Bob Colacello, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close-Up, New York 1990, p. 445
Achieving a scintillating collision of two icons of twentieth century art, Joseph Beuys (Reversal) from 1980 sees Andy Warhol depict his equally influential German contemporary, Joseph Beuys, in a momentous grid of repeated silkscreen negatives. Despite the black monochrome of the silkscreened images, the subject of Warhol’s shimmering homage is instantly recognizable as Beuys by the signature trilby hat, repeated 64 times across the towering canvas. Reversing the image so as to illuminate the refined contours of his subject’s face in striking negative, Warhol’s application of diamond dust elevates the prestige of his sitter, distinguishing Beuys as an artistic figurehead worth immortalizing. Executed in 1983, the present work memorializes the historic meeting between these two artists in the previous year, when the pair crossed paths at an exhibition opening for Galerie Hans Meyer in Dusseldorf. It was there that Warhol took the original photograph of Beuys, a single polaroid that formed the basis for a multitude of works depicting the German artist. Testifying to the significance of the present work, versions of Warhol’s portraits of Beuys reside in the collections of several esteemed museum in Beuys’ German homeland, including the Hamburger Banhof, Berlin, the Neue Galerie, Kassel and the Museum Schloss Moyland, Bedburg, while others reside in such internationally renowned collections as the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Tate, London, Art Institute of Chicago, Philadelphia Museum of Art and Scottish National Gallery, among others. Within this rarefied group, the present work stands as a particularly emphatic articulation of post-war art at a remarkable intersection; a dazzling treatise upon the relationship between two of the most profoundly influential artists and philosophers of art of the twentieth century.
By addressing and appropriating the mass reproduction of images in popular media, Warhol effectively transformed the parameters of visual culture within America and, indeed, within Contemporary art; his iconic body of portraiture can be seen to have irrefutably influenced today’s hyperawareness of wealth, celebrity, and consumerist culture. In contrast, Joseph Beuys’ philosophically based practice sought to heighten human perception, and was characterized by his creative, participatory role in shaping society and politics. Born in Germany in 1921, Beuys became widely recognized for his humanistic, almost spiritual approach to anthroposophy, social philosophy and environmental trends, ultimately endeavoring to create a ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ or what he believed was ‘a total work of art.’ Despite the stark disparities between Warhol’s and Beuys’ respective projects, their practices found a remarkable symbiosis; after their initial meeting in Düsseldorf in 1979, the two artists were to maintain an enduring respect for one another. This first encounter is described by the journalist, curator and academic David Galloway as having a palpable significance to all its spectators: “for those who witnessed them approaching each other across the polished granite floor, the moment had all the ceremonial aura of two rival popes meeting in Avignon.” (David Galloway, ‘Beuys and Warhol: Aftershocks,’ Art in America, July 1988, p. 121) It was precisely at this meeting that Warhol took the Polaroid photo of Beuys that, as demonstrated in the present work, would become the source of the Pop artist’s portraiture series depicting the self-appointed shaman of the European avant-garde.
Evincing an elegant union of two distinct artistic personas, Joseph Beuys (Reversal) is a subtly self-referential painting, drawing together Warhol’s lifelong infatuation with celebrity, consumerism and material culture with Beuys’ more somber investigations of humanism, social philosophy and politics. Warhol, as the progenitor of Pop and catalyst for a new cultural age, and Beuys, as a radical who didactically transformed the landscape of both conceptual and performance art, were each pioneering leaders in their own right, whose respective legacies on the course of contemporary art history have been nothing short of profound. They were, as Michele Bonuomo attests: “Two opposite stories, two antithetical selves [who] deliberately chose the ideal place to observe and get mixed up with each other.” (Michele Bonuomo, Exh. Cat., Naples, Museo di Capodimonte, Vesuvius by Warhol, 1985, p. 33) Warhol’s series of portraits of Beuys potently conveys this majestic union of the material and the spiritual, the artificial and the natural worlds that each artist occupied and explored. In its refined elegance and heightened sobriety, the black monochrome of Joseph Beuys (Reversal) indicates a larger transition within Warhol’s oeuvre which would, over the next decade, grow increasingly retrospective and introspective in nature. Once the sovereign chronicler of the ’60s cult of mass media and glossy fame, Warhol had, by 1980, shifted his focus to subjects of greater psychological intensity and emotive depth; marked by such series as the Last Suppers, Shadows, and Rorschachs, Warhol’s works of the 1980s draw far closer to the metaphysical concerns of Beuys’ practice than his output of the preceding decades. In particular, the artist’s own somber visage as depicted in the renowned Fright Wig self-portraits of 1986, composed just a year before the artist’s death, seems to invoke Joseph Beuys (Reversal) as precedent, both confronting the viewer with an unblinking stare and stark physiognomy. Replacing the fluorescent flashiness of his 1970s celebrity portraiture, the present work explores instead a deeper plane of existence. Within this context, Joseph Beuys (Reversal) captures a deeply respectful consideration of tone, portraying an ethereal likeness of Beuys and serving as stirring monument to the extraordinary link between one artistic genius and another.
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