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Joseph Beuys: 40 Years of Drawing – A Legacy of Artistic Innovation and Expression

19 April - 2024
by Vincent Moleveld
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In the bustling heart of London at Thaddaeus Ropac's Ely House, a seminal exhibition titled "Joseph Beuys: 40 Years of Drawing" presents a remarkable collection of nearly 100 works on paper from the Joseph Beuys family. This marks the first major exhibition dedicated solely to the artist’s drawings in London in two decades, offering a unique insight into the creative evolution of one of the most influential figures in post-war art.

Exhibition Overview

Running from January 19 to March 22, 2023, with an opening event on January 18, this exhibition spans four decades of Beuys's artistic output. From his early representational works in the 1940s and 1950s to the conceptual sketches of the mid-1960s, the showcase reflects a radical shift in his practice. These drawings became integral to his performances and sculptural works in the subsequent decades, demonstrating his unique approach to art as a multi-faceted dialogue between visual forms and thematic content.

Installation view ofJoseph Beuys: 40 Years of Drawingat Thaddaeus Ropac London. 19January–22 March 2023. Photo: Eva Herzog. © Joseph Beuys Estate / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn,2023. Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac gallery, London · Paris · Salzburg · Seou
Installation view ofJoseph Beuys: 40 Years of Drawingat Thaddaeus Ropac London. 19January–22 March 2023. Photo: Eva Herzog. © Joseph Beuys Estate / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn,2023. Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac gallery, London · Paris · Salzburg · Seoul

Curatorial Insights by Antony Gormley

In a special highlight of the exhibition, contemporary artist Antony Gormley curates a standalone room featuring Beuys’s drawings in conversation with his own works on paper. This segment, titled "SENSE: Beuys / Gormley," underscores the lasting impact of Beuys’s legacy on current artistic practices. Gormley himself has remarked on the profound connection both artists share with drawing as a fundamental, physical form of thinking and expression.

Installation view ofJoseph Beuys: 40 Years of Drawingat Thaddaeus Ropac London. 19January–22 March 2023. Photo: Eva Herzog. © Joseph Beuys Estate / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn,2023. Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac gallery, London · Paris · Salzburg · Seou
Installation view ofJoseph Beuys: 40 Years of Drawingat Thaddaeus Ropac London. 19January–22 March 2023. Photo: Eva Herzog. © Joseph Beuys Estate / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn,2023. Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac gallery, London · Paris · Salzburg · Seou


The Philosophy of Drawing

Unlike many artists who view drawings as preparatory sketches, Beuys saw the act of drawing as a primary vehicle for conceptual development. This philosophy is echoed in the exhibition’s diverse range of mediums, including pencil, watercolor, and collaged organic matter, enriched with symbolic pigments like Braunkreuz. These materials are not merely artistic tools but are laden with symbolic meanings, from fertility to spiritual transformation.

Installation view ofJoseph Beuys: 40 Years of Drawingat Thaddaeus Ropac London. 19January–22 March 2023. Photo: Eva Herzog. © Joseph Beuys Estate / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn,2023. Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac gallery, London · Paris · Salzburg · Seou
Installation view ofJoseph Beuys: 40 Years of Drawingat Thaddaeus Ropac London. 19January–22 March 2023. Photo: Eva Herzog. © Joseph Beuys Estate / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn,2023. Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac gallery, London · Paris · Salzburg · Seou


Highlights and Historical Context

The exhibition is not just a display of artistic talent but a deep dive into the thematic and material innovations that characterized Beuys's work:

  • Early Works: Drawings and plant collages from the 1940s reveal Beuys's interest in the interconnectedness of humans, animals, and the environment, often using animal symbols to explore themes of trauma and healing post-World War II.
  • Political and Spiritual Themes: The 1950s and 1960s saw Beuys delving into spiritual and political motifs, notably through his engagement with the Fluxus movement and his conceptual sketches for performances that often addressed the ideological divide in Germany.
  • Public Engagement: The 1970s marked a shift as Beuys extended his canvas to the public sphere, using blackboards in live lectures to perform what he termed ‘auditive drawing’, thus further blurring the lines between art, teaching, and activism.

Installation view ofJoseph Beuys: 40 Years of Drawingat Thaddaeus Ropac London. 19January–22 March 2023. Photo: Eva Herzog. © Joseph Beuys Estate / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn,2023. Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac gallery, London · Paris · Salzburg · Seou
Installation view ofJoseph Beuys: 40 Years of Drawingat Thaddaeus Ropac London. 19January–22 March 2023. Photo: Eva Herzog. © Joseph Beuys Estate / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn,2023. Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac gallery, London · Paris · Salzburg · Seou

Legacy and Influence

Joseph Beuys’s work remains a crucial point of reference for understanding the role of art in societal transformation. His approach, deeply rooted in humanism and social philosophy, continues to inspire a broad spectrum of artists and activists today. The exhibition offers a comprehensive overview of Beuys's career, from his early explorations in drawing to his later works, which revisited and reimagined these themes within his broader practice of ‘social sculpture’.

As we celebrate the breadth of Joseph Beuys’s career through "Joseph Beuys: 40 Years of Drawing," visitors are invited to explore the profound narrative layers and innovative artistic techniques that have firmly established Beuys as a pivotal figure in modern and contemporary art. This exhibition not only commemorates the artist's vast contributions but also stimulates ongoing dialogue about the power of art to enact and inspire change.


Relevant: A Complete list of the Top 100 Contemporary Artists