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The Broad Foundation's huge Joseph Beuys collection goes on view

September 28, 2009 | 10:06 am

Beuys felt suit 1978 broad art fndtn

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has opened a large installation of German artist Joseph Beuys' prints, photographs, posters, vinyl records, films, books, tape recordings and other multiple editions, including one of his famous gray business suits made from felt (pictured). The 570 works, representing nearly all of Beuys' known multiples, were acquired by the Broad Art Foundation from Berlin-based collector Reinhard Schlegel in 2006. Six galleries in the top floor of LACMA's Broad Contemporary Art Museum are painted slate-gray and populated with wooden and steel vitrines -- a vaguely anthropological display of relics, based on a 1982 show that the late artist supervised in Norway.

In the 1960s, Beuys expanded the idea of modern sculpture to include eccentric public performances -- pouring honey over his head, for instance, then decorating it with gold leaf and lecturing to a dead rabbit about the glories of art. (The lifeless hare was like something out of an Albrecht Durer fever-dream.) The plan was to harness redemptive social energy in his country's timid, deeply conservative art world, which had yet to come to terms with the unspeakable brutality of Germany's recent past. That gruesome history was one that Beuys, a Nazi Luftwaffe pilot at age 19, knew firsthand.

Others considered his performances to be reactionary allegories or self-aggrandizing nonsense. During a 1964 event at a school in the ancient city of Aachen, a favorite haunt of Emperor Charlemagne and the seat of coronation for Germany's medieval kings, a particularly disgruntled observer went up to Beuys and expressed his displeasure by punching the artist squarely in the nose. Beuys began to bleed profusely.

Without skipping a beat, however, he turned the sudden eruption of violence to advantage. The artist slowly raised a wooden crucifix in one hand and gave the audience a stiff-armed salute with his other. Enacting the stereotypical role of bloodied martyr, while simultaneously making a wicked mockery of an aggrieved German sensibility, Beuys became a sensation.

“Art is the only revolutionary force,” the artist once said -- a rambunctious sentiment, here neatly stenciled onto a gallery wall, by an artist who helped found Germany's Green Party. Almost a generation after his 1986 death at age 64, Beuys today ranks as a virtual Old Master -- or, at least, a revered cult figure. The dour gray rooms at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, with their dense array of mostly performance-related (and sometimes impenetrable) artifacts, seem the opposite of revolutionary. Still, the presentation can be savored for the completeness of its survey of an inescapably pivotal artist.

-- Christopher Knight

Photo: Joseph Beuys' “Filzanzug (Felt Suit),” 1970. Credit: Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica. ©2008 Artists Rights Society, New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn