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ART REVIEW

Shining his own light

Immendorff stands up in the glare of Beuys’s installation

An untitled piece made in 2005 by Jörg Immendorff shows Joseph Beuys standing in the woods under a full moon, holding the hand of a monkey. An untitled piece made in 2005 by Jörg Immendorff shows Joseph Beuys standing in the woods under a full moon, holding the hand of a monkey.
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / October 17, 2010

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NORTH ADAMS — It’s not easy to share a gallery with Joseph Beuys. The 20th-century German artist was mythic, working on a grand scale and steeping his installations and performances in symbolism. His installation at Mass MoCA, “Lightning with Stag in its Glare,’’ features at its center a dark, bleakly imposing, bronze bolt of lightning — hardly light at all, more its antithesis — and fills half a cavernous gallery. The challenge has been what to put in the other half.

Sensibly enough, the museum has chosen artists influenced by Beuys. First, they hung mammoth rutted paintings by Anselm Kiefer across from “Lightning with Stag in its Glare.’’ The Kiefer works fit: The paintings looked like blood-soaked fields after a battle, spacious and elemental enough to spar with Beuys’s work, whose lightning could easily have touched down in one of Kiefer’s epic fields.

Now come paintings by Jörg Immendorff, a student and acolyte of Beuys’s at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, and, like Kiefer, a major German artist. “Jörg Immendorff: Student of Beuys, 6 Paintings’’ sets up a more intimate, human-scaled dialogue between the two men, both of whom took the artist’s imperative for social activism as gospel.

Where Beuys eschewed painting, Immendorff, who died in 2007, chose it as his primary medium. He expertly created complex spaces in his paintings, with theatrical lighting, garish colors, and assertive brushwork. Immendorff, too, worked out personal and societal myths in his art, populating his paintings with figures from German politics, art, and history. Beuys appears in each one of these six paintings, sometimes identifiable only by his trademark fedora and fishing vest.

“Sonnentor (Sun Gate),’’ was painted in 1994, as Immendorff approached 50, eight years after Beuys’s death. Still, the teacher looms large in this work, beside his smaller student. He’s an architectural form, housing several floors, many of his own works, and a cadre of busy curatorial types running up and down ladders from level to level. A plank runs from Beuys’s head to Immendorff’s own; a few ideas in the form of art and people appear to be crossing that bridge.

In a Beuysian manner, Immendorff packs the painting with symbols. A bee-shaped vessel is both a symbol for socialism (think of those worker bees!) and a signifier Immendorff used for himself. The two artists are on a stage — a site of heightened narrative. Mao, whom Immendorff admired, is in an upper balcony, tossing leaflets to the crowd. The stage floor has been etched with male and female genitalia, morphing back and forth. A drawing suspended between teacher and student depicts a dog peeing on a rose; Beuys used the rose as a symbol for grassroots activism.

This would all be a little heavy-handed if the paintings were less dynamic. Most of them are brash and angry, tense with taut lines and graphic punch. Figures pop out with fierce muscularity and dour expressions, as in an R. Crumb cartoon. The spaces they inhabit are characters in themselves.

“Marcel’s Erlosung (Marcel’s Salvation)’’ (1988) is set in a bowling alley of a saloon-gallery, with pictures hung on walls extending deep into the distance. In this setting, Beuys cordially leans forward to light Marcel Duchamp’s cigar. Duchamp sits on a red sofa, contemplating a game of chess. Immendorff appears as a waiter behind the sofa, holding a tray with two glasses.

Beuys was a critic of Duchamp’s. Here, Immendorff is almost like a child imagining a reunion of divorced parents. But he also captures the tension between these two artists in a foreground gesture of looping, illuminated whips, each topped off with a hat: one with Beuys’s fedora, the other with Duchamp’s jester’s cap. They tangle and glow, suggesting a cross-current sparked by the combined genius of the two artists.

I’m struck by the sheer cockiness of Immendorff’s paintings. Beuys saw the artist’s role as that of a shaman, someone who manipulates potent symbols to achieve social awakening. There’s a self-importance, a degree of cultivated egotism to that role that you can read in his work and in Immendorff’s.

The rugged lightning bolt — a symbol of inspiration — is the centerpiece of Beuys’s “Lighting with Stag in its Glare.’’ The stag — a symbol of resurrection — appears abstracted in aluminum. A goat, in the form of a metal cart, grazes nearby. Little squirmy bronze casts with tiny tool-like heads rest all over the floor, and a metal tripod with a scabrous box atop it is the resting place for a compass. This last element has its own name: “Boothia Felix,’’ after a strip of land in Canada where the north magnetic pole was first located.

It’s a daunting piece about illumination, creativity, and regeneration. I like its most tender element, the little bronze worms on the floor, helpless as newborns. In most of his paintings here, Immendorff misses that soft spot. Then there’s one — an untitled piece made in 2005, a gorgeous, quiet painting — of Beuys in the woods standing under a pale, full moon, holding the hand of a monkey. To Immendorff, the monkey represented an alter ego, fresh and intuitive. The others paintings, though accomplished, demandingly grab you by the shoulders and shake you. For all the mastery of space, tone, and action in those, this quieter one welcomes you in to have your own experience. That’s truly masterful.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at cmcq@speakeasy.net

JÍRG IMMENDORFF:

Student of Beuys, 6 Paintings

At: Mass MoCA, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams, through May 1, 2011. 413-662-2111, www.massmoca.org