This is Elena Passarello’s final column about famous animals from history, featuring Little John, a coyote who made seventies art-world history.
This was a typical performance by Joseph Beuys—mysterious, incomprehensible, in many ways absurd, yet strangely memorable.
I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote.
His back was never turned to the people watching from behind the barrier. Maybe he sensed that more danger would come from them than from the man in there with him, or maybe it was simply because he was a splendid showman.
Name: Little John
Species: Canis latrans var
Years Active: 1974
Distinguishing Features: well-tended sable coat, toothy grin
Skills: fetching leather gloves, urinating on newspapers of record, transforming humans into their mythic selves
Habitat: 409 West Broadway, New York, NY 10012
Additional Notes: When Joseph Beuys was a teenage pilot stationed in Crimea, his plane was shot down, his copilot incinerated on impact. A band of nomadic Tartars dressed in coarse fur found the injured Beuys on the steppe; they salved his wounds with animal fat and swaddled him in felt. Then they dragged Beuys to their tents, where they healed him. The transforming powers of these natural substances—fur, flesh, and felt—made Beuys an artist. Or that’s the story Beuys told, at least.
German military records show Beuys served as a radio operator, and though he was aboard a plane that crashed in 1941, it went down, not in the hinterlands, but on a Crimean airstrip, where a colleague pulled him from the wreckage.
But though his art-origin tale is bunk, the burn marks on Beuys’s face were visible throughout his decades-long career as an art teacher, sculptor, and performer, as was his omnipresent felt fedora, worn to conceal the surgical scars he sustained after the crash. This mix of fable and proof could serve as a précis of Beuys’s artistic oeuvre: half trickster myth and half irrefutable image.
The scars and hat weren’t visible, however, the day in 1974 when Beuys arrived at Kennedy Airport to begin his most famous performance piece. Before he deplaned, assistants rolled Beuys up in a huge felt rug and carried him to an old-timey ambulance. The vintage emergency vehicle sped him downtown to a gallery, where Beuys, still wrapped in his felt burrito, was dumped in a fenced-in corner furnished with only a pile of straw, a wooden cane, a flashlight, fifty copies of the Wall Street Journal, and a live coyote.
In the performance piece—or the “Action,” as Beuys called it—he remained confined in that cage with the coyote for a week. Then he was rolled up in felt again and ambulanced back to JFK, his feet never once touching U.S. soil. Beuys called the Action I Like America and America Likes Me. He called the coyote Little John.
During business hours, gallery patrons peered through the links of the fence and watched Beuys repeat a ritual of gestures: first donning leather gloves, then enveloping his whole body in felt with a cane sprouting from the top of his wrap, like the angler on a deep-sea fish, Beuys would spend a half hour moving his hulking, swaddled figure around the space, swiveling in response to Little John’s own movements. Then Beuys would fall to the ground and loll about the gallery floor, which was littered with bits of straw and newspapers, on which Little John had dutifully peed. Finally, at the end of an hour-long cycle, Beuys would unwrap himself. He’d lose the gloves, often tossing one to the coyote before retiring to the corner for a smoke on a bed of straw. If Little John chose to join him, the two would stare out the gallery window together.
Film footage and photographs of I Like America show Little John alert and lively, with pricked ears, a well-groomed tail, and an undeniably charismatic face. He uses his body to engage in these delightful dances with the felt-wrapped Beuys: standing at attention to Beuys’s erect frame, grabbing the cane with a snarl, pouncing on a downed Beuys, snatching a corner of felt for a combative tug-of-war, loping to the window, to the Wall Street Journals—and lifting his leg.
Caroline Tisdall’s arresting images of the Action cast Little John as both wild beast and pet—companionable and wily at the same time; he is undoubtedly the star of this show. Perhaps this is why it felt so frustrating to learn scant information about him after looking into the literature on I Like America. Though much has been written of Beuys’s project, which he called an “almost silent … dialogue between representatives of two species,” only one of the exhibition’s participants has since been presented as an agent—a real living individual, as humans view them, at least.
The most we get on Little John is a note that he was a “wild” coyote, which is difficult to believe considering his shiny coat and malleable disposition. Some essays about I Like America include a mention of where he lived before the Action, but that information is conflicting. A French review claims he was from “the desert”; a catalogue from a Beuys retrospective places Little John’s origins in Texas. Caroline Tisdall was kind enough to respond to my recent e-mail query, in which she told me the coyote hailed from “a ranch in New Jersey.”
In 1974, though, coyotes were as rare in New Jersey as ranches were. There had only been twenty-nine reported coyote sightings at that point since the state’s ratification, though that’s changed in the forty years since; thousands of the adaptable canines now roam the Garden State. Perhaps Little John was one of these twenty-nine, captured by farmers as a pup and kept as a pet. Or maybe this “ranch” is another mythic detail—like the plane crash in Crimea—in the larger, fabricated truth of Beuys’s public persona.
It is hypocritical for me to insist that we have to know an animal’s history in order to validate it, since the idea of a historical narrative is decidedly human. An animal doesn’t need a human-language story in order to be itself. But then again, it helps us to know the details of a creature’s time on earth—we use them to place the animal in the center of its own reality. Even if we anthropomorphize, or pit its plight against our own trajectories, acknowledging an animal’s agency can keep a creature from the fringes of our storytelling. But all we have of Little John—this contemporary of Warhol, this resonant collaborator of the seventies conceptual art scene—is the spate of hours in the city when he acted as himself but was not seen as himself. He was seen as COYOTE. As symbol. As device to wrap a human in metaphor.
I think Little John deserves his own version of history, to solidify his place in this “dialogue,” because he was as crucial to I Like America as Beuys was; his contribution is what makes the Action stick. And like his fellow artist, Little John even deserves to reinvent himself, if it suits him. If Beuys can reimagine the narrative of his life before I Like America and America Likes Me, turning fact into myth, why can’t Little John have a mythical “after,” complete with his own rock star and anthem? Permit me to imagine those details, of Little John’s mythical “after.”
After the Action ended, Beuys was carried out to his red-light ambulance. Little John watched him leave. Then, forgotten by the humans that had kept him, he jumped from the open gallery window, landing on a pile of discarded newspapers that smelled, pleasingly, like himself. When he saw a blue-light ambulance parked along a brick wall, Little John jumped in, thinking it was for him. The ambulance had been stolen by three joyriding high schoolers from Jersey City. Unaware of their stowaway, they made a beeline for the Holland Tunnel, where their vehicle hit a sidewall and caught fire. Only Little John survived the wreck, hobbling away, one ear bent and bloody. He dragged himself toward daylight, where he saw a convertible with its passenger door open, a guitar in the backseat.
The driver’s hair was long and corn-silk blonde and she loved Little John right away, swaddling his cut leg in a bandana bearing the Canadian flag. And as they took the scenic routes south, howling along to the radio, she sang to him songs of big yellow taxis and painted ponies going up and down. Her voice healed his ear almost immediately. When she stopped the convertible at the gates of the ranch in New Jersey and swung the passenger door open, Little John licked her hand, hopped out, and then turned to thank her. But she was already driving away, singing: “No regrets Coyote / We just come from such different sets of circumstance / I’m up all night in the studios / And you’re up early on your ranch.”
Little John then loped decisively away from home, out toward the wild pine barrens, where he vowed to make something new of himself. He’d spend the rest of those days filling those silken woods with more and more coyotes—each generation wilder and more artful than the next, each further compelled to live on its own terms and perform whatever kind of life it felt.
Elena Passarello is a Whiting Award winner and the author of Let Me Clear My Throat and Animals Strike Curious Poses, now available from Sarabande Books. She is one of the Daily’s correspondents.