Beuys Gone Bad at the MUMOK

Vienna’s Museum of Modern Art Banishes Superstar Artist Joseph Beuys to the Basement

As I step into the grand entrance hall of the MUMOK for the anniversary show of the work of artist Joseph Beuys, I am directed downstairs:

“It’s in the cellar!” the guard dryly comments. In the cellar? Joseph Beuys is the most prominent contemporary German artist of our time. His early works on paper and in plastic shaped the revolutionary Fluxus movement. His later work constituted a completely innovative concept; combining nature, science, politics and the everyday to create work that still informs the art world of today.

Beuys at the Modern Art Museum: Someone collected all the bits and pieces he threw in the bin on his way to works of genius | Photo: MUMOK

What’s he doing in the basement?!

I decide to take the stairs, leading me past other exhibitions: ‘Why Pictures Now,’ ‘Nouveau Realisme’ and ‘Der Standard-Atelier.’ As I pass down the stairs, the temperature falls distinctly. At the lowest level, a quiet coolness unfolds; the dark grey stones seem to swallow all noise. My heart beats faster as I make my way towards the work I have been waiting for.

The MUMOK exhibition of 64 works on paper, the ‘Cologne Map,’ is mounted in honour of the 20th anniversary of Beuys’ death. The works, dating between 1945 and 1973 were assembled by an anonymous investor from Cologne and then bought by collectors and founders Peter and Irene Ludwig.

According to the museum, these drawings encompass all of Beuys dominant themes of the period and shed light on his thought processes. Curator Wolfgang Drechsler describes the drawings as “telling of the spontaneous, transitory character” of his artistic aims.

The room is long and rectangular with white walls and a somewhat worn stone floor. Metal pipes and tubes run along the ceiling, interrupted by industrial lamps that shed a bright, artificial light. The area conveys none of the usual glamour of exhibition spaces, but instead is raw and bleak.

The first wall displays three, yellowed drawings in whitewashed wooden frames. The technique is mixed media, the colours typically earthen and one flaunts Beuys’ emblematic handwriting. A mysterious title accompanies the works: “Mass-determination for a high cross.” The transitory impulsiveness that constitutes his usual work seems absent here. Instead, these first images give an unexpected fragmentary and incomplete impression.

On the floor is a large installation consisting of several objects. Three zinc-plated iron gauges form a basis around which two tables, a chair and bucket are arranged. A single light bulb from the ceiling hangs directly over the iron bucket, which is filled with soap.

The mystifying title: “Basisraum Nasse Wäsche” (base room wet laundry) is typical of Beuys, as are the industrial, symbol-laden materials. The objects connote essentiality rather than luxury; the high realism speaks of necessity and reduction. Yes, this piece is very Beuys.

Then the bottom fell out of the exhibition. What followed was an endless display of more spiritless drawings in more wooden frames. Walking past these images, my disappointment grows. The drawings are loveless, without statement and incoherent. The so-called ‘drawings’ are ripped pieces of thick paper, which have suffered over time. Some are splattered with random blobs of paint or have been scratched ‘accidentally’ with crayon.

One gets the feeling that someone collected all the bits and pieces Beuys threw in the bin on his way to real works of genius. Because that is what he is, a genius. Often misunderstood and misinterpreted, his best work is nonetheless absolutely fascinating, unique, and brilliant. Years ago, an exhibition in the London Tate Modern presented an entire room laid-out in felt, which upon entering swallowed all noise. Gigantic concrete sculptures stood next to bricks of fat, as well as political and mathematical texts written on chalkboard. These rooms lived and breathed the spirit of Beuys.

Certainly it is impossible for a gallery to always be able to obtain the masterpieces of an artist, the work that established a position in history. However, when commemorating the anniversary of Beuys’ death in a city like Vienna, one should be able expect a well-conceived, in some respect compelling show to honour the artist and his life work.

Sadly in this case, the MUMOK seems rather to celebrate the Ludwig Stiftung founders and their ability to have bought artwork en masse. Even the one other extraordinary piece – a burnt wooden door with attached rabbit ears, and a series of interesting photographs of the artist were unable to communicate the magical absurdity of the mastermind Joseph Beuys.

And in the end it became clear why this very modest exhibition was deep down in the bowels of the museum.

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