Among the most widely recurring figures in Beuys’s art, the cross is a sign that he invested with a wide range of meanings.
In its elongated form, it speaks of his interest in Christianity, which he approached from the perspective of 1 Rudolf Steiner. For Steiner, the coming of Jesus Christ marked a turning point in human history. Preaching the need for personal salvation in the eyes of God, Christ ushered in an era of self-determination, in which the sorrows of existence could only be transcended through a strengthening of the individual ego. As such, the cross became a sign, in Beuys’s eyes, for the powers of individual freedom. 2
In its equilateral form, the cross in Beuys’ work acquires the further connotations of danger, healing and holistic unity. Typically appearing as a stamped insignia, applied using
Brown Cross paint, it calls to mind the symbol of the Red Cross and with it suggestions of emergency situations, but also of rescue and recovery. As a sign in which two equal yet opposing elements are merged, to form a larger, more balanced hole, the symmetrical cross alludes to Beuys’s efforts to reconcile entities and forces that are frequently opposed to or separated from one another. To evoke this fractured state, he sometimes made use of a cross that was missing one arm. This ‘half-cross,’ as he called it, referred to one term of an opposition—such as spirit and matter, or reason and 3 intuition—whose counter-term was symbolised by its missing element. To bring the cross and its missing arm together would be to unify the terms in question—an appeal that Beuys made often in his work.
Finally, Beuys also viewed the cross as a symbol of human striving for knowledge. As he noted in this connection to Friedhelm Mennekes: ‘The cross… appears everywhere intertwined with the striving of humanity, in its search for awareness everywhere, not only as a fixed religious sign, but rather and above all as a symbol of orientation in science.’
While the myriad meanings of the cruciform figures unfurl in numerous directions in Beuys’s work, they nonetheless share a common quality, for all have a broadly positive and aspirational significance. In this way, the cross becomes, as its broadest level, a sign of Beuys’s wish to foster progress in his art, whether artistic, spiritual or social.