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Untitled (1964) is a single sheet of assorted sketches, diagrams for sculptures and handwritten notes on off-white paper by the German artist Joseph Beuys. It is likely to be a page torn from the artist’s sketchbook given how provisional and experimental the overlapping and competing elements appear. Creases in the paper indicate that the sheet had previously been folded in quarters. The artist worked on the paper using a variety of media: there are three different colours of paint (a reddish-brown oil paint named Braunkreuz, or ‘brown-cross’ by the artist, and dark blue-grey and gold paints), as well as black ink and pencil. The only immediately discernible motif within the drawing is a pair of hastily-sketched gold hares in the top-right corner of the page surrounded by sweeps of the grey paint. The rest appears far more abstract and harder to decode, along with the almost undecipherable handwriting of the artist, which loops and swirls in tiny script down the centre and along the bottom of the page. The work is signed and dated on the verso, and the artist has also signed his name near the bottom right corner.
The page is dominated by various triangular shapes, most prominently in the lower section where there are pencil drawings that seem to be diagrams for propping sticks or twigs in corners. Corners were prevalent in Beuys’s work of the 1960s, as can be seen in works such as Fat Corner (1960) and Felt Corner (1963) (reproduced in Tisdall 1979, pp.74–5). The curved hook motif, repeated three times here in Braunkreuzpaint, is reminiscent of the construction of wooden poles Beuys made for his Siberian Symphony action of 1963, the year before this drawing was produced. This motif also recalls the Eurasienstab (Eurasian staff), ‘a massive copper rod bent back on itself at one end that was used in the 1967 action of the same name – as the central form whose separation must be overcome’ (Malz and Ackermann 2010, pp.130–1).
The dark grey paint, which appears both as background colour along the top edge of the paper and as triangular elements in its lower half, is meant to evoke felt, one of the artist’s signature materials. This grey paint is featured in many of Beuys’s drawings from the 1950s and 1960s, such as Cross (1961) and Tunnel (Cathode Rays) Felt Room Action (1964). It contrasts and compliments the Braunkreuz, giving a similar matte opacity that typifies the heavy, painterly approach Beuys took to many of his works on paper. The artist on many occasions discussed his relationship to what he termed his core practice of drawing. He once stated that:
Drawing is really nothing other than planning: one embodies, represents, gives experiential form to something or a spatial relationship, or just relationships of size. And I think one should remember that we have all drawn a huge, huge amount in our lives. And if we haven’t done it on our own initiative then we have been made to do it, for instance drawing geometrical shapes at school. One should approach this in a much less inhibited way, never saying: that’s someone who can draw, but I can’t. There’s no such thing. Everyone can draw.
(Quoted in Harlan 2004, p.24.)
This all-embracing philosophy of drawing as a kind of common thread that connects all types of people echoes Beuys’s oft-quoted statement that ‘everyone can be an artist’. It chimes with his political views and holistic and idealistic attempts to unite art and life within his practice.
The combination of the colour gold with hares is seen not only in Beuys’s drawing practice but also in his move during the mid 1960s to a focus on performance works he termed ‘actions’. Particularly relevant to this drawing is the 1965 action, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, which took place at Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf in the context of Beuys’s first art-world showing of his work. As the writer Caroline Tisdall described: ‘Beuys spent three hours explaining his art to a dead hare. The gallery was closed to the public, and the performance (though recorded on television) was visible only from the doorway and street window. Beuys’ head was covered with honey and gold leaf, and tied to his right foot was an iron sole, companion to a felt sole on his left foot.’ (Tisdall 1979, p.101.) This conjunction of gold leaf and dead hare in a performance from the year after this drawing was produced resulted in one of the artist’s most iconic works. The ritualised proceedings relied heavily on these two elements to achieve its mythical, otherworldly aura, and perhaps Untitled (1964) can be seen as an early, anticipatory experiment in the potency of such symbols. Beuys himself stated that the hare ‘has a strong affinity to women, to birth and to menstruation, and generally to chemical transformation of blood’ (quoted in Tisdall 1979, p.101). Such themes link the hare back to Braunkreuz, a medium which has been associated with blood, dirt, and the occult. Beuys has said that he attempted to convey through the motif of the hare ‘the expression of transformation through material, of birth and death’ (quoted in Tisdall 1979, p.88).
Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1979.
Volker Harlan (ed.), What is Art? Conversations with Joseph Beuys, trans. by Matthew Barton and Shelley Sacks, Forest Row, East Sussex 2004.
Marion Ackermann and Isabelle Malz (eds.), Joseph Beuys, Parallel Processes, exhibition catalogue, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf 2010.
- Acc. No. AR00662
- Medium Oil paint, gold paint, ink and graphite on paper
- Size 29.50 x 20.80 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.