Joseph Beuys (1921-1985)--"sculptor, painter, draftsman, graphic designer, action artist, art theorist, politician, and poet"--decided to devote himself to art during World War II, when he was a radio operator in the German air force. Earlier, he thought he wanted to be a doctor, but just prior to enlisting he had spent a year as an acrobat in the circus so nothing was certain....
Beuys had been fascinated since childhood by the natural sciences, and thought that medicine would offer a way to integrate his interest in science with his urge to bring about healing. He would actually spend his life doing these very things--but art, not medicine, would be his vehicle.
After the war, Beuys entered the Düsseldorf Academy of Art in 1947, first working under the sculptor Joseph Enseling and next, with Ewald Mataré. During this time, Beuys questioned traditional academic parameters and sought to expand his artistic range, technical abilities, and his understanding of art through his subject matter, sculptural techniques, and the use of non-traditional materials. Guiding his exploration was the desire to forge an interdisciplinary, holistic, and systematic theory of art that could accommodate his interests in science and philosophy.
Upon completing his studies at the Academy of Art in 1951, Beuys produced thousands of works on paper in oil, watercolor, ink, and pencil. The regular appearance of archetypal renderings of the female figure and animal and plant forms--particularly the stag, elk, hare, swan, and honeybees--distinguishes the work of this prolific period.
During this time, Beuys developed a friendship with Hans and Franz Joseph van der Grinten in his hometown of Kleve, Germany, which became a close, lifelong artist-patron relationship. The brothers collected Beuys' work from early on, providing him with the financial and emotional support that enabled Beuys' first exhibitions. In the mid-1950s Beuys became depressed, a condition that lasted several years. He stayed on the van der Grinten's farm when he was ill; the brothers and their mother helped him to recover his psychological health by urging him to get out of bed into the fields and work on their farm. When Beuys emerged from this period, he seemed to have regained a sense of purpose and direction, "This was the stage at which I began systematic work on certain basic principles." These principles developed into his expanded concept of art, and later, his Theory of Social Sculpture. In retrospect Beuys said this was a period of profound change and regeneration for him.
It has been suggested that this period was not only one involving profound reflection on his art-making, or "upheaval in the artistic development," but also a time of reflection on the "National Socialist inhumanities" of the World War II.[3a] Because Beuys suffered during this period as well as during his five years in the war when he was injured several times, the dynamics of injury and healing are ubiquitous themes in his work. Surviving the devastation of World War II, Beuys saw Western society as suffering from a widespread trauma--psychic, social, political, and ecological-- from which it must be delivered. Art could provide a means of healing, even redemption.
The question of the myth, and the use of these materials as referents of it are two of the most well-known aspects of Beuys' art. Subsequent to telling the myth, Beuys spent a considerable time clarifying the intent behind the use of certain subaesthetic materials. In 1970, he explained the role of autobiography in his art in an interview with Jörg Schellmann and Bernd Klüser.
Beuys' Theory of (Social) Sculpture conceptualized the passage of things (raw material) from a chaotic, undetermined state to a determined, ordered state through the molding process of sculpture. He presented the principle of creativity manifest in artistic practice (the molding process of sculpture) as a model for the inherently creative aspects of all social processes. This is the essence of his Theory of Sculpture, which was the modus operandi of his lifelong artistic project.
Beuys' life changed drastically after this period--he got married and had a child. In 1961 he was appointed Professor of Monumental Sculpture at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art by the unanimous support of his colleagues.BACK TO MAIN MENU