at the Art Institute of Chicago, through April 24

When Joseph Beuys was alive, America didn’t know what to think of the quintessentially German artist. With his deathly stare and stylish derby, he conveyed both the intensity and the ridiculousness of Friedrich Nietzsche or some other 19th-century podium pounder. However, since his death in 1986, and especially since the opening of the exhibit “Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys” last year in New York, he has attained heroic status on these shores. Many critics have echoed the judgment of the New York Times’s Michael Kimmelman, who called Beuys “Europe’s most influential postwar artist.” They also repeat the story of the artist’s miraculous wartime rescue–Eskimos dragged him out of a wrecked plane and wrapped him in fat and felt to keep him warm, a story that has never been substantiated.

For me, the most familiar of his works–gray felt suits on wire hangers and grand pianos wrapped in gray felt–have a raffish, intuitively poetic charm that doesn’t require much thought. The notion of Beuys as a thinker, as someone who created art that embodies social, philosophical, and spiritual ideas, might impress some people, but it will intimidate a lot more. I finally felt more at ease with this exhibition once I stopped regarding it as the minor show of a major artist and started appreciating it as the comprehensive show of a truly smart but finally minor artist. I had to get over the feeling that I was seeing the tip of the iceberg, merely the drawings of an artist whose greatest achievements were his performance art pieces. In fact, everything anyone needs to know about Joseph Beuys is on display, and then some: the exhibit includes a videotape of Eurasia Staff, showing Beuys alone in a room going through some enigmatic maneuvers, and the Art Institute has installed a sculpture in the next gallery, his Rescue Sled, an assemblage incorporating a blanket, a sled, and a flashlight.

The show is organized chronologically, but a more useful way of looking at it might be to divide it into drawings, collages, and quasi drawings. Graphite pencil, the exhibit’s most common material in both senses of the word, is what distinguishes the drawings from the rest. Beuys handles a pencil with deceptive clumsiness. His point is perpetually dull, his line unsteady, so if you look at him in the continuum of German draftsmen–as the exhibit’s distracting anteroom begs you to–he seems not to know what he’s doing. Beuys proves himself, however, in his own little ways. As Thurston Moore, J Mascis, and others have tried to create a vocabulary out of the accidental and displeasing sounds an electric guitar can make, Beuys makes the pencil do things nobody else has wanted it to.

The pencil constantly underscores the viscosity and grittiness of the other media the artist uses. In Rubber Doll, Beuys replaces paint with such unorthodox substances as lampblack and Braunkreuz–one of the artist’s personal concoctions, made of industrial paint and some thickening agent. Another invented medium, Beize, which probably contains rust, finds its way into an untitled work called Salamander I (1958), a drawing that also has hare’s blood in it. (Call me perverse, but I prefer it when Beuys uses his own blood.) The way all this icky stuff seeps partway into the paper tells a story at least as interesting as the ones the pictures do.

Atomic Power Station (1960-’64), which features newspaper, and Tents in the Himalayas (1959), which is made up of squares of felt, are part of the collage tradition, and as such comment on this century’s easel-painting tradition though there is no paint in them. Artists incorporate scraps of the real world to play with issues of representation–is this a real newspaper or did he paint a newspaper? It’s an interesting game, but unfortunately it was played out long before Beuys.

Oleander (1960) at first seems to belong with the collages, but Beuys’s use of the collage elements repeats, in a more profound way, the irresistible explorations of material of Rubber Doll and Salamander I. Oleander’s two rectangles both contain, in the same positions, skull-shaped grease stains, cardboard rectangles with stray pencil marks, and dried leaves of the poisonous oleander plant, but within these identical frameworks there are infinite differences of tone and texture. Searching for the differences recalls the children’s game of comparing two nearly identical cartoons, but since Beuys’s drawing doesn’t illustrate anything, the differences are subtler and more difficult to articulate: you can’t say something as final as “the man is wearing a bow tie in one and a necktie in the other.” I found myself wondering if the specks were part of the drawing or part of the paper.

“Democracy Sings” is a series of 25 quasi drawings–I call them that since they often contain more text than image, and what images they do have are more diagrammatic than abstract or representational. These present comments and embryonic thoughts about various projects, written or typed on graph paper or blank paper, all but two of them stamped with the artist’s logo–a cross, the word Hauptstrom (“mainstream”), and assorted typographic dingbats all enclosed in a cricle. This device clearly lampoons romantic notions about the artist putting his personal stamp on the work: here’s my personal stamp, Beuys seems to say, you can borrow it and make an original Beuys. But as with many of his inventions, the question remains whether this is brilliant or merely clever. This time I think it’s the latter.

The projects connected to the “Democracy Sings” drawings, whether nontraditional sculpture or the performance pieces Beuys called Aktions, are based on ideas so simple that they really didn’t need any kind of blueprint. But then there would have been nothing to show for them. Beuys displayed nothing more than the need to display something. There is a difference between the concept such a drawing describes, which is often unremarkable, and the concept behind the drawings, which is original and provocative. To understand what makes this brilliant, you have to go back to Marcel Duchamp.

Duchamp invented conceptual art in 1934 with his Green Box, and though the revolution took nearly 30 years to kick in, after Duchamp gestures that would have been interpreted as pranks were respected as philosophical statements on art and life. By simply presenting in a green box his personal notes for the unclassifiable masterpiece Large Glass, Duchamp intended to remove what he called “the retinal aspect” from art, pioneering a form that invited participation in the ideas that went into an artwork’s creation. But he discovered that these scraps of paper had a fascinating retinal aspect in spite of themselves. The Philadelphia Museum of Art displays Green Box not next to Large Glass but on the other side of the room, and the box’s contents are displayed in a jumble, to be seen and not read.

Beuys took the same stunt to effectively overblown proportions when he preserved the actual chalkboards containing his chaotic notes after he gave lectures. One such untitled piece (called Sun State), was created before a live audience at the School of the Art Institute in 1974. With writing in English as well as diagrams, it shows that the language barrier is only one part of the difficulty American audiences have in understanding Beuys–much of which difficulty, by the way, is intentional.

They can call the exhibit whatever they want, but thinking should never be confused with form, and Beuys’s greatest achievement was not his thinking. He lectured passionately, quoted literature and philosophy constantly, and demonstrated a savvy in the European art world that clearly revealed some brains lurking beneath the ever-present derby. But he never came up with an original thought regarding the issues he claimed to care so much about. The writings, interviews, and lectures on record amount to a hodgepodge of disingenuous mysticism, nostalgic romanticism, quaint utopianism, and a morbid sense of humor. Luckily, we don’t ask our artists to be thinkers–which is not the same as saying we don’t want them to think.