Interview between Joseph Beuys and Richard Hamilton

Block Beuys, Room 2, Hessischen Landesmuseum Darmstadt

Block Beuys, Room 2, Hessischen Landesmuseum Darmstadt

Richard Hamilton: Joseph, you have a reputation, a very extraordinary reputation, for indulging in all sorts of activities that seem to be at the periphery of art, but your reputation as a creator of objects is less known. You do consider yourself a sculptor? First of all an artist, but also a sculptor. Is that true?

Joseph Beuys: Yes That is right. I see my production as a work of art, of creativity first, second as a work of art, third specialized in sculpture. Sure I am most interested in this Idea of sculpture, and I develop all these further ideas out of the idea of sculpture.

RH: Did you begin by thinkIng of yourself as a sculptor? There are, I know, an enormous number of drawings that exist, several thousand; twenty thousand, is it?

JB: Yes, I think about twenty thousand. But in my drawings there are ideas I did later in a more real way. The drawings have perhaps a more narrative character from time to tIme or they have a more mythological judging.

RH: The narrative aspect of your work is very strong in all your activIty. When one thInks that there are drawings of yours which continue the narrative of Ulysses, four volumes of drawings which are an extension of the novel by James Joyce.

JB: Yes, but especially in this work I try to change the character of literature to another character to show how the idea of language and information can change in its expressions.

RH: Your art usually comes from an interest in systems and processes. Even those things that are finite sculptural forms are likely to have emerged from ideas about a sequence of chaotic events which are then formalized, but the fact of its chaotic nature is an integral part of the ultimate realization. Maybe that is too difficult to understand in English.

JB: So I understand you, you point to the different character, chaotic character against the form character I am interested in.

RH: You create in such a way that the final character of the form, the ultimate sculptural form requires a pre-knowledge or understanding of the chaotic source of the resultant work.

JB: Yes, sure. Anthropological ideas can connect the chaotic character with the undirected or not directed energies in human beings for instance. The isolated situation would be blind activity, in a psychological behaviour it would be a blind activity. And I am not only interested to make clear that we have in sculpture to see the sculpture divided into these three elements. First the chaotic element opposite the element of form, and in the middle the element of moving from one extreme to another. But I am more interested to make it larger in a connection with psychological, anthropological ideas and especially political ideas.

RH: One thing that is becoming interesting about your work, or at least an aspect that I think many young artists are concerned with in your work, is this demonstration of the process from chaos to form. Which is often expressed in performance, in 'actions', or the demonstration of the will to create. Can you say something about this aspect of your art which is, I think, something new, this performing of the act of creation which, even in turn, can become the object itself.

JB: I think this is sculpture in another way, moving sculpture for me. I have nothing to do, for instance, with moral sculptures. For me moving sculpture is only realized in an action. In an action where it is explained with these primorous structures of chaotic beginning, moving through a middle and ending in the form. Directly or back to the chaos and in the next period of pausation back.

RH: When you began you worked in a very undemonstrative and private way. At the time you made those thousands of drawings.

JB: Yes, sure.

RH: This was a very introverted activity. Now there comes a time when you find the need to demonstrate, to expose the process, even to the extent of becoming a teacher so that the major part of your activity is communication with young people. Communication of ideas becomes the work of art. In fact, you have said that you are more interested in the idea of yourself as teacher than as artist or sculptor or that the artist and teacher are the same thing.

JB: Yes.

RH: The question is, did you feel the need to go out from isolation or did you feel that the demonstration was the work of art?

JB: No, I think my interest was to produce a new kind of art, not to go out from isolation. It seems to me the period of preparing me to my perhaps more important work. I think I was very involved to invent a new kind of art. I was interested to innovate.

RH: All major artists are innovators. The peculiar property that you have is the ability to approach things which are profoundly simple, like communication with animals for example. You approach this idea of communication with animals not as a simple saint-like creature but as a tremendously aware twentieth-century human being.

JB: I found it at this special time very important to have a wider conversation than only with human beings. I was very involved to have a communication with animals. At the same time I had the idea to found a political party for animals you know. It seems to me an absurd thing but for me it was a very real thing. Because I am today very involved too, to explain to the people that they hang together with all beings, the animals on a level of feeling, the plants with the living element and then the dead environment, represented in stones, for instance, and in bones. And I was very interested to communicate these lower levels of consciousness in the world. For me the animals have a lot to do with the whole of the human evolution. They are the first to establish the possibility of incarnation of human beings on a material platform, characterized through the idea of material, because I am interested from what point goes out the evolution.

RH: I have only seen photographs of this particular action but they all have an extraordinary poetry and the title is very poetic — 'explaining art to a hare' —there is the dead animal that you handle with great affection and you try to explain these abstruse ideas to a piece of inanimate flesh.

JB: Yes, too the idea directly in the foreground to have a very big hate about human understanding of art. I think it is better today to explain to the animals the importance of arts than to human beings. That was the concrete situation where the left wing said that it is not necessary, art is only a surface building over the more relevant activities in society, and therefore too I did this performance. But It has more levels, yes, it has a bigger level and it has inside the protest.

RH: In New York In the late fifties there began the theatre-like happenings of Caprow, of Oldenburg. Dine and Rauschenberg. These came, to some extent, out of the relationship of Rauschenberg with John Cage, and Merce Cunningham's approach to dance, and the whole idea of avant garde theatre. It was also inspired by John Cage's teaching. Then, there was the group known as FLUXUS, which included young artists like George Brecht (who had studied with Cage) Emmett Williams. the Korean, Nam June Paik and the less well-known figure who was always described as the leader of the group —George Maciunas. There was some contact with Germany through the travels of George Brecht who spent time in Germany, and Emmett Williams who lived there. Nam June Paik was also in Cologne for a time. They met Wolf Vostell who is one of the more important artists in this field of events and happenings, and you also. New York FLUXUS called their performances 'events' to distinguish them from the happenings of Rauschenberg and Oldenburg. In Germany you and Vostel liked to call your pieces 'actions'. You were, I suppose, the main member of this group of European artists who were very interested in and involved with the FLUXUS group in New York.

JB: My first connection with this group was in 1962. I spoke with George Maciunas and with Nam June Paik about the whole problem of art and anti-art, all these ideas. And I was directly involved in the ideas of Maciunas to realise examples of a new attitude and of a new shape or feature. But at the same time I felt that this understanding of these new attitudes as a neo-Dada attitude for me was too much only a repetition from an older state in the development and therefore in my first action I did it directly opposite. Inside the FLUXUS movement I did my first action directly opposite to the understanding of FLUXUS. For instance for Maciunas or the American artists and I saw that they could not really understand the connection, but they were a bit against my first action. My first action was an action with a hare too. I think it was one of the most important actions, it was a key point in my further development of demonstration in FLUXUS. The name of this first action was the '32nd sequence from the Siberian Symphony'. I had a big black piano on the right side and a blackboard and on the blackboard I wrote diagrams. The idea was to communicate with other spectators than only human beings, therefore the hare. And I made the connecting line from the black-board, from the dead hare who hung on the black-board over these diagrams. And there was a connecting line divided in proportioned sections and it hangs over small sticks, stuck in balls of clay. And this line goes over the whole piano and then I played piano. I produced special sounds, and made this action with the dead hare. I made it open, took the heart out and placed the hare away and the last feature-evasion. In this piece was only the small heart on the blackboard. Yes only the small heart connected with the whole line to the piano and the sticks and the balls of clay. It looked like a very empty, very real like a Siberian landscape. That was the shape. From this time I used the word action more than happenings, anti-art, FLUXUS, Art Totale and all these declarations.

RH: The first time I came across your sculpture was in your exhibition at the Stedelijk van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. This was I think the first opportunity that anybody had of seeing a major display of your work – incidentally together with a show of Bob Morris. There were overlaps between these two exhibitions. It seemed significant that it was Bob Morris who showed parallel with you at the gallery. It was very evident that there were ideas about energy. One symbol in particular was evident – it could have been read as a sign meaning plus; it could be seen as the electrical symbol for positive; it also had medical overtones — the Red Cross. There were batteries, and plates of copper, a great concern with insulation and conductivity.

JB: Sure, yes.

RH: Can you elaborate on this aspect of your work a little?

JB: The ground feature of the theory of moving from chaotical energy to a form was complicated and it has in the action all these breaks and has filters, is right, filters? And I worked now to make a filtration of these moving from chaos to form and make it harder to jump over all these breaks, and the felt works as a break or as a filter. On the other hand I made the opposite, working with a metal, which works as a very high speed continuous conductor taking electrical current in good conductive material like copper. I did it mostly in copper. That was a contradiction in the whole action.

RH: [Beuys uses the word ‘breaks’, a good deal; when he says breaks, he means a break in a continuity. So what he is really saying is insulator and the whole idea of Beuys's sculpture seems to come from his idea of transformation of energy, always changing from a chaotic stage, from a gas perhaps, to a form, from a chaotic flow of energy to some more concentrated or visible form.] This energy is expressed in objects, and the kind of object that you made, for example a stack of copper sheets, maybe half an inch thick, interleaved with thick grey felt — these were stacked perhaps four or five feet high. Everything is enormously weighty. All these ideas are about events, things that could happen to something and the residue of activity becomes a sculptural object. In general the exhibition has the effect of a workshop, but it is a workshop of a symbolic kind. The copper and felt signify batteries, they clearly have an electrical significance, but there is no possibility of them working. Large glass flasks, the kind of vessels used for storing acid, with terminals and wires leading, perhaps, to wood —there is no practical function in the use of these materials — they are used to demonstrate the idea of energy. The other evening you corrected me when I said that the exhibitions at Eindhoven and Basle were exhibitions of your ideas, you said 'they are not exhibitions of ideas, they are exhibitions of tools' and it seemed to me to be a very important idea about art — that you see an exhibition as a display of tools. I was also reminded of the fact that when I went into those rooms I felt a very strong Wagnerian overtone — Wotan's Hall — the rooms had a big resonance as a workshop, but a mythological workshop, so the word 'tools' rang a bell, rang an anvil in my mind.

JB: I have nothing to say against this.

RH: What have you to say for it?

JB: For it I have to say I am very interested, for instance, in the productions of Richard Wagner. I find he is a very underestimated, the silence of Marcel Duchamp is overestimated and Wagner is underestimated. But now about mythological feeling. Sure, I am very interested in the whole history, beginning from very early magic, later more the mythological level of consciousness and then I am most interested in ideas of development, the consciousness thinking possibilities, history, in philosophy in the western world.

RH: ['The silence of Marcel Duchamp is overestimated' was the title of a Beuys action in 1964. I think that Beuys should be understood as an artist with an extraordinary grasp of the cultural background of Europe. American artists like to consider themselves as rough, tough and uncultured and despise the European traditions. Beuys is, I think, the absolute opposite of that. He is a man with a very wide cultural range. He is interested in literature, he is interested in the whole history of painting and is very knowledgeable about it. The endeavours that he makes to see the world as a total human being. He thinks of the artist as a visionary, the person with a real understanding of the world. What he is attempting to do is to take the artist's stance back to an earlier time when the artist was a person who had a rapport with nature and of living as a total and whole experience.]

JB: We can see later more extreme persons like Immanuel Kant drive more and more into a sector like perspectivism and make the whole space of development narrower and narrower. And later we were in a very extreme situation to have no more possibility than the whole reduction of the round world to exact natural science conceptions, and that mostly is our present culture. And now I am interested how to come out from this narrowed, from this reduced situation. But parallel to this I am very interested to say that it was very necessary to drive mythical ground things into a sector-like situation as emancipation from the old round world dependent on priests, clans and all these collective things.

RH: One of the things that gives your work this mythic quality is the change of scale that you often adopt, a table, for example, covered with copper will be larger than a natural table, it will introduce the feeling of giants. Giganticism is quite common in modern art, but when Rosenquist or Oldenburg make a giant object it is a giant object. When you make a large, over-sized object, you introduce the idea of a larger being and I see this is a very strange distinction.

JB: Yes, I wanted it, perhaps not in this conscious focused mind you said now, but I am extremely interested in all these terms like giants and dwarfs, because I find you can make a better destination for human being when you see the extremes. Similar thing as the concept to go from the extreme of chaos to form. Now I have here two other extremes. I like to demonstrate on extreme situations and make clear on extreme situations, the things that are very important perhaps in the middle. And I said in this afternoon to the people, for me, this idea of harmony is very actual but I make it clear on very extreme, perhaps very mad looking situations. But the more mad they look the more for me they are usable to demonstrate the character of, perhaps, harmonization. I am interested to find a new harmony, but my work is very extreme, yes, and it looks very strange. You say strange, yes?

RH: Not only does your work look strange, but you look strange. You wear clothes which distinguish you from all other people. Is this intended to demonstrate your significance as an artist in a way that Duchamp did not, though it was certainly part of his philosophy. Duchamp was not an extrovert person but the consequence of his work suggests that the life of the artist is the work of the artist. Rather than the artist making a work, the artist becomes his work of art. You seem to have carried that to a further extreme than Duchamp. I think Duchamp conceptualised this notion of the artist's life as the artist's work of art — you have externalized this concept to some extent.

JB: Yes, sure, that is right. Perhaps I will show with my person the same extreme position. For instance to look from time to time like a hare. I say I am not the human being, in reality I am a hare. That is very real. I work with this transformation. Yes, I said to the people, what you have to say to me, I have nothing to do with a human being, in reality I am a hare. It is extreme too, yes, and it is advertising, surely this radicalism, sure, it is advertising. But more and more it is important, it is more and more important.

RH: At a time when a good deal of Western art was becoming minimal or abstract or non-allusive, your art is probably the most allusive art that ever existed, there is a greater intention to make external references, to make the most complex set of references.

JB: Yes sure. I am interested to come out of this reduction and the tools I use to come out of these reductions, the tools are reduced. You know a lot of my tools they look a bit like minimal art but what I can reach with these tools is a wider aspect, a lot of aspects. I think about ten aspects, that means I am interested to find out these ten aspects to a special problem. And all the aspects together are the truth.

RH: Now the major activity of your life is involvement with political ideas, you use political discourse and dialogue as one of the tools of your art — as an art form in itself.

JB: I do it because I believe that it is necessary to have in the future another understanding about politics.

RH: Can you go back even further? One of your earlier attempts to enter the larger world — a world outside this introverted world of the artist, was to start a student organization, you said that it was a Student Party.

JB: All things in the world for me became more and more only questions, and because all things became more and more questions I was interested in a very wide dialogue about all things of the world and the real idea of politics is this idea, not the specialised idea from the established understanding from politics. I am not interested in this. I am interested to have a whole other understanding of politics. For instance, to do all these questions about art too. And for me all these questions exist today. But for me at phenomena I see in the art world are questions and no longer results, and I am interested to change the whole understanding of art. For instance, an art that you can live in, not to look at the art as an object, more to learn to live in the element of art, like in another world, that is my interest. For instance not to do anything very interesting with colours, but more to jump on the colours and live in the colours directly, immediately, like in another world, no more directly confronted with the material. The next step to come out, yes perhaps to — another existence or another star, only as imagination. I say it is necessary to live in the colours, that you can live in the colours like in another world, immediately. And now all colours are a dynamic. They are moving, no longer fixed on the objects. You have to learn to live with these colours and all your expressions have immediately to become colour. I would be very interested to explore a type of human being that the colours come immediately as an appearance when he is saying anything. I mean to produce this new type of art. Yes, sure, that is at first Utopian, I know. But I think we have to develop this, that the normal life is always in every state accompanied with the aesthetic appearance immediately, that I could see when the people is sitting here. I say now you are producing a special red or now it changes more to orange and you have now done when you said this sentence a very nice appearance of art. It looks for me at first a bit utopian but in this direction I am very interested.

RH: So you are concerned not simply with the creation of a new kind of art but with the creation of a new kind of audience. You are going out in an effort to create a new kind of individual who can respond to art in a different way.

JB: Yes, sure, therefore I am interested in educational problems because I mean all these things are to develop. My imagination from this kind of art, as an Utopian is to develop, and I think perhaps it is a new level of consciousness. Exactly therefore, I am interested to develop all these possibilities of creativity and I think they are very very spiritual for me. This world I want to see in future as a world of a better political system is a spiritual world, more spiritual world, to learn living in spirit, immediately.


This interview is a recording of a conversation broadcast by the BBC on February 27, 1972.