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  • Terry Channell

On Paolozzi, Rauschenberg and Beuys: why paint?

Eduardo Paolozzi – Whitechapel Gallery - March 2017

Rauschenberg – Tate Modern – March 2017

Joseph Beuys – Hamburger Banhof, Berlin – February 2017

I wish to use my response to these three exhibitions to reflect on what lies beyond my own practice. I see myself as a ‘deep dive’, non-commercial painter, with a serious interest in the theoretical and philosophical aspects of my work. It is, perhaps, this intellectual curiosity that is beginning to make me think more broadly about my practice, and its context.

The first signs of this curiosity came about when experiencing Richard Hamilton’s work at his exhibition at the Tate Modern (March 2014). Pop art, conceptual art, however you describe the range of works covered in this brief essay, always seemed different than the art I made – worthy of some casual interest but engagement with it always felt underwhelming, disappointing. Hamilton’s exhibition made me question this rather lazy assumption – his vigorous, wide ranging commentary on life forced me to engage with the work and earned my respect. This more open-minded approach paved the way for a considered appreciation of the Paolozzi, Rauschenberg and Beuys exhibitions. These three artists, and Hamilton, all born within 4 years of each other, have an approach to art practice that causes me to reflect on my own work, and question how I should develop my practice.

My overriding response to Paolozzi’s exhibition was one of being overwhelmed by the volume and range of work, using ‘any material, any form’.How could one mind produce this much, and sustain an underlying idea or concept. I cannot begin to provide a commentary on all I have seen of his work, but I select a few examples that made me think.

Figure 1: Study for ‘Tyrannical Tower Crowned with Thorns of Violence, 1961, Ink on Paper

Figure 2: ‘Tyrannical Tower Crowned with Thorns of Violence’, 1961, Bronze

The ‘Tyrannical Tower’ and similar sculptural works confused me. Much of Paolozzi’s work seems refined and developed (for example, his beautiful screenprints), or at least deliberately animalistic, and yet these seemed to be almost childlike in their conception, like something from a children’s book. But they are the product of a serious artist, and are presumably studies or reflections of his concerns at the time. I chose this work as it touches on a significant area of interest for me – to what degree do we need to be informed (or enframed, to apply Heidegger’s term) about a piece of work in order to relate to it? I must confess that I needed to spend more time with the work, and allow it to generate a more considered response.

Figure 3: A Group of Gauls. 1947 Collage

I reference ‘A Group of Gauls’ in contrast to the Tower pieces as I was struck by how ready I was to accept the work at face value, and to study it on terms I thought I understood; and yet why should this be more agreeable than the Tower works? My immediate thoughts are that we have become used to the college and the use of found imagery, whereas at one time they would have caused the same reaction as the Towers. Viewers responses, inevitably, reflect the age in which they live; what does this say about the consistency of art, and truth in art?

Returning to my main preoccupation with Paolozzi, his work seems very fluid. His ideas seem to be able to flow from drawing and sculpture into fabrics and screenprint. My final selection of his work reflects this (Figure 4). A wood relief that could be the basis for a drawing or screenprint. I felt compelled to sketch some of it and, as always, the more you look the more you see. The quantity of realised ideas within the frame, produced through layering thin sheets of wood is phenomenal. This returns me my main point, the sheer volume of ideas and creativity Paolozzi had, and yet I am still looking for an underlying rationale – perhaps I am mistaken in doing this and should just enjoy the work itself.

Figure 4: Untitled. 1973. Wood Relief

Rauschenberg has the same expansive approach to his art, and one that seems to accommodate any art form equally; and yet there seems to be more of a coherence to his work than Paolozzi’s, it all seems to come from the same source (even taking into account the amount of collaborative work he produced).

One work that captures Rauschenberg for me is ‘Automobile Tire Print’ (Figure 5); partly because my initial response was ‘is this art?’ – a throwback to the environment and time I grew up in, where this question was constantly raised – this was the time of the controversy over the Tate’s acquisition of Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII, better known as The Bricks. For me, the ‘is this art?’ response is both amusing and valid – a response that should be respected, then dealt with. In this case, this is a very interesting work – not least because of its simplicity, and the thought of its production. It also raises questions about art (is it painting, is it a print? Who is the artist, Rauschenberg or Cage?).

Figure 5: Automobile Tire Print (detail) Tire-tread mark 1953

We are, I would argue. In the realm of art as ideas, being stretched beyond the context of Paolozzi’s work. I discussed previously the impact of Hamilton’s work on my thinking, and this opened my mind to looking at the art of found objects more sympathetically. In particular, I found Rauschenberg’s cardboard box work, as I call it, very engaging (Figure 6).

There is a sense in which the debate about is it art, or more significantly, what sort of art is it, is irrelevant. My starting point is, increasingly, how do I respond to this work, and how much of an emotional, and/or intellectual response does it generate. I studied this work for a long time – I could engage with its physicality as we are all familiar with cardboard boxes, handling them and getting experience of their physical properties; I found that the idea of traversing America exciting and yet the design of the boxes and the title of the company very homely.

Figure 6: National Spinning/Red/Spring (Cardboard). 1971 Cardboard Boxes and string

We can extend the discussion into Rauschenberg’s unusual combinations of objects (goat and tyre, most famously), and the expanded thinking that can result in such work. Equally, his geographic reach and political ideas (art has no borders) develop ones thinking about what art is and the domains in which it operates. It seems to me that this is where the really hard work of thinking about one’s practice, and how, as an individual, one responds to these challenges.

These thoughts are taken to their most extreme in my response to Joseph Beuys. I start with a work that, for Beuys, is readily engaged with, simply because it appealed to me and gives me some grounding for what is to come.

Figure 7: Tram Stop

Tram Stop appeals because it needs no explanation (although I have read long and detailed accounts, they add little). One can respond to the physicality of the objects, consider where they have come from, how much history is contained in what is there and so forth. This is reminiscent of my thinking about my work on cast iron manhole covers, where they, for me, hold the history of their use and the millions of footsteps that have formed their shapes. Again, I can think about how far we have come in our appreciation of ‘what art is’ without having to challenge this work as being ‘not art’.

This essay has taken us to the point of departure.

‘I did not live in a culture where spirit was paramount to people, as it was during the cultural periods of antiquity, such as Egypt or ancient Greece’ What is Money, Joseph Beuys p15

In one statement, we begin a journey into another realm of art; one that has some physical presence (on blackboards, for example, Figure 8) but which is more about ideas of art and society – not in some generalised academic or art history context, but very much engaged with society as it is now. I believe Beuy’s argument is that: we live in a society that can be defined through a triple perspective - Human Life, Spiritual Life and Economic Life - and that the democratic element that spans these is money, redefined so that it is less a product of wealth generation in its own right, but as a means of exchange that has responsibilities for both the producer and consumer. Within this system, peoples’ creative life is seen as capital, and has a value.

Figure 8: Das Kapital Raum 1970-1977. 1980

I outline this somewhat simplistic (and I hope accurate) statement of Beuys’ position because it demonstrates that we are now talking of art engaged deep within the structure of life as it is lived now. We are not, in our current system, seen as spiritual beings, but economic ones.

‘People will come to understand that the concept of creativity is a concept pertaining to freedom while at the same time referring to human ability. Then they’ll come to realise that capitalism has nothing to do with capital because they’re always talking about it in the realm of economics. But the most important human factor is human ability’. Beuys in ‘capital – debt territory utopia’ – pub:Verilag Kettler, Germany

Whether Beuys is right in his analysis is not significant here, what is important is that art is taken beyond its normal realm and infused within life as it is lived, one that is, in his analysis, dominated by money and capitalism.

This thinking about what art can be is now becoming something that I can start to grasp, as a result of the exposure to Hamilton et al., and it is revolutionary to me. The understanding that the idea, embedded in human reality and well-articulated, can be predominant, and that the physical art is a manifestation of elements that idea, is slowly taking hold in me. This suggests that there is a wide-open space, not bounded by physical media, within which artistic ideas can be developed. I need time to reflect on this new-found awareness, and assess how (or if) I respond to this opportunity in my practice.

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