Joseph Beuys
Biography of German Postmodernist Installation Artist.

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Joseph Beuys (1921–1986)


Early Career
Postwar Career as a Sculptor
Controversial Teacher and Contemporary Artist
Postmodernist Artist: 1970s, 1980s
Works of Art by Joseph Beuys

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The German sculptor, installation artist, draughtsman and teacher, Joseph Beuys was one of the leading figures in European avant-garde art during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. He was central to debates about the role of the artist in society and politics. He is best known for his plastic art - sculptures, assemblages and installations - made from "found objects" including animal felt and fat chosen by the artist as a personal if not biographical motif. During World War II he was a fighter pilot, and after being shot down over the Crimea he claimed he was kept alive by nomadic Tartars who smeared him in fat and wrapped him in felt. This is the supposed reason for the inclusion of fat and felt in many of his works. Influenced by the Expressionist Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881–1919), Beuys came to prominence as a result of exposure at Documenta 4, an important exhibition series held in Kassel every five years. He campaigned for what he termed 'direct democracy' and nuclear disarmament, attracting both hostility and admiration from art critics and curators. Beuys was probably the last European figure with a utopian vision for art - promoting both its healing powers and also the redemptive qualities of creativity. One of the most prolific, wide-ranging and controversial 20th century sculptors, his output also included sculptures, drawings, installations, environments, vitrines, prints, video art and performances, as well as teaching and lectures.



Early Career

Beuys was born in Krefeld, Germany in 1921. He intended to become a pediatrician, an aim which was duly scuppered by the outbreak of World War II. He trained as a combat pilot and during his active service was injured five times, finally ending his military career in a prisoner-of-war camp. Later in his artistic career, a story was published that Beuys' interest in using fat and felt as sculptural materials was borne out of a war experience. According to this story, his plane had been shot down over the Crimea and he was rescued by a group of nomadic Tartars who rubbed him with fat and covered him in animal felt to allow him to heal. Although his plane did crash in the Crimea, the story of the Tartars has been contested; even Beuys downplayed the event in a 1980s interview. The real significance of the story is not whether Beuys used these materials because of a real-life experience, but the fact that he used them as a symbol of personal mythology. They can be seen as important elements in his personal resurrection or rebirth, as well as a resurrection of the German nation.

Postwar Career as a Sculptor

After the War, Beuys abandoned his plans for medicine and studied sculpture from 1946-51 at the Dusseldorf Academy of Art. There he studied under Ewald Matare (1887-1965) who like many artists persecuted under Nazi Germany, was given an important teaching post after the War. Although Matare did not warm to Beuys brooding nature, he was in important influence on his work, notably in his animal sculptures. However, an even more important influence was Wilhelm Lehmbruck. Lehmbruck was a German sculptor who had lived in Paris between 1910 and 1914. He had spent time with some of the most influential artists of the day including the figurative expressionist painter Modigliani (1884–1920), sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957) and the experimental Russian artist Archipenko (1887–1964). Although Lehmbruck committed suicide in 1919, his art was condemned as 'degenerate' during the Nazi years and this is how he came to Beuys' attention. During his time as a student, Beuys read widely, assimilating a wide range of artistic and conceptual ideas, from the multi-media achievements of Leonardo, to the Swiss scientist Paracelsus. After leaving the Academy, Beuys spent the next two years focused on drawing, producing hundreds of sketches. For the rest of the 1950s - an extremely difficult period for Beuys both financially and emotionally - he worked as a monumental sculptor and it was in this capacity that, in 1961, he was appointed Professor at the Dusseldorf State Academy of Art.

Controversial Teacher and Contemporary Artist: 1960s

During the 1960s the Dusseldorf Academy became an important centre for contemporary art and Beuys' controversial teaching method was an important contributor to the school's reputation. In 1962 he became a brief member of Fluxus, one of several contemporary art movements that sprang up during the early 1960s. It consisted of a group of international contemporary artists and designers who wanted to remove the boundaries between different art mediums (which is why the group is sometimes described as 'intermedia'). Although Beuys shared the group's rejection of conventional art, his conception was ultimately quite different. He viewed art as a spiritually and politically redemptive process - almost that art should act as some kind of social service and that sculpture with its molding forms could offer society a way of molding itself.


It was in the 1960s that he developed an extraordinary type of performance art, which he called How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965). To prepare, he covered his head in honey and gold, and strapped an iron slab to his foot; the actual show lasted for 3 hours and involved him cradling a dead hare, into whose ear he made grunting noises, followed by formal critiques of the drawings hanging on the gallery walls. during which he exhibiting his large-scale sculptures, drawings and room installations. When it came to choosing materials, he wanted to use those that had a capacity to change, like life and society. He chose fat and felt because they were soft and pliable. Both were also important components of life, as opposed to art, and their incorporation into his works made each relevant to the other. In 1967 Beuys founded the German Student Party and the following year rose to fame as a result of exposure at the Documenta 4 exhibition in Kassel, where his serious sombre installation art was in marked contrast to the brightness of American Pop Art exhibits. During the late 1960s he also explored several new mediums, including video art (Felt TV, 1968).

Postmodernist Artist: 1970s, 1980s

Beuys reputation as one of the most innovative postmodernist artists continued to rise during the 1970s. In addition to his political reform agenda, his unconventional use of artistic materials - including earth, blood and even dead animals - ensured him a certain notoriety. In 1972 it became all too much for the Academy who dismissed him from his position, partly also because of his insistence on admitting every student who applied. Supported by his students, Beuys protested until he was reinstated. It was agreed he could keep his title and studio but his teaching contract was ended. In 1977 he produced Tallow, one of his gigantic installations. In 1979, his international reputation was boosted considerably by a huge retrospective of his art which was held at the Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Beuys continued to live life at a hectic pace, exhibiting his installations, giving lectures and participating in controversial political activities. In late 1981 he embarked on his last major project - in effect, a piece of land art - which involved the planting of 7,000 oak saplings (many of which can still be seen in Kassel), each next to a stone block. Its message concerned the innate changeability of sculpture - over time, the tree grows while the stone becomes covered with moss and shrubbery. In fact, the initial artwork for this project was Beuys' protest installation entitled Town Afforestation not Administration (1982), which comprised 7,000 basalt blocks dumped on the Friedrichsplatz in Kassel. He undertook its removal once an oak sapling was planted in respect of each block.

He continued to court attention until his death in 1986.



Works of Art by Joseph Beuys

A diverse range of works, executed by Beuys in a bewildering variety of mediums and genres, can be seen in many of the best art museums in both Europe and the United States. Here is a small selection:

- Queen-Bee 2 (1952) Sculpture, Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt.
- King's Daughter Sees Iceland (1960) Watercolour, Ludwig Museum, Cologne.
- Snowfall (1965) Felt mats on pine wood, Emanuel Hoffmann-Siftung, Basel.
- How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965) Galerie Schmela, Dusseldorf.
- Eurasia Siberian Symphony 1963 (1966) Mixed-media, MoMA, New York.
- Place (1967) Fatfelt Sculpture, Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt.
- Iron Chest from "Vacuum - Mass" (1968) Mixed-media, MoMA, New York.
- Earth Telephone (1968) Mixed-media Sculpture, Kunsthalle, Hamburg.
- Felt Suit (1970), Assemblage, Tate Modern, London.
- Before Leaving Camp I (1970-80) Environment, Private Collection.
- La Rivoluzione Siamo Noi (1972) Photoprint, Edition Staeck, Heidelberg.
- Honey-Pump at Workplace (1977) Installation, Louisiana Museum, Denmark.
- Four Blackboards (1972) Assemblage, Tate Collection, London.
- Encounter with Beuys (1974-84) Samuel R Guggenheim Museum, New York.

For a guide to art appreciation, see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture.

• For biographies of other avant-garde sculptors and painters, see: Modern Artists.
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