Joseph Beuys believed art to be a means of realizing a social utopia. Envisioning the role of the artist as akin to that of a shaman, Beuys developed a self-defined practice of “social sculpture,” an art form based largely on political involvement and environmental concerns. To this end, he developed a synthetic yet personal symbolic vocabulary to articulate his concern for cultural change.
The encyclopedic work Arena—dove sarei arrivato se fossi stato intelligente! (Arena—where would I have got if I had been intelligent!) (1970–72) comprises one hundred panels containing several hundred photographs of some of his most important actions up to 1972. Like many of Beuys’s works, Arena was developed and modified over several years. An early, untitled version was shown in Edinburgh in 1970. By 1972, he had reworked the piece, transforming it from a document to an artwork. As finally realized, the work is an artistic summation, drawing together images of Beuys’s artistic actions, collaborative performances, sculptural objects, and drawings. The only found photograph, depicting the Roman amphitheater in Verona, speaks to his conception of the work as dealing with the “arena” of life. Favoring evocation over documentation, it is an allegorical portrait of his artistic persona.
Beuys bleached, solarized, or otherwise manipulated many of Arena’s photographs to imbue them with an aura of use and decay. Torn edges and perforations enhance the roughness of the printing, and most of the surfaces are worked, often with a layer of wax or of fat and Braunkreuz (an oil-based medium that Beuys often used). Besides the panels of photographs, he incorporated three panes of colored glass—two in royal blue, evoking the cold northern sky, and one in golden yellow, redolent of the southern sun—that might be thought of as filters through which the remaining panels are seen.
Beuys adjusted Arena to its exhibition sites, condensing or expanding it as space permitted. In the last installation supervised by the artist, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1979, he propped the panels against a wall in three piles, massing them into what he called a Fond—a battery, a device for sending, storing, and receiving energy.
Cherishing its self-contained structure and implicit promise of transformation, Beuys deployed the concept of the Fond throughout his oeuvre. For him, communication through art meant the interchange of energies. In Brasilienfond (Brazilian Fond), Fond III/3, and Fond IV/4 (all 1979), he used piles of felt and stacks of metal, materials that carried symbolic resonance for him. Like the fat in Arena, felt symbolized protective insulation, while metals implied transmission: copper being particularly conductive, iron suggesting rootedness to the earth.
Aus Berlin: Neues vom Kojoten (From Berlin: News from the Coyote) (1979), is composed of rubble and lathe removed from the former René Block Gallery in Berlin at the time of the gallery’s closure, during an action titled Joseph Beuys— Ja, jetz brechen wir den Scheiss ab—Coyote II (Joseph Beuys—Yes, Now We Are Tearing the Shit Down—Coyote II). The installation also includes elements from I Like America and America Likes Me, Beuys’s longest action ever, carried out in Block’s New York gallery five years earlier. Having traveled from Germany to Manhattan wrapped in felt, Beuys spent a week in a room with a coyote, an animal revered as a deity by Native Americans for its wiliness and its supposed ability to transform itself. For Beuys the coyote was a New World counterpart to the hare and stag—subjects of European folklore and myth, and key motifs in his pantheon. Conceived like a stage set, the almost barren “landscape” of Aus Berlin is lit by a projector and a series of miner’s lamps on sticks. A felt hat is juxtaposed with a walking stick and other accoutrements relating to the figure of the magus. Meticulously recorded, the original installation has been re-created here in a space that replicates the dimensions of the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York, where it was first presented.