Monday, January 15, 2018

Andres Veiel's BEUYS explores an oddly famous-yet-far-too-unknown post-WWII German artist

Joseph Beuys (pronounced boys, but with an "s" sound at the end, rather than a "z"), who lived from 1921 through 1986, was a kind of contemporary of Andy Warhol. Both men expanded culture's idea of what art could be, though Warhol -- in TrustMovies' estimation -- did this mostly for purposes of marketing, wealth and fame, while Beuys, whose vast interests and deep understanding ranged from politics, economics and history to the environment, culture, and education (he was, among all else, a very popular teacher), worked more from his desire to better humanity. And just maybe from a certain sense of guilt and reparation: Our boy flew planes for the Nazis during World War II.

In BEUYS, his new documentary about this artist/ philosopher/even (sort of) statesman, filmmaker Andres Veiel, shown at left, doesn't connect all the dots or hammer home a lot of theories. He simply lays out many of the facts of this unusual man's life and work and lets us do the connecting ourselves. It is a fascinating, strange and sometimes sad and moving journey Veiel takes us on, but it will, I think, make Joseph Beuys an art figure you will not easily forget.

Unlike Warhol, who usually said the least he could get away about almost everything (he knew enough to shut up and thus be "mysterious"), Beuys -- much more intellectual -- was not merely willing to but usually insistent upon talking about his work, along with politics, society and just about all else. ("What's the point of art if nothing comes of it?" we hear him ask.)

I don't know that the two artists ever actually met, but at one point rather late in the documentary, we're at some art event/party, at which Beuys (shown above and below) is supposed to appear, and we're told that Warhol was there, too, and was in fact looking to meet his German contemporary.

Making fine use of much archival footage, Veiel shows us Beuys as artist, teacher, leader and even idol, though he does not appear to have wanted much of that last one. He -- and his art -- were also challenging, in a manner that Warhol's never was. Beuys never produced room decor for modern sensibilites, and so was not marketable in the way that Warhol was, which is why he was never, then nor now, embraced by the ludicrous/sleazy art establishment so that his works might finally fetch millions.

And while Beuys was quite funny, always smart, and often charming, he also lacked that smug layer of irony and bad-boy persona possessed by someone like Maurizio Cattelan. Veiel gives us some of the artist's history and his estrangement from his parents, who wanted him to work in a local margarine factory. Still it comes a shock to suddenly see him in Nazi Youth uniform, and then flying for Germany in WWII. (A plane crash ended that segment of his life.)

We're with Beuys during his very depressed period post-art school, when he lived with and was cared for by his mentors, and then at his kind of rebirth as a performance artist, garnering fame and even an American tour. (The coyote moment here is a keeper.) Our boy even ran for election via The Green Party, and when you hear about the bizarre diversity of that party during its initial days and just whom it allowed into it, you will better understand its continuing dysfunction and uselessness.

The film ends with a reminder of what is probably -- no, certainly -- Beuys' greatest and most lasting work of environmental art. This is something that must have seemed then, for it does even now, way ahead of its time. After finishing this fine documentary, I felt a deep sense of gratitude to Herr Veiel and his crew. I'm very happy to have seen and learned so much about Joseph Beuys, and I suspect that -- unless you already knew it all -- you will be, too.

From Kino Lorber, in German with English subtitles (along with some English spoken occasionally) and running 111 minutes, Beuys opens in its U.S. theatrical premiere this Wednesday, January 17, at Film Forum in New York City. As of now there are only a few more playdates scheduled around the country (click here then scroll down to view cities and venues), but since the film is coming via Kino Lorber, there will certainly and eventually be a DVD release.

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