2 sep 2020

The day Joseph Beuys did Düsseldorf – New York in an ambulance

On 23 May 1974, Joseph Beuys left his home in Düsseldorf, Germany, wrapped in a felt blanket, and was transported by ambulance to the airport where he boarded a flight to JFK.

By Éric Troncy.

Illustration by Soufiane Ababri.

Wheelchairbound, he was again conveyed by ambulance – without ever physically touching American soil – to the René Block Gallery at 409 West Broadway where, for three days, he locked himself in a large metal cage with a wild coyote. 



This historic performance has often been exaggerated in retellings (as though that were necessary).



During his 72 hours in its company, Beuys – still wrapped in the felt cloth, wearing gloves and a felt hat he didn’t once take off, and armed with a cane, a flashlight, a tape player and a triangle – learned to share the space with the animal, under the curious gaze of gallery visitors (a few hundred at the most, thankfully without smartphones). Every day, 50 copies of The Wall Street Journal were placed in the cage on which the coyote pissed with admirable regularity (as well as on the felt blanket), its behaviour going from belligerent to indifferent to “friendly.”


Entitled I Like America and America Likes Me, Beuys’s performance has often been exaggerated in retellings (as though that were necessary); perhaps our admiration for great works makes us want them to be even more spectacular, or maybe truth isn’t a prerequisite for art. At the end of the three days, Beuys, still wrapped in the felt blanket, returned to JFK by ambulance and flew back to Düsseldorf.