- Joseph Beuys by Claudia Mesch
Claudia Mesch's Joseph Beuys is an intelligent, well-researched, and original contribution to the Critical Lives series of Reaktion Books. It avoids being a dry rehearsal of biographic facts and yet retains a vaguely chronological arrangement. However, the relative scarcity of images of works by Beuys (owing undoubtedly to the high price for reproduction rights) would leave someone unacquainted with his work at a loss, especially when the author presents us with occasionally rather long enumerations of work titles to substantiate her points. Mesch's often original interpretations and connections are not to be verified easily in the pages of this volume alone.
One would be right in arguing, however, that few readers today are uninitiated: Beuys has certainly achieved canonical status, and many biographies already exist, from Heiner Stachelhaus's early work to Reinhard Ermen's more tendentious material accusing Beuys of having been (or having remained) a fascist, as well as Andres Veiel's 2017 cinema success. There seems to be great and sustained interest in Beuys's life and work. In this book with its 126 text pages (few notes and a selected bibliography), Mesch largely manoeuvres certain issues arising from her topic successfully. She identifies one of the problems herself in the conclusion: it lies in the fact that Beuys's "physical artworks are better known in Germany than they are abroad" (115), where his "shamanistic" personality still takes precedence. The reception histories of Beuys and his oeuvre in German and English are vastly different, as Mesch's Beuys Reader, her previous edited volume on the artist, has partially traced. But the Reader's exclusion of German-speaking scholarship that bases itself on detailed knowledge of Beuys's work, such as Dieter Koepplin's with its many learned footnotes and near-microscopic focus, still generates the impression in the English-speaking world that only a more superficial scholarship existed or was applicable to Beuys. Such a misconception can, of course, not be countered in a short volume like this, but as a result it lingers.
The current book will thus have very differently prepared readerships and thus different expectations to contend with. The choice of thematic focus is born from the need to make oneself understood to an English-language readership that has very little, if any, of the previous biographic material (or first-hand knowledge of the artworks) to rely on. Such readers will likely consult the 1979 Guggenheim catalogue for images and an easily accessible biographic outline, which would have helped here, too. Given the focus of the Critical Lives series, Mesch's focus is necessarily on Beuys's construction of his artist persona and the use of his biography within the practice.
When introducing her arguments, Mesch occasionally makes surprisingly sweeping statements that are then not in keeping with her careful presentation of the case. Fluxus (George Maciunas) is characterized as standing for "an expansion of the role of art in society" (59), and Beuys's attitude (rightly) described as one [End Page 400] on the margins of the movement, distancing himself from the Fluxus circle. To let affairs stand at what one could interpret as a suggestion that Beuys turned away from an expanded concept of art—when he is for many precisely an initiator of such an expanded concept of art—sounds illogical, but this could easily have been remedied by a statement that Beuys had similar aims but pursued them in different ways. When Tramstop at the German (Nazi-era) pavilion in Venice is addressed, the reader is led off track somewhat (literally: the installation contains tram rails) when Mesch writes that "a specific moment of conflict is not directly addressed" (68), only to trace that the sites (both of the origin of the objects as well as the exhibition) and the materials point beyond all doubt to recent German (and Italian/ pan-European) fascist history (the names of German Jewish scientists, such as Albert Einstein, were still stuck to the walls from the previous Biennale's installation...