THE NATURAL WORLD
Joseph Beuys' fascination with plants, animals, and the natural sciences developed early and remained strong throughout his life. As a child, he collected local plants and insects and catalogued them in notebooks. He also set up an extensive laboratory in his parents' apartment and conducted experiments in chemistry and physics. His first career plans were to study medicine and become a pediatrician. Though eventually he enrolled in art school instead, he retained his personal interest in the natural world, becoming especially well-versed in the properties of herbs and their use in natural remedies.
In his early interactions with nature he had used the principles of the traditional scientific method--observation, experimentation, recording of data. In his artwork, however, he referenced nature poetically, as metaphor or symbol. For example, the many images of waterfalls, rivers, geysers, glaciers, and mountains that appear in his drawings and prints are not traditional landscapes, but rather references to the primeval sculpting of the earth's surface by natural forces. Another recurring metaphor is found in his many images of a human-figure-as-plant whose head sprouts "roots" that extend into the clouds. This fantastic image was Beuys' assertion that while man is an earthly being, he is nourished through the spirit.
The bridge between the earthly and spiritual realms is represented in Beuys' work more often by animals, which he thought of as "figures that pass freely from one level of existence to another." In many cultures animals are guardian spirits for shamans, companions on their celestial journeys. Beuys often used animals in his actions, bringing them along, so to speak, on his own journeys. He carried a dead hare in several early performances, shared the stage with a spectral white horse in the action Titus/Iphigenia (1969), and most famously, spent a week in a gallery space with a coyote in I Like America and America Likes Me (1974), an action described as a "dialogue" with the animal. All of these performances suggest the shaman's special affinity with animals: he can understand their language, share their particular abilities, even transform himself into one of them.
Beuys identified personally with several animals, most notably the hare. He always carried a rabbit's foot or tuft of rabbit fur as a talisman, and jokingly cited the pointed shape of his ears as proof of his close relationship to the creature. He also had an affinity for the stag, an animal with deep ties to Germanic legend and northern myth; he sometimes referred to himself as "stagleader." And in the multiple A Party for Animals (1969), he simply declared himself to be an animal by including his own name--along with those of the elk, wolf, beaver, horse, stork, and many others--on the list of the party's "active members." For Beuys, maintaining a close relationship with animals was crucial for him so that he could learn from what he believed was their superior intelligence (intuition).
Strengthening the link between art and science, or intuition and logic, was a key concept for Beuys and the basis for his identification with Leonardo da Vinci. On view here are his two notebooks of prints inspired by da Vinci's Codices Madrid (14911505), a pair of sketchbooks by the Renaissance master that were discovered in 1965. Beuys saw his images as contemporary counterparts to da Vinci's sketches--his own attempt, at the end of the 20th century, to make visible the underlying connections among technology, the natural world, and the arts.
Walker Art Center curator
Joseph Beuys Untitled [Stag] from Trace 1, 1974
lithograph on paper
Alfred and Marie Greisinger Collection, Walker Art Center, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1992
(c)1997 Estate of Joseph Beuys/ARS, NY
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.
Temkin, Ann. "Joseph Beuys: Life Drawing." In Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys. Ann Temkin and Bernice Rose. Philadelphia and New York: Philadelphia Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, 1993.
Tisdall, Caroline, and Nicholas Serota, eds. Joseph Beuys: The Secret Block for a Secret Person in Ireland. Oxford: Museum of Modern Art, 1974.