For some, the work of the German artist Joseph Beuys is easy to dismiss. As they are preserved in museums, his installations can seem like mere debris strewn across a floor. The highly praised 2017 film “The Square” contains a running gag about an art work that’s nothing but piles of rocks, which keeps getting swept up by the cleaning staff of a museum; it’s clearly a poke at Beuys.
As is the case with many conceptual artists, Beuys’s work was best understood with Beuys’s actual presence attached to it. But Beuys has been dead since 1986. This documentary, directed by Andres Veiel using mostly archival footage, makes a strong case for Beuys, emphasizing the social conscience at work in his art more than the postmodern prankishness.
Beuys (pronounced “boys”), whose thin, high-cheekboned face never seemed to age (as a German pilot in World War II he was wounded more than once, perhaps necessitating plastic surgery; the film implies as much) almost always sported a fedora as he made pronouncements like “Anything can be art, especially anything that conserves energy.” As both performance artist and art teacher, he often comes off as a happy warrior: “Give me a place to stand and I’ll move the earth.”
But the film chronicles the crippling depression and isolation that Beuys suffered in the 1950s as he struggled to formulate his voice. His drawings from that time, the only really “traditional” art he accomplished, are harrowing, haunting. Even if you don’t need Beuys justified or explained to you, the movie is an exhilarating portrait of a unique truth-teller.