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Through his bizarre work, Beuys sought to heal wounds

PROVIDENCE -- Joseph Beuys was serving as a radioman aboard German Luftwaffe bombers in the Crimea in 1943 when Russian flak felled the 22-year-old's Junkers-87 and he crashed in the no man's land between the German and Russian armies.

''I was found in the wreckage by a clan of nomadic Tartars several days later," the German artist recounted afterward. ''I had been completely buried in the snow. I remember voices saying, 'Voda, voda,' the word for water, then the felt of their tents and the pungent smell of cheese, fat, and milk. They covered my body in fat to help it regenerate heat and wrapped it in felt as an insulator to keep the warmth in." A week later he woke up in a German field hospital.

Beuys would repeat this account time after time. The problem with this great romantic tale -- a mythic story of a modern man falling from the sky and healed by primitives through ancient, earthy means -- is that subsequent investigations suggest it's too good to be true, that he was in fact found by a German search party within a day of the crash and immediately hospitalized. Was his tall tale a self-aggrandizing con or a desperate parable invented by a man who had come home broken from war to find his cause was a monstrous lie?

More than 160 of Beuys's works on view at Providence College, Brown University, and Rhode Island School of Design this month raise such questions again, 20 years after his death on Jan. 23, 1986. Beuys's works are rarely seen in any numbers in the United States. He achieved fame in the 1960s as the first major German artist after the war -- one who, through both art and politics (he was a founder of Germany's Green Party), attempted to come to terms with his own and his nation's catastrophic Nazi past.

The exhibits present Beuys's multiples -- editions of sculptures and prints specially commissioned by the artist -- which he used to spread his message. As he described it, our technological and commercial ways had failed us, and he would heal these wounds via ancient, shamanistic practices. He sought to create ''social sculpture" to provoke fresh thinking and inspire others to apply their creativity toward a ''direct democracy" that could cure the world's ills.

In May 1974, Beuys arrived at the Rene Block Gallery in Manhattan for what was billed as a weeklong performance, ''Coyote: I Like America and America Likes Me." As seen in a grainy video screening daily at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum through Feb. 26, Beuys was locked behind a fence in the gallery with a live coyote. The artist wrapped a felt sheet about him like a cloak and held a cane out the top like a shepherd's crook. Over and over Beuys slowly stood and bowed down and rose again as the coyote prowled, nipped at Beuys's cloak, sniffed at the edge of the room and at Beuys, lay down, nipped at Beuys again.

There is something mesmerizingly weird about the enterprise. Beuys adapted his fabled rescue (fat and felt were favorite materials), Christian symbolism, and the myths of early European and Native American cultures to formulate his own mystical iconography.

Here he had in mind an exorcism of the traumas caused by American pioneers' genocide and resettlement of Native Americans (represented by the coyote, a trickster in many Native American tales). But I suspect it would have looked awfully absurd if you stopped in for a half-hour and watched it live -- the absurdity of anyone attempting something so ambitious, and the absurdity of a big ego taking itself very seriously while engaged in such goofy shenanigans.

A poster advertising the performance hangs in ''Another View of Joseph Beuys: From a Private Collection" at Providence College as a sort of sacred relic of his ritualistic actions. Curator Deborah Johnson, who organized the show with her students, focuses on posters, prints, photographs, and reproductions of drawings. Beuys was a so-so draftsman, seemingly rushing to jot down brainstorms before he forgot them. His best drawings are faux prehistoric watercolors of stags, seals, sleds.

Brown University's ''Another View of Joseph Beuys: Multiples From New England Collections" augments Beuys's works on paper with a number of sculptures. The small wooden ''Sled #1" (1969) bearing a gray felt blanket, flashlight, and cone of lard transforms his wartime ''experiences" into the symbolic warmth, guidance, and nourishment of a spiritual journey. Beuys's healing metaphor is made explicit in ''Health Helper!" (1979), a medicine cabinet stocked with pills, bandages, gauze, and serums. ''Capri Battery" (1985), which curator Vesela Sretenovic installed in a vitrine, re-creating its original exhibition, is a yellow light bulb screwed into a socket plugged into a lemon. We can rejuvenate ourselves, it says, by tapping the elemental energy of nature. The metaphor sounds shallow. But when you look at it in person, the piece makes quick, witty sense.

Beuys teeter-totters between the esoteric (vaguely scientific chalkboard diagrams sketched during public lectures) and clunky didacticism (''Creativity=Capital" printed on posters and scribbled on currency). Sometimes it all seems like so much mumbo jumbo. But maybe you have to reinvent yourself and your past to escape a past so irredeemably terrible. His best work -- that coyote performance, for instance -- reveals just enough to draw us in while retaining a transforming, poetic strangeness.

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