Joseph Beuys (1921-86) was the art world's own Messiah, a Christ figure who walked the earth of post-war Germany, wearing his fisherman's vest and preaching an art-in-life creed of "social sculpture" and "direct democracy." He made art the way Jesus made miracles, as part of ordinary life, done while talking with people about politics and society. The actual objects he left behind -- grotty chunks of fat and felt, chocolate-colored drawings of Swiss crosses and aborigine figures, scrawled notes on chalkboards or tabletops -- are cherished by art lovers the way that Catholic mystics venerate remnants of the true cross.
More than 30 Beuysian relics are included in "Just Hit the Mark: Works from the Speck Collection," the excellent show currently on view at Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue. The works were assembled by German urologist Dr. Reiner Speck, whose association with artist dates to the 1970s, when Speck asked Beuys to illustrate his thesis on the 20th century German poet Gottfried Benn (Speck went on to write many essays about Beuys and other contemporary artists). Beuys collaborated with Speck over the years to form an important group of pieces.
The illustrated catalogue that accompanies the show includes an interview with the collector by Museum of Modern Art curator Ann Temkin and informative entries on the works by Pamela Kort that clearly illuminate the contingent nature of Beuys' artistic production. It explains, for instance, the playful genesis of one of his more provocative works, Drer, I will personally guide Baader + Meinhof through Documenta V (1972), a pair of protest signs, with the title phrase written with black paint on yellow placards, stuck into a pair of slippers that are filled with an "alchemical" mixture of fat and sulfur and planted with roses, the emblem of Beuys' project at that Documenta, where he lived and worked for the exposition's full 100 days.
The signs were actually made by another artist, Thomas Peiter, who Beuys addressed as Drer after seeing him at the Documenta opening costumed as the German Renaissance artist, complete with eye patch. The terrorist-revolutionaries Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof had just been captured after a two-year manhunt, and were the subject of much discussion when Beuys made the quip that Peiter painted on the signs (without Beuys' additional remark that the art tour would "rehabilitate" them). Only later were all the elements assembled into the sculpture, at the artist's instructions, by the enterprising artist-publisher Klaus Staeck, who wanted something to sell at an art fair in Dsseldorf that fall.
The Speck exhibition, which takes its title from a phrase Beuys wrote on a tabletop during a 1973 lecture (an item that is also included in the show), has already appeared at Gagosian Gallery in London; its New York showing coincides with the 33rd anniversary of Beuys' first trip to the U.S., when he lived for a week with a coyote in a cage at the Ren Block Gallery in SoHo. The works aren't for sale, but we can expect to see them eventually in some museum.
Plenty of ambitious artists design their own elaborate and arcane metaphysics (and it can pay off -- witness Matthew Barney), but few are as compelling as the eccentric Maine-based performance artist and teacher William Pope.L. His subject is race and masculinity, and his materials include peanut butter, Pop Tarts and plush animal toys. His year-old traveling retrospective, "eRacism," has finally opened in New York at Artists Space in SoHo, with a section on view out at Rutgers University and a congruent show at The Project on 57th Street.
Pope.L bills himself as "the friendliest black artist in America," but he isn't all that friendly -- his work has too much castration in it for that. Custom-made for the Artists Space show, for instance, is a huge mural called The Beginning of the World (with Intercontinental Missiles and Chipmunks). At the center of this sprawling cartoon landscape (which continues across the Hudson at the Rutgers venue) hangs a pair of legs, painted in Skippy peanut butter, with a flood of red paint dripping down between them. In the middle of this bloody flow are what looks like several sushi-like slices in an amorphous shape that could well be a map of the U.S., a mystical castration as birth.
Also on hand in the Artist's Space show is the theatrical set for Pope.L's famous Eating the Wall Street Journal performance; a room installation lined with shelves that hold rows and rows of plush animals impaled on the necks of bottles of cheap wine; a wall of "black people" text drawings that work like a key to Pope.L's thinking; a group of remarkably expressive collage works; a comical 16-foot-long "frieze" of Pop Tarts, each drawn with the same racist graffiti (a face in a mask with a bone in its hair); and a small theater projecting videos of more than a dozen performances by the artist.
As with Beuys' production, Pope.L's iconography reflects his biography -- notably, the "discomfort" that attends blackness here in the U.S.A. "My family," he said in a conversation presented on the afternoon of the show's opening with Studio Museum in Harlem director Lowery Stokes Sims, "they fulfill blackness in an obtuse way, they were incredibly self-destructive." As kids he and his friends built their masculinity in terms of devising ways to hurt each other; their maleness, Pope.L said, was both "iron-plated" and "a fragile fantasy" (thus, he wear's a pink dress in one performance, to short-circuit that expectation). His mostly absent father, he said, was a supermale during his brief visits but mostly had "an asterisk kind of quality."
"My father is Robert Ryman," he went on, almost maniacally, noting that the celebrated Minimalist artist is a white guy making white paintings for white money, and hazarding that it was just "nutty" that people talk about the brushstrokes or the edges of his paintings, but ignore the question of his race. (He had thought about having Ad Reinhardt as his foster dad but decided Ryman was better.) Ryman as a father figure, Pope.L said, is an absurd whiteness matching up with an absurd maleness.
Pope.L's next project is the Black Factory, a panel truck designed to deliver "blackness where it is needed most" (blackness, Pope.L said, is a boutique product in the capitalist choice economy that he can own and transform). The 22-foot-long truck, pulling an 11 x 11 ft. inflatable igloo, debuts this spring at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass.; it includes a pulverization machine, an archive and a gift shop selling love potions, powders, prayer rugs, t-shirts and more.
One audience member asked Pope.L what he should tell his young male students, whose machismo has a strong element of homophobia, when he brought them to the exhibition. "This work is to punk you out," Pope.L said. "Tell them I said so!"
Over at Matthew Marks Gallery on West 22nd Street, where the native New Yorker Nayland Blake is having his seventh exhibition since 1993, the scene is more laconic and Postminimalist, though Blake's projects have their own melancholy Pop humor. Like Beuys and Pope.L, Blake has his own animal avatar -- the white rabbit, here in the form of a large, furry white bunny costume, splayed out in the middle of the gallery, measuring 16 feet across. On the wall hang three Confederate Flags, done all in white, while across the gallery is a two-channel video, in which Blake and the artist A.A. Bronson cover each other's face with frosting -- one with white, the other black -- and then smooch it up.
All this whiteness is about innocence and surrender, according to Blake, who has blue eyes and a generally Caucasian appearance, but who would be classified as black by state law because his father is African American. The emotional note is shame and guilt; Blake's works emphasize the dimension of individual feeling in issues of race and sexuality. Another work, titled Root, is more hopeful. It's a wooden pipe with a single bowl and two stems, allowing two people to smoke it at the same time.