The German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) communicated intense emotion in his art using a wide variety of media in drawings, sculpture, and performances.
Joseph Beuys was born May 12, 1921, in Krefeld on the German/Dutch border near his parents' home in Cleves. The family moved from here to the nearby Rindern where his father and uncle owned a flour and fodder business in 1930. The geography of this border region of the lower Rhine valley left a permanent impression. Childhood memories of the common local wildlife—hare, stag, and swans—were to take on significant meanings in his mature art. As a child Beuys was fascinated with the role of the shepherd and carried around a large staff. Above all, an interest in science and the feeling of daily life in this particular geographic and historical setting formed the foundation of his artistic imagery. Beuys was educated in local schools with a concentration in natural science. He knew the local sculptor Achilles Moortgat and was aware of the work of Wilhelm Lehmbruck, which gave him his first impression of the potential power of sculptural form.
Early in World War II Beuys was inducted to serve as a radio operator and then as a pilot, but he was able to continue his studies intermittently. By 1943 he had begun making sketches based on his experiences and had come to the realization that science would not be his profession. One significant experience of the war years occurred in 1943. Beuys's plane was shot down while he was flying behind enemy lines in the Crimea. He landed in a region between the Russian and German lines populated by Tartar nomads. They discovered him unconscious and saved his life by wrapping his frozen body in fat and felt to conserve heat. The regenerative power of these natural materials was to be explored in many later sculptures made of these nontraditional materials.
After the war Beuys exhibited drawings with a local group of artists in Cleves. In the same year he entered the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, becoming a student of the sculptor Ewald Mataré. His early sculptures were of natural elements—Crystal (1949) and Moon (1950)—but others such as Sleds (1949) and Gas Cellar (1954) begin the exploration of themes that dominated his later work based on traumatic war experiences. In these same years Beuys continued to produce a large number of drawings of organic matter, plants, animals, and myths.
From 1954 through the late 1950s Beuys experienced a personal crisis during which he withdrew to the farm of close friends and patrons where he worked in the fields and barns. During this period his concept of art coalesced and he found a way to communicate the social and personal values with which he would be concerned in the succeeding decades. A major installation drawn from work of this period on the theme of Auschwitz at the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt is called Concentration Camp Essen (1958). It displays various materials including a picture of a starved and crippled girl, charred remains, a dead rat, small bottles of poison, lengths of blutwurst sausage, and electric plates with blocks of fat.
The use of organic materials such as fat relates the whole to the natural world. The transformability of fat from solid to liquid at different temperatures makes it an analogy for natural change and regeneration while at the same time it bears memories of crematoria. His rescue by the Tartar nomads had made fat seem an intensely meaningful material that could communicate a range of deeply personal and at the same time universal meanings. Beeswax shares the property of having different forms at different temperatures and was used by Beuys, along with honey, in his art. This complex intertwining of relationships and meanings is characteristic of Beuys's mature work, as is the use of unusual organic materials and the seemingly informal organization of the whole.
His youthful fascination with the shepherd was transformed into the idea of the artist as a shaman, a point of contact with the spiritual roots that nourish human existence. Like a shaman, Beuys wore emblems of his role, most particularly a flat brimmed felt hat that became his most identifiable characteristic. Beuys also developed the theme that every human is a sculptor, by molding thoughts, shaping them into words, and then expressing these as social ideas.
In 1962 Beuys was appointed professor at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art and in the same year became associated with the Fluxus Group. These artists, mainly musicians, were interested in breaking down the traditional categories of art and in bringing it closer to the audience through performance. Among other members were the video artist Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, Wolf Vostell, and George Maciunas.
Beuys's performances, which he called "actions," were intensely memorable, puzzling landmarks in his art. In The Chief (1963-1964), Beuys lay for nine hours wrapped in felt with two dead hares, the only sound an occasional intense cry as from a stag. Another memorable action from this decade was How To Explain Paintings to a Dead Hare (1965) in which Beuys, head covered with honey and gold leaf, carried a dead hare through an exhibit of his pictures and then sat talking to the hare about them. For Beuys this action was about the source of ideas and how the intellect can be deadly in politics and education. His actions had the feel of mythic communications whose impact was hard to explain but intensely felt by observers. Multiple editions based on these performances gave them some permanence, such as the 1970 letterpress edition of a photograph of The Chief. Postcards, objects, films, and records were all issued in multiple editions. Images developed in actions often touched on trauma points of the culture as a whole and became increasingly political during the 1970s.
In the late 1960s, a time when students were actively involved in political issues, Beuys was accused of contributing to the disruption of the Düsseldorf Academy. In 1971 he invited students to his class who had been denied entry, with the argument that education should not be restricted to those who already have achieved competency. His activities culminated in his dismissal in October of 1972, and the start of litigation that was not resolved until his vindication in 1978. He was deeply involved in political issues and in working toward the creation of open educational opportunities, a Free International University.
Major exhibitions devoted to Beuys were organized in the 1970s, such as in 1979 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Enigmatic, powerful, mythic, Beuys's art defied boundaries and explanations. Direct experience of his art communicated intuitively by touching universal areas of shared imagery and memory. He died in Düsseldorf January 23, 1986, of heart failure after a long illness.
Further Reading on Joseph Beuys
The catalogue to the Joseph Beuys exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York (1979) by Caroline Tisdall contains an introductory biography and explanations of the many works in that show with over 500 photographs and a wealth of information on Beuys's associates and activities. Joseph Beuys, Life and Works by Götz Adriani, Winfried Konnertz, and Karin Thomas (Cologne, 1973, repr. Barron's 1979) presents a year by year chronology and has an extensive bibliography. Joseph Beuys Drawings, catalogue of an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (London, 1983), is devoted exclusively to an extensive survey of Beuys's drawings.
Additional Biography Sources
Stachelhaus, Heiner, Joseph Beuys, New York: Abbeville Press, 1991.