In celebration of the centenary of Joseph Beuys’s birth (1921 - 1986), Mitchell-Innes & Nash is pleased to present for the 2021 edition of Art Basel a curated suite of works by gallery artists responding to his decades-long practice. In addition to work by Beuys, our booth features pieces by Pope.L, Annette Lemieux and General Idea, complimented by broader groupings of sculpture, painting, photography and collage, including a new, unique, large-scale neon by Jacolby Satterwhite, and a multi-wall architectural intervention by Jessica Stockholder.
The central piece among the thematic assembly of artworks is Beuys’s major blackboard work Chikago, a 1974 piece created at the Art Institute of Chicago during a ten-day travelling lecture series given by the artist during his first trip to the United States that same year. Of the blackboards Beuys produced at that time, Chikago is one of just three which would be preserved as autonomous works of art. This ability to transform a ubiquitous school-house tool into a potent pictorial presence stems from years of practice making art from alternative materials.
Beuys’s arsenal of atypical materials was not limited to chalk—his wide-ranging practice makes use of lightbulbs and lemons, swathes of felt (often caked in animal fat or tailored into men’s suits), photographs on cardstock, and glass vitrines. He was a political artist, dedicated to what he termed “social sculpture” and art’s transformative potential. The material dimension of his work, drawn from readily available items, was a response in part to the transformation of art from radical practice to luxury commodity, a deliberate act of resistance.
The resistance lives on. Pope.L’s 2021 work Contagion, a topical, large-scale, plastic lemon-covered, and cheekily provocative painting, too, is an act of confrontation. Bouncing from lemon to lemon, the viewers eyes eventually make out the phrase scrawled across its surface. However, any attempt to make sense of the statement catapults viewers into a cleverly cast net of absurdist humor aimed at rebuking false assumptions surrounding language, color and race; the false food becomes an element Pope.L uses to help further turn his work into a challenge.
When he created Historical Suit by smearing peanut butter on the ensemble he wore during his famed Tompkins Square Crawl, he did so with deliberate irreverence. When he installed it in a manner reminiscent of Beuys’s iconic Felt Suit (1970) and encased it, he transformed a piece of groundbreaking performance into sculpture. For Pope.L, Beuys represents fearlessness in bringing the world into art whether the world is a social idea, a condiment or a man’s suit.
Lemieux’s set of women’s and girl’s Felt Suits, (2012, 2013) on the other hand, make direct reference to Beuys’s garment-sculptures while rendering them in markedly feminine proportions. An artist known for her strategies of appropriation, Lemieux refers to her works based on those of other artists as “duets” and has looked upon Beuys as her “father in art.” Like Beuys’s Felt Suit, Lemieux’s work is a simple, unlined suit without buttons tailored to fit the artist’s body that draws on the idea of warmth. Unlike his, it draws on femininity to point to women’s historical absence from roles in cultural and artistic production.
Indeed, each of these suits with no-one to fill them hang like bodies without organs, embodying the notion of absence as presence. General Idea picks up this leitmotif in their 1993/2005 work, Untitled (For Joseph Beuys), made up of found denim pant legs colored in blue acrylic paint and placed into precisely the sort of glass vitrine Beuys favored for his own sculpture—a poignant mode of display, evocative of a Wunderkammer or the museological spoils of 19th century colonial exploits. The work is a reference to Levitazione in Italia, Beuys’s 1973 photographic print on cardstock depicting a pair of denim-clad legs hanging lax at center frame. True to form, General Idea takes a step back from the image, reframing it by abstracting the figure’s presence away until all that’s left are cylinders of too-blue denim standing neatly in a row.