The Arts of Joseph Beuys:
Skip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. :
For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy.
Today, almost nine years after his death, Joseph Beuys remains one of Germany's most important and controversial artists. Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) came of artistic age in the 1950s in a German society, that although economically strong, was experiencing great difficulty confronting and accepting its National Socialist past. Beuys, who participated in World War II as a radio operator and bomber pilot, developed an art-making practice that confronted Germans with their own wounded development brought about by the collective repression of the war. He hoped thereby to help Germany to regenerate itself on the basis of new social forms, a project which brought him both international stardom and tremendous criticism since the mid-1960s. Primarily a sculptor and conceptual artist, Beuys used a staggering array of non-traditional materials — fat, felt, beeswax, common household objects, as well as garbage — to produce a confrontational art that even today remains extremely difficult to understand. Moving rapidly from traditional sculpture and drawing, in the early part of his career, to performance, found-object sculpture, installations, art theory, and political activism later on, Beuys demonstrated a canny grasp of both the tradition of twentieth century art and the tender parts of the German psyche. Hailed by many students and critics as a profound aesthetic and social leader, Beuys was nevertheless attacked by others for mystifying the past and promoting a new cult of the artist. Despite the controversy, which has shown no signs of abating over the last decade, Beuys's legacy remains: a complex body of works, avidly collected by museums that retains its ability to shock, provoke, and challenge the viewer.
The early postwar period was a hard time for Beuys. Physically ravaged by the war, he recovered for a few years at home and then studied sculpture at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art between 1947 and 1951. His earliest works, dating from the late 1940s and early 1950s, consist of wood and steel sculptures and pencil and ink drawings. Many of the early sculptures are religious in nature, reflecting the Catholic context in which Beuys was raised, as well as the religious interests of his first patrons. Yet Beuys's early Christian iconography rapidly became pantheistic, and non-religious figures and animals — in particular, stags, bees, and swans — soon appeared as carriers of Beuys's regenerative symbolism. In addition to themes involving female archetypes, drawings from this time show Beuys engaged in exploring animal figures drawn from Norse and Celtic myth — symbols he hoped would help him isolate a path that would lead him to corporeal and emotional well-being. Recovery, however, took a long time for Beuys, and the mid- to late-1950s marked the time of another physical and spiritual collapse, the result, in part, of grave self-doubts and lack of professional success. In 1958, when he emerged from his spiritual crisis, Beuys's art had subtly changed. Although he continued to struggle with the question of resurrection and rebirth, a new historical specificity began to pervade his work, linking his ambiguous mythical themes to the postwar German context. The cross, for example, which initially appeared in his work with purely Christian significations, re-emerged as a red cross in many sculptures and drawings; a transformation which linked the Christian theme of resurrection to the actions of the war-time medical units. In addition, new formal concerns — the attempt to represent warmth in the medium of sculpture, as well as the search to develop an expanded concept of form-making — also appeared in his works of the late 1950s.
The early 1960s witnessed a sharp reversal in Beuys's fortunes. In 1961, he was appointed Professor of Sculpture at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, his former alma mater. In 1962, he developed close connections with Fluxus, an international art movement devoted to redefining art along more practical, less elitist lines. Although Beuys's therapeutic conception of art distinguished him philosophically from the more anti-institutional stance of such Fluxus artists as Nam June Paik and George Marciunas, their focus on semi-spontaneous performances in front of live, sometimes hostile audiences was to have a profound effect on him. Not only did the Fluxus "concerts" in which Beuys occasionally participated form the basis for his own ritualistic, therapeutic "actions" of the 1960s and 1970s, but these early performances with the Fluxus movement also brought him the attention of the German media — an attention which he was to cultivate for the rest of his life and incorporate into his art-making process. In addition, it was also in the early 1960s that Beuys began to make sculptures out of felt and fat. These works, which were an outgrowth of his interest in depicting warmth in plastic terms, were soon linked by Beuys to his own autobiography; specifically, a winter-time plane crash in which he almost died during World War II. According to Beuys, after his plane was shot down over the Eastern front, his unconscious body was discovered in the snow by Crimean Tartars who covered his wounds in fat, wrapped his body in felt to preserve its warmth, and took him down from his mountain-top crash site on a sled. The materials he used in his art were thus meant to signify this experience, their autobiographical meaning interacting with their difficult, anti-art forms in such a way as to get his audience to reflect upon the destruction that Germany had both experienced and wrought, and the ways in which it might begin to better reformulate and rebuild itself. Similarly, other works by Beuys were made with industrially-produced copper and felt sheets, bundled newspapers, and old tins of food, and were intended to recall batteries and insulators — devices to store energy or protect one from the outside elements. A felt suit, of which Beuys produced multiple copies in 1970, also served as a symbolic insulator.
By the 1970s Beuys's understanding of form-making had expanded so far that he began to include pedagogy and political organizing in the category of sculpture. His objects and performances, he claimed, were not important in themselves. Rather, their function lay in getting their viewers to think, ask questions, and, above all, to recognize their own inherent creative potential. "Every human being is an artist," became one of Beuys's best known mottoes; and his theory of social sculpture — which held that politics, law, economics, and science must be rethought on the basis of an expanded concept of art — became his most important artwork. Just as many of Beuys's works from the 1960s had been props from his various actions (chewed fat, for example, or a spade with two handles), in the 1970s, blackboards covered with writing and illustrations from his various lectures were removed from their classroom contexts and housed in museums or incorporated into larger works of art. In addition, Beuys attempted to transform the academic system. Critical of the exclusionary admissions policy at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, Beuys vowed to accept all students who wished to attend his classes. When his unorthodox admissions policy was rejected by the Academy's administration, he formed a series of student organizations to protest the administrators' actions. Eventually he occupied the Academy's admissions office with his student followers as a means of forcing the administration's hand. As a result Beuys was fired from his position in 1972. When asked why he did not confront Beuys and seek to reason with him before terminating his contract, the man who made the final decision, Johannes Rau, then Minister of Education of North Rhine-Westphalia, replied: "I cannot and will not let myself be made into a possible art object." Clearly, Beuys's expansion of traditional aesthetic categories had met with recognition — if not acceptance — in the larger public sphere.
Social change through the dissemination of his expanded concept of sculpture became Beuys's primary goal for the rest of his life. Performing and lecturing extensively in both Europe and America, Beuys found time not only to put together several retrospective exhibitions during the 1970s but also to found the Free International University in Düsseldorf with writer Heinrich Böll in 1974. The university's goals, according to their co-authored manifesto, were to recognize, explore, and develop the creative potential hidden in everyone. In 1978 Beuys won the lawsuit he had brought against the Düsseldorf Academy and his dismissal was declared illegal. Although his teaching contract was never reinstated, Beuys was given back his old studio, and was once again allowed to use the title of Professor. He immediately put his studio at the disposal of the Free International University. In 1979 Beuys was given a one-man retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum New York; a show which firmly established his reputation as the most prominent postwar German artist on the international scene. In the same year, he became one of the five hundred founding members of the Greens, Germany's environmental party. In 1982 he began his action 7000 Oaks for documenta 7, Germany's most important international art exhibition, which occurs once every five years in the city of Kassel. This action, perhaps the largest work of environmental art ever executed, involved the symbolic reforesting of this North-German city through the planting of 7000 oak trees. On January 23, 1986, Beuys died in Düsseldorf at the age of 64. The final tree in his environmental project was planted by his son, Wenzel, in 1987.
Joseph Beuys will be the subject of a retrospective to appear at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, from January 14 to March 5, 1995. Although Beuys's drawings comprise the largest part of the exhibition, a few sculptures will also be shown, and visitors will be given a chance to experience a recreation of a Fluxus concert as well as to view videos of some of Beuys's actions.
Matthew Biro is Assistant Professor in the Department of History of Art and the Residential Collge.