“Any blackboard which exists is done in a kind of performance or dialogue with many people...The drawing I do principally in public constellation, never when I am alone. I never work with a blackboard with me alone.” Joseph Beuys
Executed in January 1974, Chikago is a landmark blackboard work created by Joseph Beuys during a lecture on his first trip to the USA. Displaying chalked words that represent many of the key themes underpinning his practise, the blackboard shows the ruminations of one of the most compelling and provocative artists of the 20th century. In addition, it commemorates a turning-point in the artist’s relationship with America. By this point in his career, Beuys’s reputation as Germany’s leading artist was firmly established in Europe. He was less well-known across the Atlantic, having refused to visit America on previous occasions because of his objections to the Vietnam War. The 1974 visit was therefore instrumental in introducing his seminal artistic ideology to a more global audience.
After accepting an invitation from Ronald Feldman, who ran a gallery in New York, and John Stoller, the director of Dayton’s Gallery
12 in Minneapolis, Beuys chose to make his American debut with a lecture tour, which he titled “Energy Plan for the Western Man.” Over ten days, he visited colleges in New York, Minneapolis and Chicago, giving talks that lasted for several hours to packed-out rooms at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and the University of Minnesota. Chikago is one of only three blackboards used during these lectures that were preserved; the other two are in the collection of the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Ever since the 1960s, Beuys had used blackboards both as a tool to illustrate his ideas during performances, and as a lasting record of the event. Creativity, Beuys believed, was not limited to those practicing within traditional art forms, it should be used to influence the world in which we live. He called this theory “social sculpture”—words that are written at the upper right hand corner of Chikago. Other words and phrases inlcuding “Warmth sculpture” can be seen written at the top center of the blackboard. Beuys used ideas of “warmth” and “energy” in his work as a metaphor for the creative empowerment that art should impart on the viewer and on wider society. The phrase is connected by a spine-like form to the word “Enterprise,” which indicates his belief in art as a catalyst for development. The harmonious constellation of lines, words and images that tangle across the blackboard can even be understood as a symbol of Beuys’ ideal state, where democracy and culture are intimately connected to each other.
Since his association with the international Fluxus movement in the 1960s, action had assumed a central position within Beuys’s thinking. “It was simply impossible for human beings to bring their creative intention into the world any other way than through action,” he once pointed out to an interviewer. (J. Beuys, via www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/joseph-beuys-actions-vitrines-environments/joseph-beuys-actions). His talks were not like traditional lectures; they were frequently interactive, involving discussion with the audience. Indeed, Beuys saw the blackboards as illustrations of collaborations as well visual vehicles for his own ideas. “Any blackboard which exists is done in a kind of performance or dialogue with many people...The drawing I do principally in public constellation, never when I am alone. I never work with a blackboard with me alone” (J. Beuys, quoted in “Joseph Beuys and the Language of Drawing,” in A. Temkin ed., Thinking is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys, exh. cat. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1993, p. 108).
Yet the blackboard’s obvious associations with education also worked to differentiate the artist from the audience. By using one, Beuys clearly distinguished himself as an instructor and leader. Teaching was always important to him—he once told an interviewer that “To be a teacher is my greatest work of art” (J. Beuys, quoted in W. Sharp, “An Interview with Joseph Beuys,” Artforum, December 1969). He expanded this idea of the artist as pedagogue greatly during the 1970s, when his work became more explicitly didactic and political. In 1971, he founded the Organisation for Direct Democracy through Referendum, which argued for decision making through referendums rather than political parties. The next year, he was dismissed from his position as Professor of Monumental Sculpture at the Academy of Art in Düsseldorf, where he had taught for over a decade, for refusing to limit the numbers of students that could attend his classes and insisting on no entry fee. On his return from America in February 1974, he co-founded the Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research (FIU), which continues to run today. At the end of the decade, he helped found the German Green party.
Beuys toured extensively throughout the 1970s, expounding his theories on art, politics and the environment in talks and exhibitions in which blackboards played a key part. Fusing thought, image, action and education, they were a concrete demonstration of how creativity could be communicated in order to effect social and political change. The “Energy Plan for the Western Man” was Beuys’ emphatic attempt to impress upon Americans the conviction that had long guided his life and work: creativity was the key to change, and it had to be inclusive. Speaking to the crowd gathered at The New School for Social Research in New York, he said, “I’m not here to speak about the particular problems of artists, but about the whole question of potential, the possibility that everybody can do his own particular kind of art and work for the new social organization. Creativity is national income” (J. Beuys, quoted in C. Tisdall, “Energy Plan for the Western Man,” Joseph Beuys in America: Energy Plan for the Western Man, New York, 1993, p. 8).