Beuys Is Here, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, East Sussex

As memories of Beuys fade, his work comes sharply into focus

Cut it how you will, the accumulator in Joseph Beuys's Table With Accumulator is a found object, which is to say that no one would ever claim that Beuys had made it. It is, if you are Duchamp-minded, a readymade. It is also by way of being a self-portrait: one of Beuys's early performances, in 1964, was called I am a transmitter: I radiate. Beuys turned accumulating into an art form; among the things he accumulated was this accumulator.

So far, so Beuys. Table With Accumulator is in a show at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill on Sea, surrounded by other Beuysian accumulations: in no particular order, a kitchen chair (Fat Chair), a ladder (Neapolitan Ladder), a campaign bed (Campaign Bed), a noiseless blackboard rubber and a green violin. (You can guess the names of those.) The image that greets you as you walk into the show is a photograph of the Great Accumulator himself in trademark fur coat and felt hat, blown up life-sized and transferred to canvas. This self-proclamation seems familiar and, if you are me, annoying. I've tried to like self-referential art – Annette Messager, Louise Bourgeois and the rest – but frankly I don't. And it all stems from Beuys and his self-mythologising, which puts him low on the list of Dead Artists I Wish I'd Met.

Until now. One of the problems with me-art is that you have to know the artist to get it, and that familiarity tends to fade with time. Tracey Emin's Bed will be quite a different thing when, 50 years from now, no one remembers who she was. And so, in spades, with Beuys. Remove from Table With Accumulator the Beuysian myth-ology – the tall tales of fighter pilotry and plane crashes, the rescue by Mongolian tribesmen, the performances and lectures and blackboards – and what are you left with but electrical equipment on a wooden table?

The answer, oddly, is a work that has nothing to do with myth but is still intensely moving. If you think of Beuys at all, it is probably as a phenomenon rather than as a formalist. There are materials that he made his own – notably, felt and fat – but the interest of these lay in their connection to the artist, who was allegedly wrapped in them by kindly Tartars. Without Beuys, his accumulator is just an accumulator. Except that the De La Warr's clever show quietly suggests this isn't true.

Roughly half the works in this show are paintings or drawings on paper. These are recognisably Beuys-like in tapping into some variant of the Jungian subconscious: Whale Trap looks as though it might be on a wall at Lascaux, say, while the For Brown Environment suite appears to have been painted in blood, very possibly from a stag. But remove Beuys's shamanising from these images and they still stand up as artworks – abstract, elegant, melancholic and, in the case of the two-part Physico-Chem-Time-Constellation 11:00 23:00, faintly Rothko-ish. Which is to say that Beuys, unexpectedly, was a maker of objects rather than simply a spinner of yarns; that it is possible to get his art without getting him.

I don't know if the curators set out to show this, but their emphasis on Beuys's two- dimensional work does make you look at his much more famous sculptures with a newly formalist eye. To the question, is Table With Accumulator anything more than what it says it is? The unexpected answer is yes – not just a relic of St Joseph, but an object which, suitably enough, exudes its own power. Leaving aside any Beuysian interest, the juxtaposition of copper and wood in the piece works like lead and acid in a battery: which is to say, it sets off a reaction that generates energy. So, too, with the accumulators and felt in Campaign Bed.

The upshot of this is a Beuys whose genius lies less in self-promotion than in an intuitive feel for materials and forms, an ability to see immanent power in unpromising things. Neopolitan Ladder, in a room of its own, may have some shamanistic meaning, but it may equally just be an exercise in tension and geometry: a long, rickety wooden ladder held obliquely aloft by guy-wires with lead weights on the end, a tenuous phallus with cartoon balls. As Beuys the man fades, so Beuys the artist emerges, more modest, less controlling and, to my mind, infinitely more likeable.

Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution