“It’s all about the fat.”—Mark C. Taylor on Fat Chair, by Joseph Beuys
In Refiguring the Spiritual: Beuys, Barney, Turrell, Goldsworthy, Mark C. Taylor explores these four artists’, whose work, unlike that of Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, or Takashi Murakami, “makes absolutely no economic sense. Indeed, this work is designed not to be marketable.
In four separate chapters, Taylor discusses works by Beuys, Barney, Turrell, and Goldsworthy. In the opening to his chapter on Beuys, Taylor considers his Fat Chair. Here’s an excerpt:
It’s all about the fat: the way it looks, smells, feels—the way it oozes and seeps, jiggles and ripples, molds and melts—the way it is stored and burnt. During an era in which art was becoming ever more abstract and, thus, increasingly thin, Beuys made art fat. Real fat. Fat is one of the most unlikely materials with which to make art. Traditionally associated with excess and waste, fat is supposed to be slimmed, trimmed, and eliminated; it is unseemly, inelegant, and ugly. There is something gross, even grotesque about fat. Far from aesthetically appealing, fat is undeniably abject. Yet fat is vital to life: while too much fat can be fatal, bodies live by metabolizing fat to create the energy necessary for bodily functions. The transformational process through which material substance becomes the immaterial is the alchemy of life.
In 1963 Beuys completed one of his first works in which he used fat: Stuhl mit Fett (Fig. 2.1). “My intention in using fat,” he explains, “was to stimulate discussion” about sculpture and culture. Beuys is intrigued by fat precisely because it is “not associated with art.” Indeed, fat would seem to be about as anti-art as a material can be. There are, however, precedents for associating—albeit indirectly—fat and art. By titling his work Stuhl mit Fett (Chair with fat), Beuys shows that he is fully aware of the psychoanalytic connotations of fat:
The fat on the “Fat Chair” is not geometric, as in the “Fat Corners” but keeps something of its chaotic character. The ends of the wedges read like a cross section cut through the nature of fat. I placed it on the chair to emphasize this, since here the chair represents a kind of human anatomy, the area of digestive and excretive warmth processes, sexual organs and interesting chemical change, relating psychologically to will power. In German the joke is compounded as a pun since Stuhl (chair) is also a polite way of saying shit (stool), and that too is a used and mineralized material with chaotic character, reflected in the texture of the cross section of fat.
Sublimation can be psychological as well as alchemical. Beuys does not deny that art is, in effect, shit, but his governing interests are philosophical—even theological—rather than psychoanalytic. As the material embodiment of chaos, fat is the reserve from which created form emerges.