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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Felt Suit

Photo: Susan Cole

Felt Suit


Joseph Beuys

German, 1921 - 1986

"The Felt Suit was an attempt to express two principles that were very important for my actions … on the one hand, (it) isolates a person from everybody else. On the other, it is a symbol of the isolation of human beings in our era."

Joseph Beuys speaking to Keto von Waberer quoted in Eine Innere Mongolei, p. 206)

Felt Suit is an autobiographical work of art, as the suit is modeled on the artist's own clothing. Joseph Beuys considered the material to be an extension of the self, and in his case a life-saving element that nomads used to warm him following an airplane crash during World War II. The suit hanging on a wall is like a hollow body portrait. Beuys used clothing to refer to the body and its physical absence, conjuring up notions of loss and nostalgia.
Wool felt
Jacket: 32 x 33 1/2 in. (81.3 x 114.3 cm)
Trousers: 45 x 18 in. (85.1 x 45.7 cm)
Gift of Joan and Roger Sonnabend
Provenance: Purchased from Obelisk Gallery, 1997
Photo: Susan Cole
Not currently on view

Every human being is an artist, a freedom being, called to participate in transforming and reshaping the conditions, thinking and structures that shape and condition our lives.

Joseph Beuys

Beuys on Felt Suit

Detail, 97.48
The following quotes are excerpted from a 1970 interview with Joseph Beuys by Jörg Schellman and Bernd Klüser, as reprinted in Joseph Beuys: The Multiples (Cambridge, Mass., Minneapolis, and Munich/New York: Harvard University Art Museums, Walker Art Center, and Edition Schellmann, 1997). 

S, K:   Why doesn't the Felt Suit have buttons?

B: Well, that was dictated by the character of felt. That occurred quite naturally. It was tailored after my own suit and I think the whole thing has to retain the character of felt, in the sense that felt doesn't strive to be smart, so to speak. One has to conserve the character, omit mere trifles, such as complicated buttons, buttonholes and so on, and if somebody wants to wear the suit, he can fasten it with safety pins.

S, K: Does the association with convicts' uniforms on which the buttons and braces have been cut off as a sign of disgrace apply?

B: Of course I thought of that, but there's no direct relation. It isn't meant to be a suit which people wear. The suit is meant to be an object which one is precisely not supposed to wear. One can wear it, but in a relatively short time it'll lose its shape because felt is not a material which holds a form. Felt isn't woven. It's pressed together usually from hare or rabbit hair. It's precisely that, and it isn't suited for buttonholes and the like.

Continue reading this interview by clicking on the second image below.
Detail of hanger, 97.48
S, K:   How should one take care of the Felt Suit?

B: I don't care. You can nail the suit to the wall. You can also hang it on a hanger, ad libitum! But you can also wear it or throw it into a chest.

S, K: Does the suit's felt material play the role of insulating the physical warmth of a person?

B:   The character of warming--yes, that's obvious. The Felt Suit is not just a gag. It's an extension of the felt sculptures I made during my performances. There, felt also appeared as an element of warmth or as an insulator. Felt was used in all the categories of warmth sculpture, usually in connection with fat: And it's a derivative of that. So it does have a bearing on the character of warmth.

Ultimately the concept of warmth goes even further. No even physical warmth, I could just as well have used an infrared light in my performances. Actually I mean a completely different kind of warmth, namely spiritual warmth or the beginning of an evolution.

The Role of Memory in the Work of Suh, Kiefer and Beuys

Photo: Paul Macapia
Die Welle (The Wave), 1990, Anselm Kiefer
Three artists with works on view at SAM use clothing as a metaphor for loss and tragedy in somber times: Do-Ho Suh, Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys. The work of contemporary artist Do-Ho Suh follows in the tradition of German post-war artists like Kiefer and Beuys, whose works often deal with the legacy of Nazism. All three artists conjure up complex and ambiguous narratives that allow multiple interpretations.

In Die Welle, 1990, Anselm Kiefer uses children's clothing to imagine a major catastrophe based on the powerful emotional punch of lost innocence or young lives cut short. These articles of clothing, which include an older-woman's dress (the mother?), are strewn about and hang amid a painterly landscape of cracked earth and mangled metal.
Felt Suit, 1978, Joseph Beuys, 97.48
Joseph Beuys' Felt Suit represents an Everyman, using just this closet remnant to stand in for a life lived. Like Do-Ho Suh, Beuys uses materials that are charged with personal symbolism. His suit is made from the thick felt of army blankets, a material that provides warmth and comfort amid conditions that are likely to be unfriendly. 
Photo: Paul Macapia
Some/One, 2001, Do-Ho Suh, 2002.43
In Some/One, Do-Ho Suh uses a disembodied robe to conjure up a similarly transcendental being, built from the existence, or maybe the loss, of thousands of men, symbolized by the dog tags. The viewer is able to project him- or herself into the mirrored interior of this garment, which can be seen to be rising from the floor or melting into it. 

The Symbolism of Clothing

The use of clothing that is devoid of a human body is a powerful image used by Joseph Beuys as well as other contemporary artists, like Anselm Kiefer and Do-Ho Suh. At times suggesting loss and the absence of the body, Beuys uses clothing to build metaphors that relate to his personal experiences. 
I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974, Joseph Beuys
Photo © Caroline Tisdall
© 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York


Exhibition HistorySeattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, "Anselm Kiefer and Germanic Tradition",
June 4, 1999 - January 2, 2000

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, "Anselm Kiefer and the Germanic Tradition", June 4, 1999 - January 2, 2000, (6/4/99-1/2/2000)

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