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July 18-August 18, 2001 at Griffin Contemporary Art, Venice

by Nancy Kay Turner

Photograph of the
artist: Lord Snowden

“Felt Suit,” felt
multiple, 1970.

“Lemon Light,”
multiple, 1969.

"To make people free is the aim of art, therefore art for me is the science of freedom"
--Joseph Beuys

Joseph Beuys, artist, shaman, political activist, provocateur, teacher and lecturer, is one of the few contemporary artists whose own image, clad in a funky felt fedora, is as well known as his work. A charismatic person, Beuys matured as an artist in the sixties with the Fluxus group, as art became increasingly anti-establishment, personal, and idiosyncratic. Performance art, with the artist in the multiple roles of author, actor, director and stage crew, was a natural vehicle for him to express his belief in the artist's ability and right to try to heal a damaged world.

As a German who shared in the devastation and guilt following World War II, Beuys was able to mine his experiences and transform them, just as he transformed common materials into art. A perhaps apochryphal story was told of Beuys being rescued by Tartars and wrapped in felt and fat to keep warm during wartime service. Whether this is fact or fiction, it is true that Beuys imbued his work with a mythic character.

In Felt Suit (1970), a multiple of sewn felt, Beuys plays with the idea of felt as a protective, magical material. This felt suit is no ordinary suit, it is contemporary armor made out of humble cloth. It is also no ordinary suit since it is not a suit at all--it is art. An empty shell, without the human presence, this suit nevertheless vibrates with meaning and power. It is not a suit--it is an idea. Beuys as a con-ceptual artist used non-traditional ma-terials to call the tenets of traditional art into question. For him, art was not about beauty, it was about communication and freedom.

In order to make his work more readily available to the general public, rather than to the very rich, art elite, Beuys, like many of the artists in the late sixties to early seventies, created multiples. Multiples, as the name implies, were editions of work which could be sold cheaper and dispersed farther than one-of-a-kind works.

Some of these were signed and others were not. Beuys has said "I'm interested in the distribution of physical vehicles in the form of editions because I'm interested in spreading ideas. . .which have political change in view or which develop philosophical insights. . ."

Beuys produced his first multiple in 1965 and ultimately completed over 600 editioned works. he believed that making his ideas manifest in concrete objects that could be seen was more potent than the written word. Another example of multiples is his postcard series, made out of unusual materials like wood and yes, felt. In the sixties mail art was very popular. Artists decorated envelopes and anything else that they could get the post office to deliver. The post cards refer to this, and also imply freedom, one of Beuys' revered themes.

The multiples on display here are as fresh, provocative and enigmatic as ever, inviting the visitor to participate in the art and not just be an observer.