ONE of the many ironies in the career of Joseph Beuys (1921-86) was his appointment, in 1961, as professor of monumental sculpture at the Academy of Duesseldorf. Perhaps by then, and especially in a Germany still recovering from the catastrophic experience of Hitler’s regime and the extraordinary destruction of its cities in the war, there was not much call for large stone and bronze sculptures. The country was divided into East and West and would not be reunited in Beuys’s lifetime; and 1961 was the year in which that partition reached a crisis with the building of the Berlin Wall.
In this now distant world of the Cold War, Beuys’s work was the opposite of monumental in the usual sense of the word. He made many elusive and idiosyncratic drawings, eccentric assemblages and inexpensive multiples, a selection of which, acquired for the Power Collection by its then curator — and for many years my predecessor in this column — Elwyn Lynn, are now exhibited at the University of Sydney Art Gallery.
Many of these items, in reality almost ephemera, relate to the performances for which Beuys was best known. In one of the most famous, he sat for some hours whispering observations about his drawings to a dead hare cradled in his arms: the performance, or action, was titled How to explain pictures to a dead hare (1965). In another, I like America and America likes me (1974), he flew to New York, was taken to the Rene Block gallery in an ambulance and spent part of the next three days in a room with a wild coyote, before flying back to Germany.
In the context of 20th-century art, Beuys’s work is clearly related to other manifestations of discontent with the post-war art market, dominated by big and expensive abstract expressionist paintings. The pretensions of