History of Art
180 Tappan Hall, 855 S. University, Ann Arbor
It is widely assumed that artists who pursued a genuinely radical political agenda in the 1960s abandoned painting and sculpture and moved into non-object based forms of work. This lecture seeks to complicate this now conventional understanding of the correlation between political activism and committed artistic practice by comparing two artists, Joseph Beuys and Asger Jorn, both strongly motivated by a radical agenda, who played out their commitments in rather different ways. Beuys responded to the countercultural imperatives of the 1960s by moving from a way of working based on the making of sculptural objects to one that was much more diverse and hybrid, in which the staging of actions or ephemeral events played a key role. By contrast, the Danish artist Asger Jorn, a fairly close contemporary of Beuys, and if anything more politically motivated than Beuys – he was a founding member of the Situationist International – responded rather differently to the political temper of the times. He persisted with the semi-figurative, semi-abstract gestural form of painting he had fashioned in the 1950s. If there was a deeply lodged, widely shared commitment shaping politicised artistic practices at the time, it was not a straightforward formal imperative to fashion alternative, non-object-based kinds of work, but rather a larger necessity felt by artists working in quite diverse ways to fashion an art that would resist being accommodated as mere art. Art of any real significance, it seemed, also had to be non art. Negotiating this paradox was something that Jorn and Beuys shared, for all the visible differences in their way of working.