Interview: Richard Demarco on Joseph Beuys

Arts patron Richard Demarco guides David Pollock through the work of the late Joseph Beuys, his long-time friend and one of the most important artists of the late 20th century

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A Friend Indeed

credit: George Oliver

'This is one of the most important pieces, look at this,' says Richard Demarco, pacing the length of one of the upper rooms of Modern 2 (formerly the Dean Gallery) at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art . He's just shown us Joseph Beuys' Naturgeschichte (Natural History), a relief piece of painted board inspired by the work of Max Ernst, which he calls 'the most exceptional concept of a drawing'. Now we're pacing over to a large photograph of Beuys, sombre and vaguely Bowie-ish in trilby and long fur coat, pictured with one of the sledges he used in The Pack, from his 1970 Edinburgh debut show Strategy Get Arts.

'I brought Beuys to Edinburgh because I wanted the Festival to be taken seriously,' says Demarco. 'This (The Pack) is about global warming. This,' he points to the sledges 'is what the human race will have to get used to in a world of no sunlight. This is all we'll have when cars are gone, and it's what the Edinburgh Festival will have to face up to. I find these pieces so beautiful, so touching.'

Demarco and the late Beuys, of course, had a singular history together, and with the former's home city of Edinburgh. Demarco, now an intense and curious 86, co-founded the original Traverse Theatre in 1963 and left for his own Demarco Gallery three years later; 25 years ago this year, in fact. It survived until 1992, despite funding cuts which he agrees may have been down to his presentation of a controversial work about the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in 1980.

Beuys, meanwhile, was arguably the most important artist of the late 20th century, a German former Luftwaffe pilot ('He joined up because he loved flying,' says Demarco, 'and he was mortified when he looked back on what had been done') who was instrumental in the Fluxus movement. In Demarco's words, Dada was a nonsensical post-WWI reaction to the madness of war, while Fluxus was a reaction to the darkness of a war which contained Auschwitz. He presented Beuys' work eight times in Edinburgh between 1970 and Beuys' death in 1986, although Demarco believes that everything Beuys created was a part of one single larger work.

Demarco is no lover of the contemporary art world, but he's here in Modern 2 to discuss two concurrent exhibitions which celebrate both Beuys's work and his relationship with Demarco and Edinburgh. He greets gallery assistants and visitors, asking them to sign their name and their thoughts in the red book he carries with him, laughing that no contemporary curator would do such a thing. 'The scientist's job is to discover something which already exists, and the artist's is to create something which does not,' he says, 'that's why the artist is more important, I believe.'

'Come downstairs, I'd like to show you something,' he says after almost an hour. It turns out that 'something' is a car ride away across the city at Summerhall – his own essential Beuys exhibition from his own archive, and a performance piece entitled Emballage, which responds to his archive and the work of Beuys, Marina Abramovic, Bobby Baker, Tadeusz Kantor and others contained therein.

'Two weeks before he died, we spoke for the last time on the phone,' says Demarco in the car. 'He told me he was going to turn my gallery into a work of art so I could sell it and escape the art world. The last words he said were, 'Goodbye Richard, I love you.' And I said them back. Now, what curator would say that to an artist these days? But he wasn't an artist. He was my friend.'

Joseph Beuys: A Language of Drawing, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art 2, until 30 Oct, free.
Richard Demarco and Joseph Beuys: A Unique Partnership, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art 2, until 16 Oct, free.
Joseph Beuys x 1000, Summerhall, until 30 Sep, free. Emballage, Summerhall, until 20 Aug (not 15), 2.15pm, £8 (£6).

Emballage

Leeds Beckett University, Richard Demarco Archive and Aletia Upstairs Emballage refers to Tadeusz Kantor’s concept of wrapping, a utilitarian action taken from the most mundane reality of everyday life. This outcome of an imaginative reworking of the Richard Demarco Archive is supported by Leeds Beckett University’s…

Artist Rooms: Joseph Beuys – A Language of Drawing

  • 3 stars

Joseph Beuys was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century and his drawings are among his most compressed and allusive works.

Richard DeMarco & Joseph Beuys: A Unique Partnership

Exhibition looking at the works created by seminal 20th century German artist Joseph Beuys in response to commissions from curator and gallerist Richard DeMarco, including works such as Sled, documentation of Beuys's action Celtic (Kinloch Rannoch) Scottish Symphony and other works.

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