Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 17, 2018

Beuys; David Hockney at The Royal Academy

Filed under: art,Film — louisproyect @ 8:33 pm

“Beuys” opens today at the Film Forum in New York. Like fellow German artist Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys was simultaneously one of the world’s most respected artists in the post-WWII period as well as a critic of the capitalist system.

In 2003, I wrote about a documentary titled “Gerhard Richter Painting” that can be seen on Amazon Video for $2.99 and that would be a good companion piece to the one on Beuys. When Richter crossed the border to West Germany to seek political asylum in 1961, he hooked up with a group of artists who described their work as a “Capitalist Realism” that repudiated the consumer-driven art doctrine of western capitalism as well as the Socialist Realism of East Germany. Richter is on record as saying that “The best thing that could have happened to art was its divorce from government.” Since his paintings have sold for more than $30 million, it is understandable why his artwork has grown more abstract and less political. It is unlikely, for example, that any hedge fund billionaire would want to have portraits of Red Army Faction members on their living room wall.

Unlike Richter, Beuys always saw art as a much more overt instrument of political struggle against capitalism. It would have been the last thing one might have expected from someone who flew fighter planes for Hitler’s Luftwaffe during WWII. In 1940, the 19-year old joined the air force and served until being shot down over Crimea in 1944. The crash resulted in a disfigurement of his skull that was concealed by a trademark fedora that he began wearing as young artist out in the public.

After returning home after the war, he spent nearly a decade on a friend’s farm trying to overcome what sounds like post-traumatic stress disorder. The only respite from his depression was making hundreds of drawings and small sculptures, which eventually led to a career as an artist and a professorship at the Dusseldorf Art Academy in 1961. The press notes state:

One of his best-known works from this period is Sled (1969), which he called a “survival kit”: an elemental means of transport carrying a felt blanket, a lump of fat, and a flashlight. Sled alludes to Beuys’s oftrepeated story of crashing his warplane during a blizzard and being rescued by Tatar nomads, who treated his wounds with fat and wrapped him in felt to keep him warm. Whether true or not, the story is a powerful metaphor for the rebirth of both an individual and a nation after the horrors perpetrated by National Socialism.

In the 1970s, Beuys became a conceptual artist often using himself as the focus of what might also be described as performance art. The documentary has startling footage of “I Like America and America Likes Me”, a 1974 work that brought together the artist and a live coyote in an enclosed New York gallery space. Beuys, who is enclosed rather precariously in a cloth tarpaulin, allows the animal to bite off pieces from the costume, while holding it back rather gently with a cane. The piece called for overcoming the rift between humanity and the natural world, a need that would seem to apply in spades to the invasion of Central Park recently by coyotes and the panic it has engendered. I would have given anything to see what Beuys had to say about this trend, who dying in 1986 was spared the depravity of a Trump administration bent on turning the entire country into a combination strip mall and golf course.

Not long after he began making explicitly political art and until his death, Beuys was a passionate supporter and member of the Green Party in Germany. He was part of the party’s leftwing and eventually became marginalized because the leadership feared that the German voter would not identify with someone as eccentric as Beuys. To connect his artwork with his political beliefs, he embarked on his most important project in 1982, the 7000 Oaks. This was an ambitious reforestation project that finally resulted in the planting of seven thousand trees throughout Germany, especially in areas destroyed by bombing during World War II.

The film was directed by Andres Veiel, a 58-year old whose works both in film and theater but generally with a political focus. Der Kick (The Kick), for example, was about the 2002 murder of a teenager by three neo-Nazi teenagers in East Germany, In a director’s statement in the press notes, he stated:

In the film, Beuys persistently and subversively deals with issues that continue to remain relevant 30 years after his death, like a radical democratization that doesn’t shy away from new banking and monetary systems, or equal opportunities in a world of increasing inequality. Beuys insisted on the possibility that the world can be changed based on the capabilities of each individual person: “Nothing needs to remain the way it is.”

Unquestionably, David Hockney and Gerhard Richter are the two most important living artists today. At 80 and 85 respectively, they can’t keep up the same pace as when they were younger but both are going strong. Evidence of Hockney’s continued vigor and relevance are two shows at the Royal Academy of Arts that are the subject of a documentary titled “David Hockney at The Royal Academy Of Arts: A Bigger Picture 2012 & 82 Portraits and One Still Life 2016” that according to the publicist will be in cinemas across United States of America, from January 23rd. In truth, the only theater where the film will be showing is in Cape Cod, Massachusetts—not a place where many of my readers live, I’m afraid. My advice, however, is to check the film distributor’s website to see if it will be screened in your city since it is quite a fascinating film about an artist as unlike stylistically from the two somber Germans indicated above.

The documentary could not be more elementary in cinematic terms, consisting of Hockney being interviewed by two different curators at the Royal Academy. The first show is made up of landscapes done by Hockney in Yorkshire, England, a place he left long ago to make a home in Los Angeles, a place featured in his most famous paintings. They are all intensely sensual and use color in a way that are reminiscent of Matisse. Grouped with Pop Art, they do not feature soup cans but instead swimming pools that expressed the languid and hedonistic character of Tinseltown. A “Bigger Splash” is typical:

Obviously, Yorkshire bears little resemblance to Southern California. Instead, it is the sort of place that inspired landscape artists like John Constable and Claude Monet. In the interview, Hockney stresses the importance of light and color that binds him to classic art of the 18th and 19th century. Since some of the landscapes were done on an iPad, they have the added interest of seeing how the technological envelope can be pressed, even when you are you entering your ninth decade. While Hockney does not offer the kind of analysis that an art historian would be capable of, the main benefit of this half of the film is the opportunity it affords to see some ravishingly beautiful work.

The 2016 portrait show has a bit of an irony. Hockney threw in a still-life with the intention of making sure that all of the three major genres would be covered at the Royal Academy: landscapes, portraits and one still-life.

The 82 portraits are all of people Hockney know personally and never took more than 3 days to complete. This is a major feat to be carried out by someone his age. As he points out in the interview, the only activities he carries out nowadays are painting and reading. As is the case with the landscapes, you can look forward to what amounts to a filmic version of one of those museum tours but led by the artist himself.

Worth mentioning is a book co-authored by Hockney and Martin Gaylord titled “A History of Pictures: From the Cave to the Computer Screen” that came out in December, 2017. A review in the NY Review of Books that was coupled with a look at a retrospective now showing at the Tate suggests that there are some affinities with Beuys, who also saw the emancipatory quality of art:

Equipped with the versatility to picture however he pleases, Hockney chooses to picture whatever pleases him. He celebrates his friends and lovers, their agreeable homes and gardens, and places and particulars (an ashtray, a lampshade) that snag his workmanlike curiosity and ask to be disassembled and customized pictorially. If Hockney has thus become a recorder of styles and mores, he has been so unsystematically. After what he now calls his “homosexual propaganda” pictures of the early 1960s, little about the work has seemed specifically political: his responses to the AIDS crisis, for instance, can only be inferred obliquely. This is not to say that Hockney is without ideas about his art’s human purposes. On the contrary, his recent book written with Martin Gayford, A History of Pictures, argues that approaches to picturing such as his own aim to emancipate our imaginations, which might otherwise fall back into a “prison,” a disengagement from the world through which we move, a blinkering that makes it “look duller.”



  1. See the current Hockney show at The Met in NYC. Well worthwhile.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — January 18, 2018 @ 7:36 am

  2. […] via Beuys; David Hockney at The Royal Academy — Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist […]

    Pingback by Beuys; David Hockney at The Royal Academy — Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist – what? — January 20, 2018 @ 11:56 am

  3. Check out exhibitiononscreen.com for full list of all the cinemas screening in the USA…not just Cape Cod.

    Comment by Phil Grabsky — January 25, 2018 @ 7:51 pm

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