Joseph Beuys Cafe

Joseph Beuys Cafe is a small Melbourne gallery established by collector Ian George, showcasing his extensive collection of works by the German artist Joseph Beuys (1921–1986). In Issue 50, Amelia Winata spoke to George about his decision to open the space after several impermanent iterations, and why Beuys has had such a lasting effect on him.

Is it too early to call Joseph Beuys Cafe the sleeper success of the 2020 Melbourne arts calendar? An appointment-only gallery established by collector Ian George, this is the only space in Australia dedicated to the seminal figure of late-modern Conceptualism. Name a post-war German artist and they will likely have some sort of connection to Beuys. His influence was so widely spread partly because he taught at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf from 1961 to 1972, where his students included some of Germany’s most important late-modern and contemporary artists such as Blinky Palermo and Sigmar Polke. Yet, in Australia, the artist is somewhat missing from the lexicon, despite the absolute impact that he had on subsequent generations – a fact George puts down to the ‘tyranny of distance.’ Beuys’ conceptualisation of ‘social sculpture’ – that civilisation was itself a total work of art –summed up his belief in art’s potential for transforming society and politics. George is interested in practical approaches to Beuys’ Social Sculpture and Permanent Conference and how these can create impulses in society to transform it in open, humane ways in freedom.

Joseph Beuys Cafe is located in a former cleaner’s room that has remained relatively untouched since 1937. It is somewhat ironic that art goers have the chance to view presentations dedicated solely to Beuys not at a major institution but in this modestly renovated gallery in Melbourne’s historic Nicholas Building. George chose to selectively renovate the site to reflect Beuys’ enthusiasm for decay and the process of time. Eschewing the white cube aesthetic, he has allowed various strata of paint to remain visible, showing the history of human activity that the site has been witness to over the decades.

George is an engineer by profession, a founding director of Melbourne integrated property company CGA Bryson. He has collected extensively over the decades, firstly privately then for his office but eventually as a passion project. His interest in collecting was catalysed by the modernist architect Harry Seidler – an avid art collector of modernist art – with whom George worked in the 1980s. George recalls meeting Helen Frankenthaler at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, ‘a trace of the influence of Harry Seidler’, who was an enthusiast of Abstract Expressionism. Over the years he has amassed an impressive inventory that arguably warrants display in the increasingly fashionable ‘house museum.’ His collection includes pieces from the likes of William Kentridge, Tony Bevan, John Beard, Clinton Nain, Bruce Armstrong, Giuseppe Romeo and Callum Innes. But it was Beuys who held George’s interest the most. He sees the artist’s work as a true synthesis of action and thinking and believes that his practice represents ‘the image of humanity.’

His other great interest is Rudolf Steiner, George states that ‘through Beuys I found a grounded approach to Steiner’s epistemology.’ Beuys was profoundly influenced by Steiner and held approximately 100 of Steiner’s books in his library. In his construction business, George forged a new collaborative approach to working with staff, contractors and consultants which resulted in publication of a book From Me to We; design and build collaborative workplaces. Many, if not all, of the principals used in this project arose from his interest in Joseph Beuys and Rudolf Steiner and the content of their work.

Without knowing it, many Australians have encountered Beuys through artists who have extended on or borrowed from his practice. This is an important aspect of George’s decision to dedicate a space to the artist. ‘A lot of artists have been inspired by Beuys – or at least, his impulse – and some may not realise that their art is based on Beuys’ revolutionary approach,’ states George. Indeed, I recall my first encounter with Beuys through Marina Abramović’s 2005 reperformance of Beuys’ 1965 piece How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare at the Guggenheim in New York. Documentation of the reperformance showed Abramović clad in a khaki trouser/vest combo and white shirt, her face covered in honey and gold leaf, arms raised in the air. Clutched between her teeth were the ears of a dead hare, its body hangs loosely in front of her body. This being one of my first encounters with Beuys, via Abramović, my immediate response was equal parts intrigue and confusion.

I admit to George that Beuys has consistently remained somewhat of an enigma for me. He agrees that Beuys’ practice is challenging, but that the visceral response is, in fact, a very valid reaction to the works; the visceral being, of course, something common to all humans. George insists it is not so much about ‘understanding’ the works so much as feeling them. Beuys said that ‘there is nothing to do with art except look.’ Over the decades, George has been in contact with countless Beuys works – some easier to sit with than other – and he acknowledges that he has also developed his understanding of the artist’s practice slowly. In many ways, George’s slow and organic approach to Beuys is encapsulated by his choice of a quiet, non-traditional exhibition space. Exhibitions might run for a month or a year, they might include works from other artists or may even tour to regional areas. Indeed, previous to making the Nicholas Building its home, the Joseph Beuys Cafe had existed temporarily in various locations around Victoria, including at RMIT University and Federation University in Ballarat. Talks and conversation will be common in the space. But nothing is set in stone and George is contented to see the space develop organically. He reiterates that this is the crux of Beuys’ practice: ‘everything changes, everything is in movement.’ And so, the addition of Joseph Beuys Cafe shifts the Australian arts landscape into new and unknown territory.    

Joseph Beuys Cafe is co-directed by Dr Wolfgang Zumdick, Düsseldorf, Emeritus Professor David Thomas and Ian George.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 50, 2020

Joseph Beuys Cafe 
Room 313, Nicholas Building, 37 Swanston Street, Melbourne
Open by appointment

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