Anyone who has been gallery-hopping in New York’s Chelsea district has noticed or not noticed—or subconsciously noticed in ways that can be hard to chart—the presence of a storied public artwork: Joseph Beuys’s long-living arboreal installation 7000 Oaks. Now a new Instagram account with the handle “beuys_on_the_street” makes it possible to keep up with its urban activities, unwitting or not.
From origins in suggestive pairings of trees planted beside basalt columns at Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany, in 1982, 7000 Oaks expanded to New York in 1988, when the Dia Art Foundation continued it in an effort to spruce up the neighborhood around its then-new home in an area that was still many years away from any kind of real migration for artists and galleries. Opened on West 22nd Street in 1987, in a building now providing temporary home to the gallery Hauser & Wirth, the four-story Dia Center for the Arts (which continued as such until 2004) was in certain ways the arty area’s first pioneer.
Beuys’s installation was well-suited for its new home, given the work’s embodiment in the form of—as the artist explained in a Dia press release from the time—“a living part” (the trees) and a “crystalline mass” (the columns) that would change in relation to one another over time. Any changes would mark “a symbolic beginning,” Beuys wrote. “And such a symbolic beginning requires a marker. The intention of such a tree-planting event is to point up the transformation of all of life, of society, and of the whole ecological system.” (Fun fact, for arboreal appreciators: the work includes not just oak but also gingko, linden, Bradford pear, and sycamore trees.)
Decades later, Dia is still in the neighborhood in exhibition and office spaces across the street, and an Instagram account credited to “the Gallery Attendants of Dia:Chelsea” has taken to chronicling 7000 Oaks in the urban wild. Pictures of the work—scattered around 22nd Street as well as 10th and 11th Avenues—so far include components unceremoniously stuck with a “No Parking” sign by the NYPD or struggling for attention next to piles of garbage and recycling. One column is painted with graffiti, while another is draped with thick cloth in a fashion that might have pleased a young Robert Morris or Richard Serra.
Arty trees in New York have, one might say, deep roots: George Maciunas planted some in SoHo back when he was helping establish the neighborhood as a haven for his Fluxus cohort and other artist types. And Instagram has served as a lively forum of late, with the recent rise of the “Whatsanartshole” account and artist Darren Bader’s “RT_Rhyme” series of visual/textual puns. Long may both traditions live!