Joseph Beuys I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974
René Block Gallery, New York Photo: Caroline Tisdall (c)1997 Estate of Joseph Beuys/ARS, NY
Joseph Beuys viewed performance art as a medium with the potential for self healing and social transformation. He believed that by enacting self-invented rituals, he could assume the role of a modern-day shaman and affect the world around him. His performances, or "actions," utilized elements of the absurd and contained layers of meanings and symbols. But even within a seemingly chaotic environment, Beuys attempted to create an atmosphere for his viewer that would unite the intuitive, passionate soul with the intellectual mind, and thus prepare the individual for a spiritual evolution.
Beuys created and carried out 70 actions between 1963 and 1986, the year of his death. During this time, he also created approximately 50 installations, participated in more than 130 solo exhibitions, and conducted numerous interviews, seminars, lectures, and discussions. His public persona, "Beuys the artist," was created almost immediately after his first public performance and soon became indistinguishable from "Beuys the man." He wore a signature costume of jeans, felt hat, and fishing vest, both onstage and off, and repeatedly used certain materials in his work, such as fat and felt, which referenced his earlier life and wartime experience. "The whole process of living is my creative act," he said.
Beuys was introduced to performance art in 1962 when he encountered Fluxus, a nonconformist international group of artists who sought to upset bourgeois perceptions of art and life. Fluxus included fellow artists George Maciunas, Nam June Paik, John Cage, George Brecht, Robert Filliou, Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Yoko Ono, Ben Patterson, Daniel Spoerri, Wolf Vostell, and Emmett Williams. According to Erwin Heerich, a friend of Beuys, "The contact with Fluxus endowed the issue of art and life, in Beuys' mind, with a radically different significance. In Fluxus he recognized a vital current that released new impulses in himself--and here the other side of Beuys emerged, his powerful sensitivity to, and talent for, the public arena and the media."
In 1963 Beuys invited Fluxus artists to perform at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art. Brecht, Maciunas, Paik, Vostell, and Williams participated, and Beuys performed his first two public actions, Composition for 2 Musicians and Siberian Symphony, 1st Movement.
Beuys' actions were often described as intimate, autobiographical, politically charged, and intense. Actions would typically last 45 minutes to nine hours, and though his actions were not rehearsed, Beuys often created a score or "partitur" (as opposed to a script) in which he would plan the objects that would be used and the sequence of the performance. Beuys viewed each action as a new version of a basic theme and an attempt to make his philosophy more comprehensible. He also believed that the less literal the performances were, the easier it would be for the audience members to translate his message into their own lives.
Beuys traveled to the United States in 1974 and performed an action entitled I like America and America Likes Me at the René Block Gallery in New York. The action actually began at Kennedy Airport, where friends wrapped him in felt and transported him to the gallery in an ambulance. Beuys then spent several days in a room with only a felt blanket, a flashlight, a cane that looked like a shepherd's staff, copies of the Wall Street Journal (which were delivered daily), and a live coyote. His choice of employing a coyote was perhaps an acknowledgment of an animal that holds great spiritual significance for Native Americans, or a commentary on a country that through its Western expansion had become "lost" America.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, Beuys increasingly used his actions as a forum for his political and environmental beliefs. In 1982 he undertook his first large-scale ecological action, 7000 Oaks, for the exhibition documenta 7. Beuys planted the first of 7,000 trees on Friedrichsplatz, outside the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel. This was the very same location that he intended to plant the final tree. His plan was for the trees to be planted in the urban areas of Kassel, and next to each tree was to stand a four-foot-high basalt column. He involved the local community in the planting of trees outside schools, in playgrounds, and along city streets. By 1986, the year of Beuys' death, 5,500 trees had been planted. On June 12, 1987, at the opening of documenta 8, his son, Wenzel, completed the project by planting the 7,000th tree.
Joseph Beuys repeatedly said that his art was intended to arouse in other people a "spiritual response," and it was his role to provide "the means to point out that the human being is a creative being." Perhaps he could have made his messages more clear, but for Beuys, "Art is not there to provide knowledge in direct ways. It produces deepened perceptions of experience. . . . Art is not there to be simply understood, or we would have no need of art."
-Emily Rekow, Walker Art Center Department of Education and Community Programs
Adriani, Götz, Winfried Konnertz, and Karin Thomas. Joseph Beuys: Life and Works. Translated into English by Patricia Lech. Woodbury, New York: Barron's Educational Series, Inc., 1979.
Milwaukee Art Museum. Warhol/Beuys/Polke. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Milwaukee Art Museum, 1987.
Schneede, Uwe. Joseph Beuys: Die Aktionen. Ostfildern-Ruit bei Stuttgart: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1994.
Stachelhaus, Heiner. Joseph Beuys. Translated into English by David Britt. New York: Abbeville Press, 1991.
Tisdall, Caroline. Joseph Beuys, Coyote. Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 1976.