When Joseph Beuys died, earlier this year, the question arose as to what would happen to his reputation now that he himself was no longer around. With his unforgettable appearance, his status as the ultimate antiestablishment man in an ever more conformist age and the beautiful open courtesy with which he would treat those who sought to make mock of him, he was the indispensable leaven in a world that, without him, seems to have all too much unrisen dough.
He also had a genius for the installation that was without precedent and immediately acquired mythical status. A prime example of this was the piece called »I Like America and America Likes Me,» which opened with minimal prior announcement at the Rene Block Gallery in New York in May 1974. In this, Beuys stationed himself all day (and, for all we knew, all night) in the gallery. Behind a protective barrier of wire netting, he stood or sat, wrapped from head to foot in a huge blanket of felt. All that designated him as a human being was the crooked staff that peeked out of the top of the blanket and, on occasion, a movement this way or that.
In the cage with him were some piles of straw, a heap of copies of The Wall Street Journal of the day, a battered old hat from the best hatter in London and – here was the surprise – a live coyote that had been shipped into town for the run of the show after complicated legal negotiations. The coyote and Joseph Beuys formed, beyond a doubt, as odd a couple as we had ever seen.
Between them, harmony reigned, even if the coyote did once bite the thumb off one of Beuys’s gloves. Man and pariah were mates, for just a week or two. A strand of Beuys’s hair and a twist of the coyote’s hung side by side on the wall. The nearness of man and animal could be read as a metaphor for open-mindedness and freedom from prejudice in all human affairs – and for a readiness to embrace an unfamiliar country in its every aspect. Though reprobated in the dictionary as a carrion eater and four-legged garbage truck, the coyote came on at the Rene Block Gallery as sensitive, playful, memorably quick and sharp in its reactions and capable of something that, if not affection, was a very good imitation of it. We came away with new ideas about bonding and a wish to see more of Joseph Beuys.
Five years later, Beuys mounted a piece called »News From the Coyote» to mark the disappearance of the Rene Block Gallery in West Berlin. This piece now belongs to the Dia Art Foundation in New York. Together with another installation, owned by the Guggenheim Museum but never on view there, it is the key piece in the present show at the Ronald Feldman Gallery. (With the Dayton Gallery in Minneapolis, Ronald Feldman sponsored »I Like America and America Likes Me» in 1974 and has championed Beuys ever since.) »News From the Coyote» harks back to the earlier piece, though it is in no sense a replay of it. When Beuys himself installed it in 1979, he included some souvenirs of the earlier piece – the original staff, the original hat, the original strand and twist of hair, the original blanket and the original, much-bitten gloves. He also included the triangle that he had struck from time to time in 1974 with a strange sacramental effect.