Lot 34
  • 34

Joseph Beuys

750,000 - 950,000 USD
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  • Joseph Beuys
  • Bett (Corsett)
  • numbered 5/6 on the base plate
  • bronze
  • 8 1/4 x 21 1/4 x 9 3/4 in. 21 x 54 x 24.7 cm.
  • Conceived in 1949-50, this work is number five from an edition of six with two artist's proofs, cast circa late 1960s.


Galerie und Kunsthandlung Franz Swetec, Griesheim
Acquired by the present owner from the above in December 1978


Krefeld, Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Sammlung Helga und Walther Lauffs - Amerikanische und europäische Kunst der sechziger und siebziger Jahre, November 1983 - April 1984, cat. no. 11, p. 97, illustrated
Krefeld, Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Schwerpunkt Skulptur, June - Ocotber 1992


Kaiser Wilhelm Museum Krefeld, Schwerpunkt Skulptur: Hundertvierzig Werke von achtzig Künstlern, 1950-1990, Bonn, 1992, cat. no. 15, p. 92, illustrated
Exh. Cat., Düsseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Joseph Beuys: Natur Materie Form, 1992, cat. no. 56, pl. 27, illustrated (another example)


This work is in excellent condition overall. Some slight airborne dust and dirt has settled on the surface overall.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Executed in 1949-50, Joseph Beuys' remarkable sculpture Bett represents one of the earliest and most significant contributions to the aesthetic and ideological development of this most iconic of twentieth-century artists. From the person who, arguably more than any other of his era, courageously challenged what ends art could serve, this early sculpture provides an extremely rare portal into Beuys' evolving thought processes while he was still attending the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Cast from a combination of found objects and hand-crafted elements, Bett evidences how signature traits of Beuys' sculptural dialect, which have subsequently become so recognisable and influential, were in place from the very earliest stages of his artistic career. One of the foremost artists of the Post War generation, Beuys became a hugely influential figure in Germany and across the world for preaching his conviction in the universal healing potential of art and the energy running through all things. Famously declaring that everyone is an artist, capable of transforming these energies through a combined process of life and art, Beuys sought to heal society by reconnecting with a primitive, animalistic nature and by enlisting symbols that embodied a lost state of human innocence.

According to Beuys, the cast sculpture was commissioned by Alfred Schmela, who became the artist's gallerist and representative and whose first exhibition of Beuys' work opened with the seminal action how to explain pictures to a dead hare in 1965. The original object from which Bett was cast comprised three separate wooden parts: a found carpenter's clamp; a female torso carved by Beuys, identifiable by its stylised breasts and hips and apparently decapitated; and a flat base. Apparently Beuys worked closely with the foundry in the casting process and completed the patination himself. The headless female shape is held pinched and suspended between the jaws of the clamp. Consequently creating tension between competing mechanical and anthropomorphic forces, Bett's jagged silhouette potentially presents either a deliberation on surreal levitation, a measurement of the proportions of a Vitruvian woman, a narrative of torture, or the symbolic imprisonment of some talismanic mother goddess.

The iconography of the female torso is a recurring sculptural motif in Beuys' output of this time, reappearing in works such as Bathtub for a Heroine of 1950 in Tate, London, which incorporates a bronze female torso cast from an original wood carving, and Animal Woman of 1949 in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where the bronze figure merges with a piece of industrial piping. However, whereas in Bathtub for a Heroine, the figure is combined with an electric element and a copper cast of a mammoth's tooth, and in Animal Woman the figure has not been fully integrated into a broader iconography, in Bett the female form and the clamp have become one - fused together and acting as agent for Beuys' groundbreaking theoretical developments.

Forged during his period at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, the present work is extremely rare within the artist's biographical context. Beuys joined the class of Ewald Mataré, who had been expelled from Germany under the Nazi Third Reich as a "Degenerate". Working closely under Mataré at the end of the 1940s, Beuys underwent an accelerated initiation to ideas of science, art, literature, philosophy and spirituality, being particularly drawn to Leonardo da Vinci, Schiller, Rudolf Steiner, Carl Jung, and James Joyce. Out of these combined influences, including Steiner's proposition of an intellectually comprehensible spiritual world, Jung's appreciation of the unconscious, and Joyce's searing social commentary; Beuys advanced notions of an artistic universality that would find form in the appropriation and manipulation of found-objects. Bett reveals the earliest material incarnation of these themes and practices.

The simplicity and functional purity of the clamp is contrasted with the loaded shamanistic connotations of the sculpted figure. Together with the base plane, the components are wed together in the bronze, adding a further layer of meaning as the object assumes its own unique abstract identity. This presages a defining principle of Beuys's career: through a process of defamiliarization, he relentlessly alienated objects and the viewer's relationship to them by re-presenting them in new forms and contexts. Bett also broadcasts a visceral aura of associative and symbolic power that epitomises Beuys' idea that sculpture is an inherently vibrant entity. The German title meaning "Bed", this sculpture demonstrates Beuys' ability to reinvent what art could achieve through re-associating the familiar into realms of ambiguity. Bett explores the possibilities of an indefinable spiritual force and the idea that sculpture is not fixed or finished, but in fact material energy in transition, a notion that occupied Beuys for the long remainder of his illustrious career.