Consider the Lemon

German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys was just reaching puberty when the president of his country appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor. Later in life, Beuys would recall a 1933 book burning in the artist’s childhood town of Kleve. He reached into the flames to ferry Systema Naturae by Carl Linnaeus, the botanist known for inventing binomial nomenclature, to safety.

Perhaps this was the catalyst for the ecological awakening of a man who went on to co-found the German Green Party. It seems more likely the event exists only as a metaphor in hindsight, the earliest example of the personal mythmaking that would define Beuys’ career.

When Beuys was serving in the Luftwaffe in March 1944, he survived a crash on the snowy Crimean peninsula. In subsequent retellings, his fortuitous rescue by Russian workers transformed into a healing ritual conducted by Tatar shamans using animal fat and felt wrappings to revive the injured airman. The raw materials of this tall tale— felt, wax, and a flashlight strapped to a wooden sled—were incorporated into later works like The Sled (1969). Beuys once spent nine hours wrapped in felt as part of a performance.


In 1985, a year before his death at 64, Beuys did not need to invent drama; he was suffering from a very real lung ailment (some have even postulated the inflammation was caused by his proclivity for felt treated with mercury). Convalescing in the salty Tyrrhenian air of Capri, he reached for a material in abundance on the island—an organic substance not found in the wintry drifts of Crimea. As Carl Linnaeus would call it: Citrus limon.

The work that resulted from this experience was called Capri-Batterie. It was a yellow light bulb plugged into an actual lemon. The artist made two hundred multiples, or copies, of this work, which are held in museum collections around the world. Capri-Batterie presents curators and historians with a mystery of interpretation that calls to mind the artist’s penchant for stretching the truth. The artwork comes with a wooden box and the instructions “Nach 1000 Stunden Batterie auswechesin,” which translates to “change the battery every 1000 hours”– 41.67 days. Because Beuys designed the piece to include an actual lemon, the fruit has to be swapped out with a ripe replacement. That’s about as much instruction as curators have.

Perishable artworks are a signature of postmodernism. In 2017, The New York Times Style Magazine interviewed owners of so-called “Difficult Art” about the Sisyphean task of maintaining the integrity of their purchase, including a collector who custom orders square watermelons to keep up his piece Genus Watermeloncholia by Max Hooper Schneider, a specially engineered melon in a tank of water “transmitting” its melancholy thoughts on the attached LED screen. “The inverse of owning an idea,” the article concluded, “is owning something that may in fact be tangible, but also too unruly, too impractical, to live with comfortably.”

Also in 2017, Whitney Biennial attendees contended with the smell of aging bologna thanks to the 2,755 slices of deli meat that made up Pope.L’s Claim (Whitney Version), 2017. This is a situation the stewards of Capri-Batterie would rather avoid. If Beuys intended for the lemon to rot before it was replaced, it was not to be at the total expense of the work—which he saw as an extension of himself. Art history scholar Robert Silberman wrote that Beuys once told a collector, “If you have all my multiples, then you have me entirely.”


One multiple of Capri-Batterie was on view from November 2016 to June 2017 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, on loan from the Collection of Isabel and Agustín Coppel. Allison McLaughlin, a collections assistant for Contemporary Art there, explained her process for maintaining the capricious work to me.

McLaughlin and two art handling staff cleaned the lightbulb and changed the lemon at least once a week:

We clean the inside of the vitrine and the case deck with standard vitrine cleaner each time to cut down on any mold spores that might be in the case. The plug on the light bulb is gently wiped down to remove residue. We also wipe the lemon and the wooden skewers used to make the holes with isopropyl alcohol and place a clean disk of Mylar under the lemon to keep it from sticking to the deck (learned this from experience).

Used lemons were bagged or wrapped up to limit mold exposure and thrown away.

The Broad Foundation, which displays its collection at The Broad Museum in Los Angeles, has decided not to risk contamination from mold spores at all. Capri-Batterie is one of 570 Joseph Beuys’ artworks owned by the Foundation, the most complete set of his multiples in the world. “We actually have a fake lemon in there,” an assistant curator told me. “This is because it is located in an enclosed vitrine with other objects, so a real lemon would give off gas and could create a volatile environment for the other works.” This decoy is a symbol of the museum’s ownership of the multiple, but it’s conceptual without being organic—the decoy distract from the decay. In short, it’s just not the same.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art was originally sourcing the lemons from their catering department but switched to local grocery stores because the Beuys multiple was not always on the same schedule as the caterer’s delivery.

We aim to select a lemon approximately the size and color of the bulb itself for aesthetic balance and because this seems to be what other institutions have done in the past based on installation images. We also try to select a classic-looking lemon free of marks or discoloration. We do vary the orientation of the lemon (stem or tail end out) based on the individual lemon and what looks best.

Operations coordinator Kathy Drummy at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston described her experience with Capri-Batterie in The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-First Century Museum, a report that later proved invaluable to McLaughlin.

I share the responsibility of changing the lemon once each week. I take this task very seriously. If, for instance, the lemons are shriveled and sickly-looking at one market, I head for another, and so on, until I find a fresh, photogenic lemon. Next, wearing cotton gloves, I unplug the week-old fuzzy green lemon and plug in the new one, at which point the light bulb turns on.

Drummy adds, “With sincere apologies to the late Mr. Beuys, I fear that, after forty-one days on view, the stench of the rotting lemon would drive most visitors out of the Foster Gallery, and therefore we change it every 168 hours.”

Anne Keefe, and editor at the Meadows Museum in Dallas, published an ekphrastic poem in the Spring 2006 edition of University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s literary magazine, Prairie Schooner, about seeing Capri-Batterie at the Museum of Fine Arts show. It was called “Lemon Light”:

...At the time, we talked about what makes art and laughed
and now I’m angry with myself for only noticing
how the dimpled rind swelled around the metal,
the yellow-to-green-to-blue mold and crust crawling up
each prong into the black socket. Because,
as it turned out, there was a whole philosophy
inside that lemon...

In 1994, the MFA produced an exhibit called The Label Show: Contemporary Art and the Museum, featuring ten thematic groupings of art, with solicitations of wall text from dozens of authors, artists, students, and museum staff. The exhibit, curated by Trevor Fairbrother, further upended museum convention by creating a ‘period room’ that parodied the museums typical decorative art displays with a mixture of historical works and furniture from the staff lounge. Fred Licht, Professor of Art History at Boston University, connected Capri-Batterie to a Johann Wolfgang von Goethe poem well-known in Beuys’ home country.

Have you seen the land where the lemon trees bloom,
Where gold-oranges glow in dark foliage?

Goethe is speaking of Italy. In 1980s Capri, off the Sorrentine Peninsula, the distinctive Sorrento lemon was grown as it always had been, under cane (wood) pergolas called pagliarelle propped up by chestnut stakes. Embraced by sailors as a cure for scurvy, from the 1400s onward the Italian lemons were themselves precious maritime trade cargo. In 1646, botanist Giovanni Baptista Ferrari created the first “citrus encyclopedia” which defined the attributes of each Mediterranean lemon variety. (This book is now held by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.)


Sorrento lemons are authenticated by the EU through a Protected Geographical Indication which, like champagne, means an authentic Sorrento lemon is regional in origin. The orb Beuys grasped in Capri was oval shaped, tapered at each end—the stem end having a larger nipple-like protrusion. The rind is thick, the juice acidic but never bitter.

In contemporary Philadelphia it’s a different story. At the local Trader Joe’s, the source of the lemons changes seasonally. Currently, they come from Chile, where 55 percent of fruit is exported through the port of Valparaíso, the city known as “The Jewel of the Pacific” for its colorful architecture and maze-like streets. From May through October, the lemons depart in stacked pallets or, increasingly, refrigerated containers—the seven funiculars of the city fading in the distance.

After being on the water for weeks, some of the fruit has to be repacked before departing on trucks, perhaps destined for one of Pennsylvania’s Wegman’s, which imports from both Chile and Mexico (90 percent of U.S. lemons come from either Chile or Mexico during the peak of the South American season.)

Four Mexican states grow lemons—Yucatan, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, and Colima, but Tamaulipas exports the most by far, launching them across the Gulf of Mexico from the Port of Altamira.

The majority of domestic lemons come from California, specifically Ventura County along the inverted ‘C’ of the Pacific Coast Highway. The sun shines nearly 75 percent of the year there. It takes four years for a lemon tree to grow—five or six for the fruit tree to fully mature. In recent years, record-breaking California temperatures and fires have led to more reliance on exports from south of the border.

With the rise of biotechnology, the composition of lemons is far from fixed—selected to produce seedless or disease-resistant fruit.  Though, not all of the lemons will be perfect ovals, slightly elongated on one end. Some will bruise, some will rot. Approximately fifty-two of them could have been destined for a vitrine in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but nobody along the way will know that. Not the grower, or the trucker, or the sea captain. Not the red roofs of Valparaíso.

The last stanza of the Goethe poem reads, “The mule picks its way through the misted pass and dragons in caves raise their ancient brood.” Dragons. Beuys would have appreciated this mythmaking, but the stories Beuys told weren’t for his own glory alone. They say that all art is difficult art. They say that art has a thick skin, and they remind us to consider the lemon.

Daisy Alioto Comment