Joseph Beuys, Dan Flavin, and Donald Judd were contemporaries of thought rather than form. Each took sculpture off its pedestal—literally and figuratively—and expanded the conventions of what constitutes a work of art, influencing scores of artists to do the same. Grouping Beuys, Flavin, and Judd in a new exhibition from the Walker’s collection provides “a snapshot of a vital moment in postwar cultural production,” says assistant curator Yasmil Raymond, and allows viewers to trace the influence of their ideas in contemporary art. “With this exhibition, visitors will see three different ‘statements’ that reflect distinct positions towards art-making and the ways in which these artists addressed the autonomy of art, its nature, and its social power. These are concerns that this generation of artists set in motion and continue to have relevance for artists today.”
Beuys was an artist, teacher, and political activist who became one of the art world’s most discussed, celebrated, and controversial postwar figures. He wanted people to see his objects as “stimulants for the transformation of the idea of sculpture.” He pursued this goal by using organic materials and focusing on the process of creation, allowing chemical reactions, fermentations, and decay to render his objects constantly in a “state of change” and evolution. His preoccupation with the collective memory and trauma of European culture and civilization led him to label his objects as “vehicles” for transformation, healing, and action.
Judd paved for himself a path between painting and sculpture, with singleness or wholeness as a key pursuit. In direct contrast to Beuys’ expanded notion of art, Judd championed a new sculptural aesthetic of bare geometrical shapes he termed “specific objects.” By 1965, he began commissioning industrial fabricators to weld and manufacture his works in a wide variety of “new” materials—stainless steel, galvanized iron, anodized aluminum, brass, plexiglass, Formica, and plywood—he observed as “either recent inventions or things not used before in art.”
Like Judd, his close friend, Flavin also rejected the Minimalist label many critics and curators placed on his work. He worked with generic fluorescent lighting to make horizontal and vertical sculptures along walls and floors—including corners, baseboards, and stairwells—dedicating his career to combining “traditions of painting and sculpture in architecture with acts of electric light defining space.” His challenge of artistic convention extended to the labels “sculpture” and “environment,” which he abandoned in favor of creating “proposals” and “situations” in barren rooms. This last practice is a direct predecessor to the work of contemporary artists such as Tino Sehgal, whose “constructed situations” recently received their first Walker exhibition.
Raymond cites several threads connecting the artists in Statements, including their consideration of the space surrounding their work and the removal of their own hands from the production process; they took on the function of architects providing specifications for others to fabricate the piece or, in the case of Beuys, by transforming the creative process into a collaboration. They operated in “a different manner but toward similar goals,” she says. “There is also a shared confidence, an earnest conviction in both forms and ideas guiding their work. They weren’t interested in flamboyance and monumentality. Each of them experimented with new alternatives and presented concrete statements despite the unwelcome reception by mainstream culture at the time.