and long, short and long durations. I had it on a small piece of paper. It was conceived as a concert; Paik mentioned it would be fun to make a variation on the concert I did years ago in memoriam to George Maciunas. It was a concert with two pianos. Paik ordered in two pianos, and he expected to make a kind of concert with two pianos. But when I was on stage, I felt completely against a variation on that type of concert, making it a repetition. So I told Paik that as soon as I start to bring the first sign from the piece of paper onto the blackboard, you start to play piano, and I make another thing. I worked for one hour, determined by the times mentioned on the paper. And that is how this kind of drawing sometimes appeared. I see no reason to enlarge the quantity of drawings. Sometimes I feel I already made too many.

BR: You talk about them as being the materialization of idea; how can there be too many of them?

JB: Repetition is the horror for me, you see. So I materialize enterprises: planting trees, making agricultural things. This is real work, real enterprise. It has a lot of people even. It is structured like an enterprise; you have to fulfill all the social rules that have to be observed in our society, such as: People have to get their income; I have to care; I am responsible for the monthly income of every worker and cooperator, for the scientist, for the planters, for all the people who are employed only by season. We have a real structure here. We have to pay tax; we have to observe every rule; we have to deal with banks; we have to invest; we have to work with this interest. There are offices in Kassel, in Düsseldorf, in Hamburg, in Italy, and in other places. So it is utterly real. It is even more real than the drawing, because it belongs to daily life and it consists only in being a tree. It will continue to grow when I am dead a long time. If the environmental condition gets no worse than now, it will stay 400, 500, 600 years, and it will be thick, like this. It is a long-time realization. All those activities shifted me away from getting more involved in drawing.

BR: Is it a question of the contemplative activity? Shifting from the contemplative to the active?

JB: Yes. Surely it also has to do with the action. The action, and the performance character, was the first form which brought me our of the regular making of drawings. The interest in this field was transferred to the other thing. I think you can only continue to make things with a real effectiveness if you change the medium. You cannot maintain all the other things while new things are coming up as necessities or inner logic. When one thing is done, the next appears. In this procedure, which follows a special logic, what are known as the drawings of Joseph Beuys are less important. But I am still thinking about another character of drawings. I do not even know what type of drawing, but I think it has to relate to a kind of other dimension.

BR: I wonder about drawing as an activity, as being a so-called, quote, very traditional art-oriented activity. What you seem to be talking about is an increasing radicalization of the idea of what art can be and how you can make it. As you do that, you leave off the drawing. Is that because drawing in itself cannot be radicalized in that way?

JB: Sometimes drawing looks very traditional, that's true. And if there is a result that looks more traditional, I have nothing against this. Sometimes you can find some character of the past in my drawing; but nevertheless, I think I would not have done the drawing if I had only followed tradition and if it had no other element in it, no other life. I think there are some elements in my drawing which you cannot find in traditional drawings.

BR: So you can transform that traditional element?

JB: Yes.

BR: This is a central question for me, whether this can really be done, whether you really feel that you can elude that traditional character with the pencil and the sheet of paper.

JB: I don't know. Another thing to think of is that you might soon be working in your own tradition, and this I try to avoid too. If I would again produce as many drawings as I did in the fifties, I would feel trapped in my own tradition. If I find no real revolutionary next step for the drawings, I will leave them. I will say, "That is what I could do", and I will start again only when I find another point that I feel is another bridge. Very often artists are trapped in their own traditions. That is a very real, dangerous thing.

BR: That's a real problem for artists, always. A number of artists in the late sixties and early seventies found a way to make radical drawings—by changing scale, by changing location, even by changing means. That was a very, very radical moment, not just for drawing but for art in general. It would be interesting to see another development like that now because some younger artists, it seems, are not only making traditional drawings but they are already making drawings in their own tradition.

JB: Yes, right. That is the reason why it is now only by chance that a drawing sometimes appears. From 1980 until now, I have made maybe four or five drawings, but no more. I have no idea if I will come again to drawings. Shut me in a special space and commission me to produce drawings, then I produce drawings. Sometimes for an exhibition, for instance, if I have nothing to exhibit, if you shut me in for, say, three days, give me a bit of coffee or food, they may happen. This kind of thing is also very interesting for me. You are in another situation, and then out of this other psychological condition you develop something. So if you are interested in drawings, or in having drawings in the MoMA, you have to shut me in the MoMA in some obscure cellar or garret or whatever. After three days you can look for the result.


1   The plan of a 1982 ecological action was to plant 7,000 oak trees all over the world. Each tree was to be accompanied by a basalt stone. Eventually, all kinds of trees were used. Some are planted outside the Dia Foundation on 22nd Street in Manhattan.