Joseph Beuys humbly washes his students’ feet, atonal music plays in the studio and students discuss their works. The film Joseph Beuys and His Class not only documents the teachings at the Dusseldorf Art Academy; the 1971 production also carries us back to an era of upheaval that was greatly influenced by Beuys’ artistic and political actions. This fascinating documentary can be seen in the exhibition To be a teacher is my greatest work of art at the Kunstmuseum Ahlen, which includes 150 works on paper from the Deutsche Bank Collection. Curator Friedhelm Hütte, Director of Deutsche Bank Art, juxtaposes the show’s many Beuys works with works by his most important students. Drawings, photographs, and prints by Walter Dahn, Felix Droese, Jörg Immendorff, Anselm Kiefer, Imi Knoebel, Blinky Palermo, and Katharina Sieverding testify to Beuys’ personal and artistic influence as well as to the mutual influences arising out of the intense dialogue between the professor and his students.
For many of his students Beuys’ person was far more important than his actual work. "We needed someone who was searching, just like we were. We were looking for extremes," Imi Knoebel explained. Although Knoebel's work was heavily influenced by Russian Constructivism and diametrically opposed to his own, Beuys admitted the him into his class. In a series on view in Ahlen Knoebel recorded Knoebel's projections, reduced forms of light that he shone onto building facades at night. And although Beuys was skeptical of Immendorff’s Maoism-influenced paintings, he encouraged him to find new ways of seeing things. For instance, the realization that "painting has a processual aspect to it" was like an "eye opener" to the artist. Immendorff’s Biennale series (1976) still exudes the spirit of the student protests of the late 1960ties; Immendorff recorded the events of the week in journal-like form. Protest march on Thursday; poster action on the Biennale and a conspiratorial meeting on Friday: agitprop in the wall newspaper style.
In a 1969 interview with the American art magazine Artforum, Beuys declared: "To be a teacher is my greatest work of art." During his time at the Dusseldorf Art Academy, he taught over 300 students, leaving his mark on an entire generation of artists. Although the charismatic professor’s influence on his students was immense, they did not develop into epigones. Traces of Beuys’ works can nonetheless be detected in their works, as in a sensibility for "poor" materials in the works of Ulrich Meister and Felix Droese, who like Beuys was involved with ecology early on. And while Anselm Kiefer’s investigation into cosmic mythology is clearly influenced by his teacher, Katharine Sieverding carries on Beuys’ criticism of the materialistic concept of science in her photographic series, for example Kontinentalkern. To Sieverding, Beuys embodied an ideal because he was "always there for his students, always challenging them and expecting achievement. You couldn’t find a better example of a teacher."
“To be a teacher is my greatest work of art” – Joseph Beuys and his students.
Works from the Deutsche Bank Collection
through November 23, 2008