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.