Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, Germany. Courtesy of SFMoMA.
One day in 1974, the German Conceptual artist Joseph Beuys arrived by plane in New York City, where he was met by assistants who wrapped him in a large piece of felt, placed him in an ambulance, and delivered him to the René Block Gallery in SoHo. Beuys had flown in for an important meeting: Awaiting the artist in the enclosed, if well-lit, gallery space, was a live coyote.
So began his famous performance work, I Like America and America Likes Me. For three consecutive days, Beuys would spend eight hours living and communing with the coyote, which had been transported to the city after some legal finagling. Opting to get up close and personal with a wild animal may seem peculiar, but for an artist whose past works had included one in which the main event was Beuys cradling a dead hare, this was nothing very out of character.
By 1974, Beuys was one of Germany’s most well-known and provocative living artists, recognized for artworks that often involved considerable quantities of felt and animal fat, owing to his personal history as a German fighter pilot. (In 1944, after his plane crashed while he was stationed as a rear-gunner in the Crimea, a nomadic Tatar tribesman in the area found him and wrapped him in animal fat and felt to protect and insulate him—so the story went, and Beuys was known to indulge in a fair bit of self-mythologizing.)
Felt and fat became therapeutic symbols for Beuys, part of his shamanic toolkit that would help him to heal and regenerate society’s psychic wounds through artistic gestures and communication. Felt would play a key role in I Like America and America Likes Me, which was one example of what he called his “social sculptures,” actions intended to change society for the better. Beuys believed that “everyone is an artist” with the ability and agency to transform the world around them.
With I Like America and America Likes Me, Beuys wanted to begin a national dialogue. While its patriotic title recalls the popular myth of the United States as a “melting pot” where people of all backgrounds can co-exist harmoniously, Beuys saw in 1970s America a nation divided over its involvement in the Vietnam War and, particularly, a country whose white population oppressed indigenous, immigrant, and minority populations.
According to an essay by the author and art critic David Levi Strauss, Beuys sought to confront in American society “the schism between native intelligence and European mechanistic, materialistic, and positivistic values.”
And in some Native American lores and beliefs, the powerful coyote represents both the possibility of transformation and the archetypal trickster. In certain creation myths, the coyote takes on a Promethean role, teaching humans how to survive. As Levi Strauss also noted, the author of a 1983 book on coyotes compared their resilience to the resistance of the Vietnamese soldier—an equivalence that Beuys would have appreciated.
Despite the coyote being represented as an aggressive predator (and, amazingly, as an intruder) by European settlers and their descendents, who sought to eliminate it, to Beuys, it was America’s spirit animal.
“You could say that a reckoning has to be made with the coyote, and only then can this trauma be lifted,” he said of his performance. For those three days, he attempted to make eye contact with the coyote while regularly performing symbolic gestures, such as tossing his leather gloves to it or gesticulating wildly at it with his hands and walking stick. Occasionally, he would assume the guise of a shepherd, cloaked in his felt with a hooked walking stick protruding from it.
Documentation of the action suggests that the coyote’s behavior was alternately curious and rather nonplussed, oscillating at various times between hostile and docile. But Beuys was unperturbed. Whether the coyote stripped his felt from him with its powerful jaws or allowed him a brief embrace, the artist persisted in his attempts to connect with the creature right up until the final hours of the performance—when he was bundled up again and delivered back to the airport to return to Europe.
The lesson from Beuys’s strange performance? That American society could only begin to cure its social ills through direct communication and understanding among its own varied populations. His homage to an ancient American animal deity underscored exactly how young the country was, and that difficult dialogues were of utmost importance if it was to heal its rifts.
As for the coyote, the spirit animal has adapted and thrived, even as the United States has attempted to control the population, killing tens of thousands of the species each year. While America’s divisions have yet to be solved—and its transgressions, some might say, continue in equal measure—the coyote remains a symbol of its resilience and, perhaps, of its potential for transformation.
May 4–8, 2018, Park Avenue Armory