I’ve spent a lot of time pondering Joseph Beuys‘s work. In 1997 I curated an exhibition from the Walker’s deep collection of Beuys objects; I’ve published a few essays on him; and in 2004 I taught a college class just on his work—a whole semester, thirteen lectures, on one artist. I could have done thirteen more, if I’d had the time and the stamina; for me, his work is gut-wrenching, inspiring, precise, aggravating, perversely beautiful, and undeniably Important. And there’s a lot of it: Beuys was nothing if not prolific. He used to say that his totem animal was the hare. I’d guess the Energizer Bunny was part of the family, too.
Even after all my thinking and looking, I wasn’t prepared for the punch of seeing Tierfrau (Animal Woman) (1949/1984) for the first time. It’s a bronze, about 18 inches tall, and on loan to the Walker for just a few months from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. I was excited to see the piece, which I knew only from reproductions, so as soon as we had it installed I went to take a look. I was amused to see the gallery guard slowly circumnavigating the sculpture on its pedestal, seemingly mesmerized by its presence. I was, too—it was so much more powerful than I’d expected. Seeing it confirmed for me something I already knew: photographs are a terrible way to look at sculpture. Besides the obvious problem of only being able to see one side of a work, in a photo you also can’t confront it with your body—to visually, viscerally feel it, to relate its heft, texture, size, and temperature to your own. What happens when you do is often surprising. This skinny, prickly little bronze thing had me completely entranced. I found it mysterious, and mystery is seductive. So I decided to do some research. (Yes, I’m a nerdy historian. I like research. This is not an apology.)
I found that Animal Woman bridges Beuys’s entire career, which is the reason for its unusual date of 1949/1984. The upper half is based on Zinnakt (Tin Nude), made in 1949 while he was a student at the Kunstakademie in Dsseldorf, Germany. Tin Nude is a portable fetish object with a tiny head and feet that bracket conical breasts, ballooning thighs, protruding buttocks, and a smooth, swollen abdomen suitable for rubbing. It has no arms and it can’t stand up; it can only lie there, with its arched back and thrusting pelvis. The object has no relationship to walking, talking flesh-and-blood women—it’s an Archetype, all about fecundity, rituals, and the Great Mother Goddess.
Beuys was clearly fond of his little Tin Nude, because in 1984—just two years before he died—he placed it upright on a lumpy, bell-shaped base, cast the whole thing in bronze, and named it Animal Woman. The transformation is astonishing: no longer a passive fertility figure, this regal creature looks as if she is queen of some netherworld, and has just emerged from the goo still sporting a few prehistoric spines. The protrusions are actually remnants of the casting process that Beuys decided not to smooth off, and the mottled patina he added to the bronze suggests woodsy camouflage or maybe molting skin. (You aren’t tempted to rub this belly!) And what’s up with that crude pedestal she’s standing on? Is it a water spout that’s thrusting her up out of the primordial sea? There is some kind of movement implied by her stance—I can almost imagine her bounding through the forest or winging off into the ether. It’s true that Animal Woman and her predecessor embody well-worn ideas about the primal link between the feminine and the earth (a cornerstone of Beuys’ ideology), but the artist has accomplished something extraordinary here—Tin Nude has morphed from a quasi- Venus of Willendorf to a sister of the Winged Victory of Samothrace—an Extreme Makeover of the art historical kind.
We installed Animal Woman in a gallery of postwar paintings and sculpture by the likes of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, and Ad Reinhardt (part of the exhibition The Shape of Time). She completely holds her own in their company—in fact, the earthiness of Beuys’ sculpture offers a pungent counterpoint to all those ethereal American abstractions. But she’s only in Minneapolis through the end of May. Don’t miss the chance to see her.
(Rights to reproduce Animal Woman on this site were not freely available, so come to the Walker to see the real thing.)