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"The generation of energy means the production of warmth and hence the link with social sculpture."
     -Joseph Beuys

In 1977, Beuys created a monumental installation for documenta 6, the international exhibition of contemporary art held every five years in Kassel, Germany. Entitled Honeypump in the Workplace, it pumped two tons of honey through plastic tubing, using motors lubricated with over 200 pounds of margarine. It was in action throughout the 100 days of the exhibition and Beuys intended it to be seen as a metaphorical circulation system, absorbing and distributing the energy generated by the lectures, discussions, and seminars that were happening during the exhibition. Honeypump was the embodiment of his idea that energy (in this case, honey) and heat (generated by the machine's motion) are symbolically connected to the notion of social sculpture.

Beuys often cited energy and warmth as important concepts in his sculpture. The two are closely connected physical phenomena--heat is in fact a kind of energy and is often produced in tandem with other kinds of energy, such as light and motion. But for Beuys they also were powerful metaphors suggestive of the transformation, both spiritual and physical, that he felt contemporary culture needed to undergo.

Beuys chose many of his sculptural materials based on his interest in their relationship to energy or warmth. Felt, one of his signature materials, is an insulator and Beuys often used it to suggest the preservation or absorption of heat and energy. Placed over a television screen as in Felt TV (1970), or encasing a reel of audio tape in Ja Ja Ja Ja Ja, Nee Nee Nee Nee Nee (1969), it both silences and absorbs the communication; wrapped around an iron rod in Samurai Sword (1983), it insulates and neutralizes what Beuys might have characterized as the negative energy of the metal.

Two other favorite materials, fat and honey, can be converted into energy if eaten. Beuys especially relished fat because it alternates between liquid and solid states with the presence or absence of heat, and thus embodies the move from chaos to form that was basic to his theory of sculpture. For him this physical mutation was similar to the flexibility of "inner processes and feelings." Beuys' multiples include fat in the form of margarine, tallow, and butter. Some emphasize the material's ability to retain an image, as in Fingernail Impression in Hardened Butter (1971), and others, such as from Kunstlerpost (1969), simply present a lump of fat as an offering of pure, potential energy.

In batteries, energy is transformed (from chemical to electrical) as well as stored, and these qualities led Beuys to use the battery as an image in many of his large-scale sculptures. Most notable is the Fond series, in which materials with dissimilar properties, usually copper and felt, are placed in proximity to one another to create a metaphorical "electrical charge."

One of his most lighthearted multiples is Capri Battery (1985), a yellow lightbulb in a portable socket that is "plugged into" a lemon. Beuys made it during the last year of his life while he was recovering from a lung ailment on the Mediterranean island of Capri. Electricity seems to flow from the fruit, lighting up the bulb and producing a curative "charge" for Beuys' own weakened system. With its bright yellow color alluding to the sunny landscape of southern Italy, the battery suggests that a marriage of art, science, and nature can nourish and heal an ailing culture (or individual) with an almost magical energy.

-Joan Rothfuss,
     Walker Art Center curator

Capri Battery
Joseph Beuys Capri Battery, 1985
lightbulb with plug socket, lemon
Alfred and Marie Greisinger Collection, Walker Art Center, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1992
(c)1997 Estate of Joseph Beuys/ARS, NY

Next gallery guide


Temkin, Ann and Bernice Rose. Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys. Philadelphia and New York: Philadelphia Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, 1993.

Volker, Harlan, Rainer Rappmann, and Peter Schata. Soziale Plastik: Materialen zu Joseph Beuys. Achberg: Achberger Verlag, 1976.