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Still Wannabe

"Felt Suit (Fitzanzug)," 1970, one of Joseph Beuys' vaguely autobiographical "sculptures"
photograph by Brad Flowers

Dallas has always hated its image. If you want to see goose bumps sprout on local politicos and moguls, just allude to the stereotype: the burg that killed Kennedy, full of squillionaire John Birchers and real-live Beverly Hillbillies, where every other car is a pickup and every other pickup packs a card-carrying, common-law-lien-filing Republic of Texas member. Not surprisingly, the Powers that Be and their City Hall lackeys will go to just about any length to advertise our sophistication.

Like the city that spawned it, the Dallas Museum of Art has always suffered from wannabe syndrome. In 1988, then-Museum Director Rick Brettell tried to come to terms with this legacy, noting in the catalog to the DMA's Now/Then/Again show that "the Dallas Museum of Art [has] consciously followed the leads set in the cultural capital of America. This decision was clearly made to communicate to the rest of America that Dallas, Texas was not a provincial place and that the most difficult and rigorous of 'capital' trends were almost instantly appreciated in its homes, galleries, and museums." Ironically, these collecting decisions put the DMA squarely in the league of the average museum in flyover land. Or, as Robert Hughes so wickedly observed: "If Antarctica had a museum of modern art, the penguins would get to contemplate an Ellsworth Kelly, a mock-Tantric watercolor by Francisco Clemente, a straw-and-mudscape by Anselm Kiefer, and a nice lump of frozen fat by Joseph Beuys."

The frozen fat is now on view in the DMA's South Quadrant Galleries, part of a show titled Correlations: Felix Gonzalez-Torres/Joseph Beuys. Unfortunately, it is served up with the typical DMA combination of reverence and pedantry. The result is the latest in the DMA's long line of eat-your-spinach exhibitions: shows long on received art-world wisdom and woefully short on any sort of critical or independent evaluation, shows with the somewhat contradictory dual purpose of advertising Dallas' élan and educating the rubes.

The current exhibition begins with wall text pompously proclaiming that "Joseph Beuys is considered the most influential European artist of the last half century...." Alas, the DMA's claims are not too far off the mark. Much of what is wrong with contemporary art can be laid directly at Beuys' feet.

It is important to give Beuys his due. Even Hughes has described Beuys as the "Pied Piper of German postwar aesthetic renewal," and he did do much to revitalize German art, giving back to contemporary Krauts the heritage that Hitler co-opted. That's the good Beuys legacy, the interesting one, the one the DMA ignores. Instead, it focuses on Beuys the snake-oil salesman, the man who helped spawn "conceptual" art, which, amazingly, many artists and art-world institutions still seem to prefer over the alternative, postmodern recycling of styles in painting and sculpture.

Like many an anarchist before him, Beuys questioned the machinery of the art world from safely within its cocoon, to wit Dusseldorf Academy, where from the 1950s until his death in '86 he held forth to younger artists, critics, and the press. Art-historically, he was a direct descendant of Marinetti and Duchamp, part of a century-long dialogue on the strange modern practice of designating and treating objects as Art, regardless of their original purpose. Instead of urinals-as-sculpture, however, Beuys gave collectors lumps of fat and felt suits and records and washbowls as Art. The twist was that these were artifacts of personal significance, fragments that illustrated stories, probably apocryphal, from Beuys' own life, like the one about being saved during World War II by a roving band of Tatars who wrapped him in felt and fat. Touting the supposed healing properties of art, Beuys proclaimed "everyone an artist." Supposedly to prove his point, he staged "social sculpture": strange performances which Beuys presided over clad in his own odd survivalist uniform, namely a felt hat, fishing vest, jeans, and boots.

Actually, there was little new about most of Beuys' poses. His artist-as-producer shtick was old hat, taken directly from earlier Futurist and Dada-staged events. Nor was his cockeyed utopianism unprecedented (Beuys was a prominent member of the Green Party); Kandinsky, among others, had him beat there. Not even his balky refusal to fuel the art machine by creating conventional (read: collectible) objects of art, such as sculpture or painting, was new; like all artists who have raged against the machinery, from the Mexican Muralists to Robert Smithson, Beuys bent this rule when necessary. (Indeed, one of the only surprises in the DMA's show is a small 1949 nude made of metal. Beuys could actually sculpt.)

Beuys' big legacy to contemporary art is a dark one, one that is barely mentioned in the DMA's show. For Beuys was a harbinger not only of harmless, boring installation art but of the Artist as self-promoting celebrity. A regular Houdini of hype, Beuys carefully staged and photographed his events, exercising an extraordinary degree of image control, illuminating the way for many an overrated art star to come. Why spend a lifetime laboring to master a craft when creating a media event, a la Beuys, was a far surer way to success?

Many of Beuys' PR-stunts-as-art required audience participation, which is where the connection with Felix Gonzalez-Torres comes in. Gonzalez-Torres, a young Cuban-born photographer and sculptor, graduated with a photography degree in 1983 and died of AIDS in 1996. In between, he managed to become one of the art stars of the 1980s, enjoying a too-much, too-fast career trajectory only slightly less absurd than that of Jean-Michel Basquiat. If you think Gonzalez-Torres isn't as obscenely overhyped, consider this: One of Gonzalez-Torres' plastic-bead curtains sold at Christie's last fall for $1.6 million--a full mil over Christie's wildly optimistic estimate.

There are differences, of course. Gonzalez-Torres did have an art education and was a decent, if heavy-handed, photographer. Not surprisingly, given his HIV status, he focused on the ephemeral nature of life. His work wasn't subtle; he plastered billboards with blown-up shots of footprints across empty beach, or shot forlorn, forgotten monuments. His sculpture, if one can call it that, was even more concerned with impermanence than his photographic images. He used wasting materials: foil-wrapped candles, light bulbs. He installed curtains of plastic beads, representing "Water" or "Blood," from wall to wall, making visitors part the installation to get through the gallery, questioning art's permanence and standoffishness.

The DMA show includes some of his standard pieces, including married clocks and photographs of anonymous, empty public monuments with words such as "Historian," "Patriot" and "Statesman" chiseled into them. The exhibition includes two of his most famous works, the first a sea of hard candy on the gallery floor and the second a Xeroxed stack of pictures of clouds, which gallery visitors are encouraged to take with them.

The works are vaguely sad, and sweet, and in the end, one-dimensional, high-concept art. Walking through the rooms devoted to both artists, it is hard to escape the conviction that it all works better as archaeology than as art. This is not to say that the genre has been entirely sterile; to see an artist who has mined the best from this vein of contemporary art history and left behind the rest, one need only walk across the barrel vault and look at Matthew Ritchie's "Slow Tide" installation.

Still, it is way past time for a critical re-evaluation of the emptier trends in conceptual art, be they "Installations" or "Happenings" or "Neo-geo" or video. But don't hold your breath. Even now, four decades after Beuys, few in the art world are willing to acknowledge that King Joseph and his progeny are looking extremely bare. And given its history, the DMA is perhaps the institution least likely to pronounce the emperor butt nekkid.


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