Joseph Beuys's lecture at SAIC in 1974. Photo © 2012 Klaus Staeck and Gerhard Steidl
Joseph Beuys's lecture at SAIC in 1974. Photo © 2012 Klaus Staeck and Gerhard Steidl

Forty years ago the famed founder of "Social Sculpture" introduced his radical ideas at SAIC. This fall Joseph Beuys's vision of universal human creativity returns

by Evangeline Politis (MA 2013)

On January 15, 1974 German artist Joseph Beuys arrived in Chicago. His first time in the United States (previously avoided because of the involvement in the Vietnam War), he toured only three cities. Not exhibiting work, but rather speaking at universities, he preferred to call his visit an "Energy Plan," working to reinvigorate the drained Western culture that he thought was on the brink of an "energy crisis."

Promoting his remedy to students at the New School in New York, School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), and Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Beuys expounded on his idea for the International Free School of Creative and Interdisciplinary Research, a gratis institute where students no matter their background or expertise could explore their creativity. It was this philosophy that got him temporarily fired from his professorship at Dusseldorf Academy in 1972 after he admitted students to his classes who were officially rejected by the academy.

"Creativity is not limited to people practicing one of the traditional forms of art, and even in the case of artists creativity is not confined to the exercise of their art," Beuys wrote in the 1973 Manifesto on the foundation of a 'Free International School for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research. "Each one of us has a creative potential which is hidden by competitiveness and success-aggression. To recognize, explore, and develop this potential is the task of school."

Beuys walked into a packed Fullerton Hall that chilly morning in a fur-lined, great coat, well-worn jeans, green vest, and felt hat, as described by Tony Phillips then the chairman of SAIC's Visiting Artists Program. Phillips led Beuys around the city from his lunch at the Arts Club of Chicago to his reenactment of gangster John Dillinger's final moments in front of the Biograph Theater (a moment that was videotaped and later distributed as multiples).

"As he spoke in newly-learned, difficult, but intelligent English, he covered a blackboard with a swirling cosmos of lines, vague diagrams, and words reflecting and pinpointing his vast argument," wrote Phillips of Beuys's lecture in the Spring 1974 issue of the SAIC's quarterly magazine.

Later in the afternoon, he had a more intimate conversation in the school. Unlike in New York where he received quite a bit of push back for his free school ideals, the SAIC audience remained engaged, mesmerized as he spoke at length for hours in a twisted and convoluted manner.

"His discussion was rational in tone but not in structure—it moved around and around about the core of his interest until by the end of the day one's grasp of the particulars was eroded as we all were swept up in the encompassing cosmological vision that had emerged," stated Phillips.

Freedom was key for Beuys. He thought that with freedom for all to work creatively then one's art would be organically interconnected with that of everyone else. He spoke about how together it would form a "social sculpture," a natural democracy reflecting the order of the cosmos. He also referred to historic figures like Renaissance philosopher Tommaso Campanella who conceived the "Sun State:" "One day man like a god will create his own planet—a spiritual state," Beuys commented during the lecture series.

English art critic Caroline Tisdall accompanied Beuys on his sojourn to the States and recalled his Chicago lectures being unlike any other.

"Of all the lectures I heard him give in those years, in Europe or America, this was the one in which the relationship in Beuys's thinking between the spiritual, social, and natural worlds was the clearest," she stated in the 1990 book Beuys in America, or The Energy Plan for the Western Man.

He mapped the connections between these worlds on several chalkboards, drawing a constellation of his ideal social sculpture. Beuys's New York art dealer Roger Feldman quickly saw how important these boards would be: spraying them with an adhesive fixative and reimbursing SAIC for the price to replace them.

Since then the boards have been spread across the country, but in celebration of the 40th anniversary of his visit, Untitled (Sun State) returns to Chicago from the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Presented by the SAIC's Department of Exhibitions and Exhibition Studies in conjunction with the exhibition A Proximity of Consciousness: Art and Social Action, with support by the Goethe-Institut of Chicago and the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany, the chalkboard will be on view in the Art Institute of Chicago's Modern Wing, 159 East Monroe Street, through February 6, 2015.