Collections> Browse Joseph Beuys

Collections> Browse Joseph Beuys

Joseph Beuys
Holdings (0)

Wikipedia About Joseph Beuys

Joseph Beuys (May 12, 1921 – January 23, 1986) was a German Fluxus, Happening and performance artist as well as a sculptor, installation artist, graphic artist, art theorist and pedagogue of art. His extensive work is grounded in concepts of humanism, social philosophy and anthroposophy; it culminates in his “extended definition of art” and the idea of social sculpture as a gesamtkunstwerk, for which he claimed a creative, participatory role in shaping society and politics. His career was characterized by passionate, even acrimonious public debate, but he is now regarded as one of the most influential German artists of the second half of the 20th century. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Joseph Beuys, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Joseph Beuys conceived one of the most compelling—and still provocative—aesthetic programs of the postwar period, one that continues to cause reverberations. His sculpture, performances, lectures, and political activism were all part of a grand, enormous goal: the transformation of Western culture into a more peaceful, democratic, and creative system. His famous slogan “Everyone is an artist” proposed that this could be achieved, if only human beings would apply their innate creative energies toward positive change; he christened this kind of activity “social sculpture.” These were highly utopian aspirations, no doubt, but Beuys dedicated all his energy to them, hoping to stimulate the change he believed was necessary to reinvigorate society. Along the way he developed a range of wildly inventive art forms and served as a model for a whole generation of young artists.

Born in 1921 in Krefeld, in northwestern Germany, Beuys was the only child in a middle-class, strongly Catholic family. As a youth he pursued dual interests in art and the natural sciences, eventually choosing a career in medicine. But in 1940 he joined the Luftwaffe for a five-year tour during which he was wounded several times and held in a British prisoner-of-war camp; he returned home physically, emotionally, and spiritually depleted. Upon his recovery he redirected his energy toward art, spending the better part of a decade studying, reading, and drawing, and in 1961 he was appointed to a professorship at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, then an active center for contemporary art. During the early 1960s he became acquainted with the experimental work of the group known as Fluxus, who invented hybrid art forms that erased boundaries between literature, music, visual art, performance, and everyday life. Fluxus was a critical catalyst that enabled Beuys to develop his own practice into an innovative fusion of organic and natural materials, ritualized movement, and complex, symbolic iconography. His “expanded concept of art” eventually came to include teaching, lectures, discussion, and political activities as well as traditional artistic media—a radical concept, even today.

An important part of Beuys’ plan for the broad distribution of his ideas was the production of multiples—two- or three-dimensional objects made in multiple copies. He spoke of them as vehicles, traveling objects meant to move his ideas through space, through which he “stayed in touch with people.”1 He envisioned them wandering in many directions, serving as proxies for his charismatic presence and sparking debate, just as his lectures and actions often did. If one had seen Beuys himself speak or perform, his multiples could serve as memory aids or even relics. (The whiff of sanctity, iconicity, and magic that drifts along with this word is not unsuited to Beuys’ ideas about the artist’s role in society.) By the time of his death in 1986, he had made hundreds of multiples in many formats, including sculpture, prints, found objects, recordings, videos, photographs, broadsides, postcards, and books; he employed all of his signature materials—from fat, felt, copper, iron, and wax to text, sound, and moving imagery. Each multiple is a condensed notation of a moment in Beuys’ work or life: an idea, a material, a performance, a drawing, a lecture, an exhibition, a journey, a collaboration. As a group, they provide as complete a picture of his richly diverse output as possible, allowing viewers who may be far removed from him in distance or time an extraordinary proximity to the vitality of his ideas.

When the Walker Art Center’s staff was considering, in 1991, how best to represent Beuys in the collection, the wide-ranging inclusiveness of a large body of multiples seemed potentially more useful than the relatively limited thematic associations possible in a single sculptural work. A comprehensive (but not complete) collection of multiples was located and eventually acquired from Alfred and Marie Greisinger, collectors of contemporary art and proprietors of a pastry café in Baden-Baden, Germany. Since then, the Walker has continued to fill gaps in the collection and, at this writing, holds 492 of the 625 multiples Beuys made over a twenty-year period.

Among the best known of them is Filzanzug (Felt Suit), which Beuys made and wore in 1970 during a performance with American artist Terry Fox at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Felt was a constant in Beuys’ sculptural vocabulary, and signified for him not only physical warmth and insulating properties but what he called “spiritual warmth or the beginning of an evolution.”2 His phrase suggests physical transformations that are brought about through heat (as in incubation), as well as conversions of the strictly metaphysical type; wearing the Felt Suit, therefore, could be doubly transformative. Its form is basic and its tailoring purposely crude, without buttons or buttonholes, in keeping with the primal quality of the fabric. As Beuys put it, “Felt doesn’t strive to be smart, so to speak. One has to conserve the character, omit mere trifles… . ” This garment thus alludes to some of the fundamentals of human well-being: warmth and continual growth.

Schlitten (Sled) of 1969 also deals with the necessities of survival, but this object is associated with the very personal (if semi-mythical) tale of Beuys’ own near-demise after a plane crash during World War II. As he later told it, the fighter jet in which he was flying was shot down during a blizzard in the Crimea, a region in Eastern Europe. Members of a nomadic tribe discovered him in the snow and tended his wounds by covering them with fat and wrapping him in felt to generate warmth. The story, which seems to have been embellished by the artist, his translators, or both, and was quickly discredited by (American) critics, has nonetheless endured, in part because it is a powerful metaphor for the near-death and rebirth of both an individual and a nation after the devastation wrought by National Socialism.3

In 1974 Beuys expanded on the notion of discussion-as-art by structuring his first visit to the United States as a lecture tour, with stops in New York, Chicago, and Minneapolis. The tour was an extended performance of sorts, a social sculpture that he later dubbed “Energy Plan for the Western Man.” For those unable to hear him speak, he produced sixteen multiples to commemorate the trip, including postcards, prints, a videotape, and several altered found objects. One of them, Amerikanischer Hasenzucker (American Hare Sugar), came out of a chance discovery during dinner at Nye’s Polonaise Room in Minneapolis on his last night in the United States. On the table he noticed a sugar packet bearing the image of a hare—with the stag, one of his totem animals—and collected as many as he could find, later using them as one element in a multiple.4 The packet bears an odd rendering of the animal gazing at its reflection in a pool of water—an image that might suggest Beuys’ self-conscious attention to his own persona, which he often characterized as that of shaman or prophet pointing the way to a better future.

Beuys’ work in all its rich forms is highly allusive and draws on much of the accumulated knowledge of Western civilization. While the success of his ambitious program has been the subject of much debate, his enormous influence on the development of postwar art is undeniable. His exploration of sculptural form and materials, his mesmerizing performances, and his ideas about the powerful potential of consciously applied creativity are still catalytic forces in the art world. Coming to terms with his involvement in the war was a lifelong process that informs, at least obliquely, much of his art; at its best, his work is a rare merger of groundbreaking formal exploration and heartbreaking human truth.

  1. Quoted in “Questions to Joseph Beuys,” an interview by Jörg Schellmann and Bernd Klüser, reprinted in Jörg Schellmann, ed., Joseph Beuys: The Multiples (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University Art Museums; Minneapolis: Walker Art Center; Munich and New York: Edition Schellmann, 1997), 9.

  2. Quotes in this paragraph from ibid., 16.

  3. For a comprehensive discussion of the crash story and its implications, see Peter Nisbet’s essay “Crash Course,” in Gene Ray, ed., Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy (New York: D.A.P.; Sarasota, Florida: John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 2001), 5–18.

  4. More information about this first U.S. visit can be found in Joan Rothfuss, “Joseph Beuys: Echoes in America,” in Mapping the Legacy, 37–54; and in Klaus Staeck and Gerhard Steidl, Beuys in Amerika (Heidelberg, Germany: Edition Staeck, 1987).

Rothfuss, Joan. “Joseph Beuys.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center


biography Joseph Beuys: A Brief Biography Rothfuss, Joan, 1997

Joseph Beuys was born in 1921 in Krefeld, a city in northwestern Germany near the Dutch border. He grew up in the nearby towns of Kleve and Rindern, the only child in a middle class, strongly Catholic family. During his youth he pursued dual interests in the natural sciences and art, and he chose a career in medicine. In 1940 he joined the military, volunteering in order to avoid the draft. He was trained as an aircraft radio operator and combat pilot, and during his years of active duty he was seriously wounded numerous times. At the end of the war he was held in a British prisoner-of-war camp for several months, and returned to Kleve in 1945.

Coming to terms with his involvement in the war was a long process and figures, at least obliquely, in much of his artwork. Beuys often said that his interest in fat and felt as sculptural materials grew out of a wartime experience–a plane crash in the Crimea, after which he was rescued by nomadic Tartars who rubbed him with fat and wrapped him in felt to heal and warm his body. While the story appears to have little grounding in real events (Beuys himself downplayed its importance in a 1980 interview), its poetics are strong enough to have made the story one of the most enduring aspects of his mythic biography.

On his return from the war Beuys abandoned his plans for a career in medicine and enrolled in the Düsseldorf Academy of Art to study sculpture. He graduated in 1952, and during the next years focused on drawing–he produced thousands during the 1950s alone–and reading, ranging freely through philosophy, science, poetry, literature, and the occult. He married in 1959 and two years later, at the age of 40, was appointed to a professorship at his alma mater.

During the early 1960s, Düsseldorf developed into an important center for contemporary art and Beuys became acquainted with the experimental work of artists such as Nam June Paik and the Fluxus group, whose public “concerts” brought a new fluidity to the boundaries between literature, music, visual art, performance, and everyday life. Their ideas were a catalyst for Beuys’ own performances, which he called “actions,” and his evolving ideas about how art could play a wider role in society. He began to publicly exhibit his large-scale sculptures, small objects, drawings, and room installations. He also created numerous actions and began making editioned objects and prints called multiples.

As the decades advanced, his commitment to political reform increased and he was involved in the founding of several activist groups: in 1967, the German Student Party, whose platform included worldwide disarmament and educational reform; in 1970, the Organization for Direct Democracy by Referendum, which proposed increased political power for individuals; and in 1972, the Free International University, which emphasized the creative potential in all human beings and advocated cross-pollination of ideas across disciplines. In 1979 he was one of 500 founding members of the Green Party.

His charismatic presence, his urgent and public calls for reform of all kinds, and his unconventional artistic style (incorporating ritualized movement and sound, and materials such as fat, felt, earth, honey, blood, and even dead animals) gained him international notoriety during these decades, but it also cost him his job. Beuys was dismissed in 1972 from his teaching position over his insistence that admission to the art school be open to anyone who wished to study there.

While he counted debate, discussion, and teaching as part of his expanded definition of art, Beuys also continued to make objects, installations, multiples, and performances. His reputation in the international art world solidified after a 1979 retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, and he lived the last years of his life at a hectic pace, participating in dozens of exhibitions and traveling widely on behalf of his organizations. Beuys died in 1986 in Düsseldorf. In the subsequent decade his students have carried on his campaign for change, and his ideas and artwork have continued to spark lively debate. FURTHER READING 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. “Joseph Beuys: An Introduction to His Life and Work.” In Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys. Philadelphia and New York: Philadelphia Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, 1993.

Joan Rothfuss, Joseph Beuys: A Brief Biography, 1997.
artworks — Joseph Beuys — Collections — Walker Art Center