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Sekretarstasche is a work by the German artist Joseph Beuys comprised of a brown cardboard envelope with a handwritten manuscript inside. The reverse of the envelope is presented to the viewer with several pages of the manuscript visibly peaking out from its unsealed opening. Other than the handwritten ‘Beuys’ signature along the very top edge and the ‘Sekretarstasche’ title in the middle (both written in scrawling, almost illegible script), the reverse of the envelope has been left blank. The work is also signed, dated and inscribed on its verso, the front of the envelope: ‘Joseph Beuys 1976 fur Heiner.’ This hidden dedication refers to the artist’s personal secretary, Heiner Bastian, to whom the work was originally gifted. Of the manuscript contained within the envelope, only the very top of pages eleven and thirteen are visible, although there are clearly other sheets inserted alongside these. Page eleven of the manuscript displays the English title ‘The Energie [sic] Plan for the Western Man’. Beneath this title there is a further portion of handwritten text, this time in German, just visible on this page before it disappears from view inside the envelope. The artist’s scrawled and slanting handwriting makes deciphering the words a challenge; however, the phrase ‘Vier ist ein Evolutionsdiagramm’ (‘Four is an evolutionary chart’) and the word ‘Menschheit’ (‘humanity’) are legible in the passage of text. The title of the work, Sekretarstasche, appears to be a compound neologism coined by the artist that can be translated from two combined German words (Sekretär and Tasche) as ‘secretary-pocket’ or ‘secretary-case’. This clearly refers to both the intended recipient of the work and the format itself, being a cardboard pocket that contains important documents.
The phrase ‘Energy Plan for the Western Man’ recurs many times throughout Beuys’s work of the 1970s, which built upon his established practice in sculpture, drawing, installation and performance with a fervent political engagement and commitment to activist pedagogy and lecturing. As the curator Anne Seymour writes of this time:
Beuys’s Theory of Sculpture developed in the sixties to include Social Sculpture, which extended the definition of art beyond the activity of the artists to include the creative talent of every individual, thus paving the way for a society of the future based on individual creativity. It then grew again, as expressed by the huge blackboard drawings Energy Plan for Western Man, 1972, and related drawings such as The E-Plan for the W-Man, c.1974 to evolve the principles of the Free International University, calling for a regeneration of thought throughout the world which would produce an alternative to both Eastern and Western forms of capitalism, and a free democratic socialism which would operate through the people, instead of a party system based on the force of power and money. The drawings, actions, lectures, sculpture and political activities fill in the flesh and reveal just how complex Beuys’s work had become.
(Seymour 1983, p.23.)
In this context, the snippets of text visible on the manuscript pages suggest that Sekretarstasche forms part of his wider manifesto, expressed by the artist through the founding of a university as a political act. The mentions of humanity and evolutionary charting chime with Beuys’s ephemeral and idealistic approach to politics, which focused on communication, participation and self-expression. Sekretarstasche almost certainly relates to an event that took place two years prior to its date of 1976: the artist’s first trip to America, in January 1974. This was to prove central to the international communication of Beuys’s socio-political ideas. The curator Joan Rothfuss explains that:
Beuys didn’t want to bring sculptures or objects for exhibition, instead he planned an exhibition of ideas in the form of a lecture tour. Beuys named the lecture tour ‘Energy Plan for the Western Man’ and saw it as a chance to reinvigorate an enervated Western culture that was on the brink (at least in the United States) of an ‘energy crisis’ … The trip was the beginning of a relationship with American audiences that continues, even after the artist’s death, to be controversial, stimulating, and energetic.
(Rothfuss, http://www.walkerart.org/archive/C/9C4315B360BFDC526167.htm, accessed 24 March 2011.)
In a 1979 conversation with Heiner Bastian on the subject of the immense body of works on paper that he had produced since the late 1940s, Beuys observed that ‘it’s a basic, concrete fact that these drawings have had a direct effect, a direct influence on my language. Language has always interested me, and when I was younger I was very deeply involved in literature, in a really radically different form’ (quoted in Bastian and Simmen 1979, p.102). Making an explicit connection between language, literature and his drawing practice, Beuys suggests that the act of writing, as seen in Sekretarstasche, is wholly linked to and influenced by his approach to drawing.
‘If Nothing Says Anything, I Don’t Draw: A Conversation between Joseph Beuys, Heiner Bastian, Jeannot Simmen, Düsseldorf, August 8, 1979’, in Heiner Bastian and Jeannot Simmen (eds.), Joseph Beuys – Zeichnungen, Tekeningen, Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Nationalgalerie, Berlin 1979, pp.91–102, reproduced pl.127.
Anne Seymour, ‘The Drawings of Joseph Beuys’, in Joseph Beuys Drawings, exhibition catalogue, City Art Galleries, Leeds 1983, pp.7–26.
Joan Rothfuss, ‘Energy Plan for the Western Man’, http://www.walkerart.org/archive/C/9C4315B360BFDC526167.htm, accessed 24 March 2011.
- Acc. No. AR00601
- Medium Envelope and ink on papers
- Size 40.80 x 24.80 cm
- Credit ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008
Joseph Beuys (German, 1921 - 1986)
German artist Beuys believed that art was integral to everyday life. His own art was shaped by an experience early in his life. As a Luftwaffe pilot during the war, Beuys was shot down over the Crimea and was saved by nomadic Tartars. Barely alive, he was wrapped in felt and fat which preserved his body heat, and taken to safety on sledges pulled by dogs. This incident, and these particular elements, informed much of his art, which has a redemptive, mystical and ritualistic character. Central to his work were his 'Actions', which involved teaching, audience discussion and performance. The recurrent themes were social and political. Associated with the ecological movement - he was a founder member of the Green Party - he also had a strong influence on German politics.
Works in which the actions of the artist constitute the art. Artists have used performance techniques throughout the 20th century but the term is usually applied to works from the 1960s onwards.