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Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments
Joseph Beuys: I like America and America likes me, 1974
Photo: Caroline Tisdall. © DACS 2005.

LONDON, UK.- Tate Modern presents Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments, through May 4, 2005. This exhibition presents a unique opportunity to view a selection of the most important works by the German artist Joseph Beuys (1921 -1986). It examines three of the highly distinctive ways in which Beuys worked, particularly during the second half of his career: the vitrines from the late 1960s onwards; his ‘actions’ or performances; and his sculptural environments. The show will comprise sixteen vitrines, eight room-size installations and a room devoted to Beuys’s ‘actions’.

There has never been a significant survey exhibition of Beuys’s work in the UK, although specific pieces of work or small ensembles have been shown here regularly since the early 1970s. Recent international exhibitions have also been rare which makes this the most important exhibition of the artist’s work in Europe for a decade.

Joseph Beuys is one of the most influential German artists of the twentieth century. Following his wartime service as a radio operator in the German airforce, he decided to become an artist rather than a natural scientist, another area of great interest to him. Legend has it that in 1942 his plane was shot down in the Crimea and he was rescued by Tartars who used animal fats and felt to heal his wounds and keep him warm. Although this story has an element of legend, Beuys’s unusual choice of materials includes felt, wax and animal fats and he was fascinated by the generation, storage and transmission of energy and believed that it was central to the creative process. He evolved his ideas in the late 1940s to early 1960s, principally in the form of small sculptures and hundreds of drawings. In the 1960s, as professor at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, he became associated with the Fluxus movement and took part in many Fluxus events in the Rhineland.

During the 1960s he came to international attention through his ‘actions’, which usually took place in galleries and lasted several hours, sometimes days. He became increasingly active in the 1970s in the political spheres of educational reform and grass roots democracy and his ‘actions’ evolved to include public discussions and lectures, some of which were preserved in the form of blackboard drawings made while he talked. This exhibition includes several of the blackboard drawings, and documentation of his 1972 lecture at the Tate.

In the late 1960s he began making vitrines. Effectively installations in miniature, he combined in them a variety of materials and objects. The exhibition includes, among others, a major group of five vitrines from a private collection and a major group from the collection of the Guggenheim Museum. Around the same period Beuys began making larger scale sculptural environments, which he often made for specific rooms. At Tate Modern there will be a version of his 'Tramstop', 1976, and one of his series of 'Fonds', consisting of piles of felt topped with plates of copper to both store and conduct energy.

The exhibition has been organised by The Menil Collection, Houston in collaboration with Tate Modern. Mark Rosenthal has curated the exhibition at The Menil Collection, Houston, and Sean Rainbird has curated the London presentation of the show. A catalogue accompanying the exhibition contains essays by Mark Rosenthal, Sean Rainbird and Claudia Schmuckli.

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