Rose for Direct Democracy
Joseph Beuys Rose for Direct Democracy, 1973
glass graduated cylinder with inscription, rose
Alfred and Marie Greisinger Collection, Walker Art Center, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1992
(c)1997 Estate of Joseph Beuys/ARS, NY
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Joseph Beuys, like many artists working in the 20th century, enlarged the scope of his work by incorporating materials from the outside world into his multiples, installations, and performances. The choices, however, were not random and the materials were never neutral. Rather, Beuys viewed certain materials as having important associations with his past, and through repeated use they attained a personal symbolism. Other materials were viewed as having magical or therapeutic power both for Beuys and for the audience or viewer.

In his work, Beuys developed many ideas about harmonizing the forces of nature and civilization, man and technology, and art and life. Rose for Direct Democracy (1973), one of his most famous multiples, consists of a single rose in a graduated cylinder. This simple image expresses the importance of uniting love and knowledge, passion and science. The rose, a flower that gradually blossoms from within, is also a symbol of revolution for Beuys. Perhaps it was his grounding in reality and exploration of everyday issues that determined his preference for using materials that were, in his opinion, "very basic to life and not associated with art."

Beuys' attempt to avoid "artiness" was complemented by his desire to conserve resources, and thus resulted in his use of found objects. He preferred items that could easily be found in an average household and included such objects such as scissors, thread, adhesive bandages, rubber stamps, glass jars, and soda bottles in his works. Beuys was once asked in an interview why he chose to use two manufactured bottles for Evervess II 1 (1968). He responded by saying, "I wouldn't have ever made the object. I simply used the bottles because the elements were consistently there and when I find those elements somewhere, then I say: Yes, this fits in. I can use it."

Food was another important medium for Beuys. He enjoyed the immediate recognition of edible materials, as well as the metaphorical image of art as the essence of human nourishment. Chocolate, sausage, gelatin, margarine, and butter are all foods that Beuys utilized in his artworks. He often used foods that over time would transform, and welcomed materials that were not fixed, but rather had the ability to go through chemical reactions, color changes, decay, and regeneration. Beuys also recognized that specific foods had deep roots in certain religions or traditions, such as bread and fish, which carry symbolic meaning in the Christian faith, among others.

On occasion, Beuys has been criticized for creating "ugly art" made out of mundane materials. In actuality, his choice of materials is greatly affected by his ideas about after-images and anti-images. Many people are familiar with the occular phenomenon of complimentary colors: if you look at a red light or image, and then close your eyes, there is an after-image in your mind's eye that is green, which is the complimentary color of red. Similarly, if you look at one of Beuys works that is minimal or gray, it is his hope that he will have evoked inside you "a very colorful world as an anti-image."

Beuys often recounted the story of his plane crash in 1943 as the source of his iconography and explanation for two of his signature materials, fat and felt (see Biography guide). Felt is a fabric of wool, often mixed with fur, hair, cotton, or rayon fibers, which have been worked together through pressure, heat, or chemical action. Felt easily integrates into various environments by absorbing anything with which it comes into contact (fat, dirt, dust, water, sound). Beuys first used felt in 1960 in smaller objects and in combination with fat, and he liked to play with both the negative and positive psychological character of felt. For example, in his piece Infiltration-homogen for grand piano (1966), a piano was wrapped with a felt "skin," which trapped the sound inside, alluding to powerlessness and an inability to communicate. In contrast, Beuys evokes images of protection, insulation, and spiritual warmth with his Felt Suit (1970).

Fat, the material found in animal tissue composed of glycerides of fatty acids, was an ideal material for Beuys to use to signify chaos and the potential for spiritual transcendence. Fat has the ability to exist as a physical example of two extremes: a flowing liquid when warm and a defined solid when cold. Beuys also believed that fat was psychologically effective, in that "people instinctively feel it relates to inner processes and feelings." Fat, a nurturing, life-sustaining substance, is essential for nourishment and fuel. Beuys began using fat in the 1960s with the installations Fat Corners (1960, 1962) and a sculpture entitled Fat Chair (1964). According to him, these pieces started "an almost chemical process among people that would have been impossible if I had only spoken theoretically."

If fat is the warm, chaotic energy of the world, then copper, according to Beuys, is a material that can transmit and channel this energy. It is a reddish-brown metallic element that is an excellent conductor of electricity and heat. Copper is also one of the softest metallic elements and is often associated with the planet Venus and the female gender.

Iron, on the other hand, is extremely hard and was often used by Beuys to symbolize the male gender or to reference the planet Mars. Iron, the second most abundant metallic element in the earth's crust, is often called "the strong metal" and used to make tools and machinery. In other works, iron symbolizes the strongest link between the bloodstream and the earth, and therefore represents an elemental connection.

Other metallic elements used by Beuys included: gold, associated with alchemy and myth; steel, which may symbolize hard reason; zinc, which can represent insulation; and silver, a counter metal to lead that represents conductivity.

Honey was first used by Beuys as a material in 1965 in his action How to Explain Paintings to a Dead Hare, in which he anointed his head with honey and gold. Honey not only has a connection with nourishment, but it also has a certain mystical quality. For example, according to Beuys, "in mythology, honey was regarded as a spiritual substance and bees were godly." He also viewed the organization of bees as very similar to the principles of socialism in that an end product is made through principles of cooperation and brotherhood.

Beeswax, the tallowlike substance secreted by bees and used for building honeycombs, is another substance that Beuys used, often as the antithetical property of liquid honey. Beuys' interest in this sculptural material is closest to the complex relationships between natural structures described by anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) in his nine lectures "On Bees" in 1923. Steiner likened the bees' process of forming solid geometric honeycombs to the changes that continuously take place in the human body and in the earth itself. Occasionally, Beuys would also use wax earplugs during performances to shut himself off from outside sounds and emphasize the necessity of "inner listening."

Braunkreuz, a material invented by Beuys that translates from German as "brown cross," is a substance he began using in the early 1960s. It is an ordinary house paint that he often mixed with the blood of a hare. The end result is an opaque, reddish-brown substance that Beuys did not consider a color, but rather a generic medium for sculptural expression. It became a metaphor for the earth as a protective medium, and it evoked the image of rust, dirt, dried blood, or excrement. As a term, it is loaded with references to Christianity, German militarism, Nazism, emergency, war, and the occult. Beuys often used Braunkreuz both as a natural, practical covering and also in a more shamanistic, magical way, as an insulator of spiritual forms.

Throughout his work, Beuys maintained that he worked not with symbols but with materials. In fact, he continually stressed that interpretations of his work should be used only for educational purposes. However, on occasion he would acknowledge that even though his materials may illustrate different ideas, they do "share common meanings and intentions both physical and symbolic."

-Emily Rekow, Walker Art Center department of education and community programs, with research by Florence Peterson

Felt Angle - 1985
Joseph Beuys Felt Angle, 1985
Alfred and Marie Greisinger Collection, Walker Art Center, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1992
(c)1997 Estate of Joseph Beuys/ARS, NY

Joseph Beuys Element, 1982
copper, iron
Alfred and Marie Greisinger Collection, Walker Art Center, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1992
(c)1997 Estate of Joseph Beuys/ARS, NY

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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.

Stachelhaus, Heiner. Joseph Beuys. Translated into English by David Britt. New York: Abbeville Press, 1991.

Temkin, Ann and Bernice Rose. Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys. Philadelphia and New York: Philadelphia Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, 1993.

Tisdall, Caroline. Joseph Beuys. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1979.