Shortly after MASS MoCA opened, I remember visiting with my one year old daughter and her sister. There were a handful of large scale sculptures in the vastly empty space, one of which was Joseph Beuys' Lightning with Stag in its Glare, The piece will be returned in March to Philadelphia Museum of Art after being in the North Adams museum for 25 years. Bueys was commissioned to create the piece by the Philadelphia Stock Exchange in 1985.
Over the span of that 25 years, I had returned to MASS MoCA repeatedly as a visitor, guide and art teacher for groups of children, disabled adults and seniors. It was ever present and those who didn't know Beuys' history and work, had trouble liking the piece.
Bueys had a reverence for Cubism as a German WWII fighter pilot. Cubism originated out of the first aerial topographic photos taken during WWI. He was brought to his own artistry through the immediacy of a near death experience in a transformative accident. When his plane was shot down over the mountains of Crimea in winter, he was nearly forgotten and left for dead. A family of Crimean peasants found him and took him back to their hut where they nursed him back to health through the winter months. They wrapped burns which covered 90% of his body in felt, bees' wax, animal fat from deer and goats they had hunted. As a result of this poor families' compassion and generosity, Beuys survived and became a changed man. He went on by attending the Düsseldorf arts academy from 1947-1951. Beuys transformed into an artist and a teacher, eventually moving to the United States, were he worked tirelessly towards: "the victory of socialist warmth and self-determination over materialist greed and alienation."
I know this, because I studied Bueys' life, work and writings closely while living in eastern Europe in the early 1990s. Those early studies always made me think I understood this sculpture so well. I now know that my understand of it was not fully realized until I recently became employed at MASS MoCA as their Visitor Experience Coordinator. That was when I found out that Bueys' sculpture would return to Philadelphia this spring. I began thinking how I had initially been drawn to the museum by that piece 21 years ago. I can't help wondering if Bueys' work had been waiting here for me all these years. If a sculpture is truly spiritual, perhaps it willed me here intentionally. Here, were I now have a daily presence, just at the moment his work is to leave.
To look at this sculpture again now, knowing what I know, it evokes the image of the body of a fighter plane as it crashes forcefully into the ground before exploding. Its not unlike becoming an artist which is less of a career choice and more of a mission. It is a profound decision to leave a painful past and create meaning from it. It's not a fancy or a whim, but a brave and tireless effort to emit beauty from the torments in life and find some peace.
If you manage to visit before Bueys' sculpture leaves, you will have the added benefit of seeing the piece surrounded by and beautifully juxtaposed to Marc Swanson's current installation A Memorial to Ice at the Dead Dear Disco, The two are paired so well together in the gallery space.
Yesterday, I told this story to a group of women who were visiting MASS MoCA from Boston for the first time. I realized it sounded too unbelievable and that I should write it down before I forgot. Bueys' mission has been served through MASS MoCA for a time and is now free to return home to the City of Brotherly Love.