Beuys, Joseph (1921–1986)

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BEUYS, JOSEPH (1921–1986)


German artist.

Joseph Beuys is associated with several important twentieth century avant-garde art and political movements in Germany. Among these are installation sculpture, "happenings" performance, Fluxus performance and multiples, and the Student and Green parties. Several common threads connect these activities: the use of found objects, fat, felt, blood, earth, and, occasionally, dead animals as sculptural and performance materials, the frequent appearance of a blood-red cross on objects made of these materials, and a wide range of public actions demonstrating the interrelatedness of museums, art schools, public life, and political parties. Beuys termed his work "social sculpture" linking his thought to his art objects and performances as constitutive of a radically creative relationship to the social domain. One expression of this idea is Beuys's famous phrase "everyman an artist," meaning that all activities can be approached creatively and that the term artist need not be reserved for specialists.

Beuys was born in Krefeld, Germany, a small northwestern city near the Dutch border, in 1921. He spent his childhood in nearby towns Rindern and Kleve. As a child, Beuys was interested in both nature and art. In his early life, the interest in nature seemed paramount and Beuys selected a medical career. In 1940, at the age of nineteen, his studies were interrupted when he volunteered to join the military. As a member of the Luftwaffe, Beuys became a combat pilot and radio operator. The mythology that surrounds Beuys at this moment in his life nearly supersedes his actual artistic practice in general cultural relevance. Later, Beuys would attribute his use of fat, felt, blood, dead animals, and the blood-red cross to his rescue by nomadic Tatars in rural Crimea following a plane crash while serving in the German military during World War II. By Beuys's account, he had nearly frozen to death when he was found and wrapped in animal fat and felt, which warmed and healed his hypothermic body. The story now appears to have little basis in fact. Nevertheless, the narrative still holds sway among many Beuys enthusiasts and helped the early audiences of Beuys's art come to terms with the unorthodox materials and imagery he used. What is known with certainty is that he was wounded and spent some months as a prisoner of war in a British internment camp, returning to Kleve in 1945. His plans to become a doctor were exchanged for the pursuit of art, and from 1947 to 1952 Beuys studied sculpture at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art.

In the 1950s, Beuys produced thousands of drawings and became a professor at his alma mater in 1959. However, Beuys is best known for the work he made in the 1960s after his contact with the international avant-garde Fluxus movement. In 1962, while on a tour of Europe that included Düsseldorf, Fluxus introduced Beuys to the intermedia arts of performance events that blended boundaries between the visual arts, music, theater, poetry, conceptual art, and everyday life. Through his relationship to two of Fluxus's many cofounders, George Maciunas (1931–1978) and Nam June Paik (b. 1932), Beuys understood art to have a potentially limitless function to play in the larger society. Like the Fluxus artists who inspired him, he began to produce editions of sculptures called multiples, installation environments, avant-garde graphic material, and politically activist performance. In his later life, Beuys would be involved in the establishment of several activist organizations including the German Student Party (1967), the Organization for Direct Democracy (1971), the Free International University (1972) and the Green Party (1979).

Remarkably charismatic, Beuys fashioned himself as a shaman in the service of healing the wounds of Europe after World War II. Uniformed in a heavy wool coat, safari vest, and gray felt hat, Beuys would pontificate to an audience on the legacy of fascism, the value of Christ independent of official Christianity (Beuys's family had been staunchly Catholic), and the importance of global cooperation and unity. In How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), he covered his head with honey and gold leaf and spoke of art to a dead hare. In New York in 1974, Beuys performed I Like America and America Likes Me in which he protested American treatment of indigenous people, in this case Native Americans and the Vietnamese. In that work he pretended to live for a week in a gallery with a live coyote, a cane that he used as a shepherd's crook, and piles of felt that he could wrap himself in as he engaged with the wild animal and the audience in a ritualistic encounter incorporating nature, Native American mysticism, and political protest. Finally, in 1982 with the help of a small army of student workers, Beuys created 7000 Oaks at Dokumenta 7, the enormous fair of contemporary art held in Kassel, Germany, every five years. While the environmentalism and community basis of the work is its most overt reference, the forest is a nationalistic symbol in Germany that extends into deep history and was therefore somewhat problematic in a context that less than thirty years earlier had wielded the symbols of nationalism toward different ends.

Commendable as Beuys's communitarian aims may be, Beuys's attempts to aestheticize the public sphere in the form of "social sculpture" bear an eerie resemblance to the aestheticization of political life under Adolf Hitler (1889–1945). There are striking similarities between Beuys's use of public space and student activists and their function under National Socialism. Most overtly, like the Hitler Youth, Beuys's student activists wore armbands to identify their associations with each other and with Beuys. Similarly, the materials in Beuys's work, specifically blood and soil, appear repeatedly in fascist propaganda of the Third Reich in a linking of Aryan blood and German soil. The Final Solution, extermination of the Jews, was justified largely on the grounds of a purification of blood-lines and soil. Thus, even though Beuys made clear his desire to atone for his role in World War II, enthusiasts of Beuys should be cautious as to the nationalistic associations of his images and practice.

See alsoAvant-Garde.


Götz, Adriani, Winfried Konnertz, and Karin Thomas. Joseph Beuys: Life and Works. Translated by Patricia Lech. Woodbury, N.Y., 1979.

Kuoni, Carin, ed. Joseph Beuys in America: Energy Plan for the Western Man: Writings and Interviews with the Artist. New York, 1990.

Mennekes, Friedhelm. Beuys on Christ: A Passion in Dialogue. Stuttgart, Germany, 1989.

Stachelhaus, Heiner. Joseph Beuys. New York, London, and Paris, 1987.

Hannah Higgins