The following is an article from the Walker Art Center magazine (January/February 2009 issue):
In early 2008, as Walker curator Yasmil Raymond was preparing the installation of the current exhibition Statements: Beuys, Flavin, Judd, a light went on in her head. She remembered having glimpsed a screened projection in Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof in 2005—specifically, while browsing through that museum’s collection of works by German artist Joseph Beuys (1921–1986). She got in touch with Eva Beuys, the artist’s widow, who helped her contact filmmaker Helmut Weitz, the artist’s good friend and frequent documentarian. After a few exchanges with these two obliging, art-centric octogenarians, Raymond had acquired for the Walker a copy of Weitz’s 37-minute, 16mm black-and-white film I Like America and America Likes Me (1974). The only visual documentation of one of Beuys’ most significant “actions” (and the only one to take place in the United States), this work has rarely been exhibited. Weitz’s seminal documentary is on view on DVD in the Walker exhibition galleries through June 12.
Beuys conceived one of the most compelling—and still provocative—aesthetic programs of the postwar period. His sculptures, performances, lectures, and political activism were all part of a grand, enormous goal: the transformation of Western culture into a more peaceful, democratic, and positive system. His famous slogan, “Everyone is an artist,” proposed that this could be achieved if only human beings would apply their innate creative energies to their current fields of endeavor. These were highly utopian aspirations, no doubt, but Beuys dedicated himself to them, hoping to reinvigorate society. While he counted debate, discussion, and teaching as part of his expanded definition of art, he also made objects, installations, multiples, and performances, which he called actions. His charismatic presence, his urgent and public calls for reform of all kinds, and his unconventional artistic style gained him international notoriety as well as strong skepticism during his lifetime. “That’s a funny thing about contemporary art,” Raymond says. “Sometimes the brilliance of artworks pass before our eyes like splatters of light, and sometimes they’re so far away that we need a telescope to see them. It’s a hard balance, but [curators] struggle every day to see, with the right distance, what needs to be seen at a given moment.”
Beuys was introduced to performance art in 1962 and soon viewed it as a medium with the potential for self-healing and social transformation. Though Fluxus artists and those creating Happenings often didn’t record their performances, Beuys understood that this early example of a durational piece needed to be documented. The action Coyote: I Like America and America Likes Me began the minute he arrived at New York City’s JFK airport. His feet barely touched American soil—he had himself wrapped in felt, put into an ambulance, and taken directly to the René Block Gallery in Soho, where he spent three days in a room with a coyote. Watching the evolving relationship between the artist and the animal, Raymond says, is “almost like going on a journey. A photograph wouldn’t show that; it’s fascinating to think of Beuys’ action as a situation ‘constructed’ for the camera.”