“The only revolutionary power is the power of human creativity. The only revolutionary power is the power of art.”
Joseph Beuys cited in: Exh. Cat., Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, Joseph Beuys: Sculptures, 2015, p. 6.
Executed towards the end of Joseph Beuys’s legendary career, Ofen (Oven) offers a poignant reflection on many of the artist’s most fundamental pictorial and humanistic aspirations. This rare and intriguing piece is one of the most important late works by Beuys, and comes from an edition of just two casts that the artist created in 1983-85. Rendered in bronze on the artist’s own steel plinth, it is imbued with a raw and visceral tactility. Simultaneously elusive yet weighty, mysterious yet concrete, Ofen potently encapsulates the enigmatic and shamanistic nature of its creator. Beuys’s practice has had a profound and far-reaching impact on the course of art history, and indeed his life and work was the subject of a number of major international solo exhibitions and retrospectives which took place during the latter period of his life, including at the Guggenheim, New York, in 1979; the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, in 1980; the 7000 Oaks for Documenta 7 exhibition at Kassel, Germany, in 1982; and the Seibu Museum of Art, Tokyo, Japan, in 1984.
The oven recurs as a pivotal motif within Beuys’s oeuvre: an earlier Ofen sculpture (1970) resides in the collection of the Lenbachhaus in Munich, whilst the Die Feuerstätte (Hearth) installation of 1968-1974, now in the collection of the Kunstmuseum in Basel, is a forerunner to Ofen. A symbol of the transformation of matter from one thing to another, the oven motif is befitting for an artist captivated by the process, significance and potential of metamorphic change. One of its earliest appearances dates back to a sculpture from 1948-50 entitled Torso. In this work, a wooden, semi-abstract female figurine is assembled above a base in the form of a tripod. Foreshadowing the present sculpture, Torso offers a foundational insight into the thematic preoccupation with transmutation that was to shape so much of Beuys’s practice and, indeed, his understanding of life.
Beuys’s Ofen appears to be an instrument used by humans in a primordial world, as portrayed in paintings such as Piero di Cosimo’s Vulcan and Aeolus (circa 1490). In other works referring to prehistoric times, Beuys depicts hunting scenes, the creation of stag monuments and primitive drilling machines, as well as men and women running or carrying stones and torches, who are always in contact with wild animals and largely unprotected from natural forces like thunderbolts. Alongside the oven, the blacksmith is another important motif for Beuys as a signifier of primal creation. In her essay on Beuys from 1983, Anne Seymour comments on the motif of the blacksmith as it appears in several of his drawings, alongside flaming ovens: “The scene is suggestive of a witch’s cave: the fire roaring up a shaft and the smith looking for something, perhaps an augury, in the brightness of the flames” (Anne Seymour in: Exh. Cat., London, Victoria and Albert Museum, Joseph Beuys, 1983, p. 15). Both the oven and those using it are characterised by Beuys as multidimensional. They may be in control of fire, able to cook and roast, but they have yet to explore its technical, spiritual, artisanal and artistic potential. Illustrating this aspect of Beuys’s oeuvre, several of his works are presently exhibited at Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, in the exhibition Prehistory: A Modern Mystery.
The artist frequently employed diverse media – from found objects, everyday materials, and natural elements – so as to imbue his artworks with a sense of volatility, movement and change. In this way, his materials function as self-referential metaphors which influenced artists such as Anselm Kiefer, whose timeless landscape paintings similarly grapple with the properties of fire, alchemy, and myth. The present work is pervaded by a sense of mystery and shamanism which is characteristic of the artist’s practice, and several emblematic interpretations are central to its understanding. The sculpture has a Promethean dimension: in Greek myth, Prometheus steals fire from the Gods and brings it to men who use it in ovens. The oven also functions as an allegory for the tool of the alchemist who extracts gold from simple substances in a multi-stage process; indeed, Ofen was exhibited at the Museum Kunstpalast, Dusseldorf to this effect in 2014. Simultaneously, Beuys’s Ofen invokes the prehistoric fireplaces of early man in accordance with the theories of French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in his 1964 study Le Cru et le Cuit (The Raw and the Cooked), in which the control of fire is considered a turning point for human evolution. Indeed, recent excavations in Eastern Europe have unearthed Neolithic Primitive ovens similar in shape to Beuys’s sculptural Ofen. Joseph Beuys creates a sculptural form associated with the earliest stages of human culture. Ultimately, however, the oven functions as a conductor of energy and vessel for heat, necessary for the preservation and spiritual, as well as operative, development of humanity.
Ofen was created in the context of what can now be seen as a seminal museum show: in 1982, Beuys was invited by Norman Rosenthal and Christos Joachimides to participate in Zeitgeist, an internationally acclaimed exhibition that took place in the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin. Still heavily damaged by the war at this time, the building was provisionally repaired for the exhibition, and the Berlin Wall, erected in 1961, ran directly in front of its main entrance. The participating artists were encouraged to create works that responded directly to the exhibition’s socio-political tensions and location. Re-envisaging his studio space as an immersive environment, Beuys constructed a huge mountain of clay in the atrium of the building and surrounded it with sculptures and inchoate forms in the process of being created. These pieces were instilled with symbolic, therapeutic, and spiritual associations. Works made of clay such as Boothia Felix, Goat, Torso, and Urtiere (Primitive Animals), invoke a fascinating dialogue with the present sculpture. When the show drew to a close in 1983, Beuys repurposed part of the clay heap (symbolising the sculptor’s raw material) to create the clay model (symbolising the artwork coming into being) from which he would later cast the present sculpture in bronze. Ofen was subsequently created after the Zeitgeist exhibition in the famous Noack foundry in Berlin. The other elements of the installation became part of Beuys’s seminal Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein auf Hirsch (Lightning with Stag in its Glare), today in the collection of the Tate Modern, London. Through this spiralling process of metamorphosis, Beuys hints at a world in which each action of the past affirms and informs the present. A vessel, in this sense, of transformation, the clay model becomes – both literally and metaphorically – a vehicle for evolutionary change. Indeed, with its textured, primitive surface and deep, enigmatic opening, Ofen is suggestive of a sculpture in the process of becoming. Laden with an almost unrefined and unprocessed physicality, the work speaks to Beuys’s investigations into the progressions and transitions of life.
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