‘The heirs of Joseph Beuys are legion,” curator Robert Storr wrote in Art in America in 1988. Nearly three decades later, “A Joseph Beuys” at Galería Cadaqués offered an unorthodox take on Beuys’s influence, showing how it rippled beyond Germany and Beuys’s (mostly male) students, to today’s young Catalan artists.
The gallery’s history with Beuys goes back to 1981, when it gave the artist his first solo exhibition in Spain. A fishing town on the Mediterranean between Barcelona and the French border, accessible only by a narrow mountain road, Cadaqués was a summering place for Marcel Duchamp, who went there from the late ’50s until his death in 1968. In the ’70s, some of the founding figures of Fluxus, Pop, and Conceptualism converged around the Milanese architect Lanfranco Bombelli, who opened Galería Cadaqués in 1973. With its stone walls and clerestory windows, the converted anchovy factory is hardly a typical white cube, yet it became one of Europe’s premier artists’ book and multiple publishers, organizing the debuts in Spain of John Cage, Duchamp, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Jasper Johns, and Dieter Roth, as well as Beuys. The gallery went on hiatus in the late ’90s, and was reopened in 2003 by collector Huc Malla, who has continued Bombelli’s tradition of creating dialogues between international artists and local ones.
The historical core of “A Joseph Beuys” traced the relationships between Beuys, Marcel Broodthaers, Hamilton, and Roth. Hamilton, a Brit, wrote that the three great (Continental) European artists he was proud to count among his friends were Broodthaers, Beuys, and Roth. All four artists parodied museum conventions, frustrated the market with inconsistent pricing, and created ephemeral or degradable works that demanded new standards of collection, display, and conservation. And they had overlapping aesthetic concerns: Roth and Beuys both conducted alchemical experiments; Broodthaers and Hamilton engaged in curatorial projects; Hamilton and Beuys shared an admiration for James Joyce; Roth and Hamilton shared a flair for industrial design and bookmaking.
In 1976, Hamilton and Roth, whom Hal Foster once described as “one of the oddest couples in twentieth-century art,” mounted the exhibition “Collaborations” at Galería Cadaqués. The show comprised works made in the weeks leading up to the opening, most of them prints by Hamilton that the two artists elaborated on (or, depending on how you look at it, defaced). With some help from Broodthaers (shortly before his death in 1975), they organized an exhibition within the 1976 exhibition for dogs, with images of sausages and boots installed low to the floor. The works were complemented by recordings of Hamilton and Roth barking at each other, accompanied by a local canine, Chispas Luis. An album of the show’s soundtrack was on view in “A Joseph Beuys,” along with a related drawing by Roth.
Two works by Beuys anchored the exhibition. Suite Schwurhand (Oath hand, 1949–70), a group of 20 brownish studies on paper of animals, sculptures, and symbols, appeared in small groupings throughout the gallery. Rose für direkte Demokratie (Rose for Direct Democracy, 1973), a multiple, is a rose in a beaker like the one on Beuys’s desk during Documenta V in 1972. At that festival, Beuys opened a branch office of his Burö für direkte Demokratie (Organization for Direct Democracy Through Referendum), and for 100 days debated all comers. The rose, a symbol of love and international socialism, embodied some of Beuys’s central causes.
Rose for Direct Democracy appears in Der Junge Rimbaud (The Young Rimbaud, 1992), a painting by Beuys student Jörg Immendorff of a man sitting in a chair. Near him is Beuys’s Rose. Behind him, one can make out a plane crashing, a reference to Beuys’s 1944 crash in the Crimea. In his left hand the man holds a model plane. Immendorf places the figure between two periods in his teacher’s life: his Luftwaffe past and the flower with which he would promise students democracy.
Beuys often employed the slogan “creativity = capital.” In the exhibition, a Catalan-language edition of Alfredo Jaar’s neon sign “Cultura = Capital” (2011) glowed blue and red, merging store signage with fine art. A 2016 drawing by Marine Hugonnier is a note scrawled in pen: “Creativity ≠ Capital,” signed in French, “With all my irreverence.” Engaging Beuys’s leftist politics, the two artists forgo craft, materiality, and historically bourgeois mediums in favor of dematerialized and industrial forms.
Other works took Beuys’s charismatic presence as their starting point. Graue Scheibe, Blaues Dreieck (Gray disk, blue triangle, 1968–71), a print by another student of Beuys, Blinky Palermo, juxtaposes symbols referencing Romanticism, geometric abstraction, and Beuys’s mysticism. Juergen Teller’s unframed photographs of rose-printed ceramic plates and models posing with roses hung on the wall. Above them, on a ledge, sat a plate inscribed with the word “Beuys” in red marker. Here, Teller was engaging in his own Beuysian mythologizing of self: teller means “plate” in German.
Young Catalan artists see Beuys through the lens of his stories about flying in Hitler’s Luftwaffe before becoming one of the most politically active artists in postwar Europe, but also through their parents’ stories about growing up in Franco’s fascist Spain, where Catalan culture was brutally repressed until the late 1970s. Their works adapt some of the materials most strongly associated with Beuys—wax, felt, fat, honey, batteries, and stones—to new aesthetic and political ends.
Beuys’s use of beeswax was related to his interest in Rudolf Steiner’s study of the beehive as a model of society. In Xavi Déu’s multipart installation Apiarium, lofrena (Apiary, offering, 2016), color field paintings made from beeswax and pigment are juxtaposed with a video of bees buzzing around in front of those same paintings. In the Alícia Casadesús assemblage A Joseph Beuys… (2016), from which the show took its title, wooden spools wrapped in news clippings and barbed wire sit next to a mound of wax topped with a burning wick.
Wood and lead, materials also favored by Beuys, play a part in works by Jordi Benito and Jordi Mitjà. In Benito’s Sigfrid (2006), two lead oars are propped up on a stone plinth alongside scrawled numbers in neon on the wall. The weighty oars and the neon glow channel Beuys through Wagner’s tragic hero, Siegfried, while also referencing the local fishing culture in Cadaqués. Mitjà’s Filferro, cadira i dalla (Wire, chair and scythe, 2012) is an overturned wooden chair with a scythe passed through it. Mitjà has said that the sculpture, which resembles a small sailboat, is an homage to Beuys’s ability to create new plotlines from discarded materials.
Fina Miralles’s self-portrait, El Retorn (2012), which shows her submerged in a river, picks up on Beuys’s 1971 performance Celtic+~, for which he washed the feet of seven participants before baptizing himself with gelatin. Beuys was using Catholic ritual to signal art’s redemptive power. Miralles, a vital contributor to feminist art practices in the 1970s, reminds us that although Beuys supported women’s liberation, his female contemporaries did not always receive him well, and that younger women artists have drawn from his practice in highly selective ways.
Amid questions about what German austerity means for the Mediterranean way of life, and a refugee crisis straining relations among European nations, the Cadaqués exhibition showed how artistic influence and legacies transcend rhetoric, politics, and nationalism. As Beuys borrowed ideas from artists of other European nationalities (French Surrealists, Swiss Dadaists), today’s young Catalan artists are borrowing ideas from him.