Joseph Beuys (German: [ˈjoːzɛf ˈbɔʏs]; 12 May 1921 – 23 January 1986) was a German Fluxus, happening, and performance artist as well as a sculptor, installation artist, graphic artist, art theorist, and pedagogue.
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 open public debates on a very wide range of subjects including political, environmental, social and long term cultural trends. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century.
Offset poster for Beuys' 1974 US lecture-series "Energy Plan for the Western Man", Ronald Feldman Gallery
12 May 1921|
23 January 1986 (aged 64)|
|Known for||Performances, sculpture, visual art, aesthetics, social philosophy|
Joseph Beuys was born in Krefeld, the son of the merchant Josef Jakob Beuys (1888–1958) and Johanna Maria Margarete Beuys (born Hülsermann, 1889–1974). The parents had moved from Geldern to Krefeld in 1910, and Beuys was born there on 12 May 1921. In autumn of that year the family moved to Kleve, an industrial town in the Lower Rhine region of Germany, close to the Dutch border. There, Joseph attended primary school (Katholische Volksschule) and secondary school (Staatliches Gymnasium Cleve, now the Freiherr-vom-Stein-Gymnasium). His teachers considered him to have a talent for drawing; he also took piano and cello lessons. On several occasions he visited the studio of the Flemish painter and sculptor Achilles Moortgat. Other interests include Nordic history and mythology and especially the natural sciences. According to his own account, when the Nazi Party staged their book-burning in Kleve on 19 May 1933 in the courtyard of his school, he salvaged the book Systema Naturae by Carl Linnaeus "...from that large, flaming pile".
In 1936 Beuys was a member of the Hitler Youth; the organization comprised a large majority of German children and adolescents at that time and later that year membership became compulsory. He participated in the Nuremberg rally in September 1936, when he was 15 years old.
From an early age, Beuys displayed an interest in the natural sciences and had considered a career in medical studies, but in his last years of school–possibly influenced by pictures of Wilhelm Lehmbruck's sculptures–he had decided to become a sculptor himself. Around 1939 he worked for a circus on the side, postering and taking care of animals for about a year. He graduated from school in the spring of 1941 with his Abitur.
In 1941, Beuys volunteered for the Luftwaffe. He began his military training as an aircraft radio operator in 1941, under the tutelage of Heinz Sielmann in Posen (now Poznań) and they both attended lectures in Biology and Zoology at the University of Posen, at that time a Germanized University. It is also during this time that he began to seriously consider a career as an artist.
In 1942, Beuys was stationed in the Crimea and was a member of various combat bomber units. From 1943 on he was deployed as rear-gunner in the Ju 87 "Stuka" dive-bomber, initially stationed in Königgrätz, later in the eastern Adriatic region. Drawings and sketches from that time have been preserved and already show his characteristic style. On 16 March 1944, Beuys's plane crashed on the Crimean Front close to Znamianka, (then "Freiberg"). From this incident, Beuys fashioned the myth that he was rescued from the crash by nomadic Tatar tribesmen, who had wrapped his broken body in animal fat and felt and nursed him back to health:
Records state that Beuys was conscious, recovered by a German search commando, and there were no Tatars in the village at that time. Beuys was brought to a military hospital where he stayed for three weeks from 17 March to 7 April. It is consistent with Beuys' work that his biography would have been subject to his own reinterpretation; this particular story has served as a powerful myth of origins for Beuys's artistic identity, as well as providing an initial interpretive key to his use of unconventional materials, amongst which felt and fat were central.
Despite prior injuries, he was deployed to the Western Front in August 1944, into a poorly equipped and trained paratrooper unit. He received the German Wound Badge in gold for being wounded in action more than five times. On the day after the German unconditional surrender on 8 May 1945, Beuys was taken prisoner in Cuxhaven and brought to a British internment camp from which he was released 5 August of that year. He returned to his parents who had moved to a suburb of Kleve.
After his return to Kleve, Beuys met the local sculptor Walter Brüx and painter Hanns Lamers, who encouraged him to take up art as a full-time career. He joined the Kleve Artists Association that had been established by Brüx and Lamers. On 1 April 1946, Beuys enrolled in the "Monumental Sculpture" program at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts. Initially assigned to the class of Joseph Enseling, with a traditional, representational focus he successfully applied to change his mentor after three semesters and joined the small class of Ewald Mataré in 1947, who had rejoined the academy the preceding year, after having been banned by the Nazis in 1939. The anthroposophic philosophy of Rudolf Steiner became an increasingly important basis for Beuys' reasoning, in his view it is: "... an approach that refers to reality in a direct and practical way, and that by comparison, all forms of epistemological discourse remain without direct relevance to current trends and movements". Reaffirming his interest in science, Beuys re-established contact with Heinz Sielmann and assisted with a number of nature- and wildlife documentaries in the region between 1947 and 1949.
In 1947 he, with other artists including Hann Trier, was a founder member of the group 'Donnerstag-Gesellschaft' (Thursday Group). The Group organised discussions, exhibitions, events and concerts between 1947 and 1950 in Alfter Castle.
In 1951, Mataré accepted Beuys into his master class. where he shared a studio with Erwin Heerich that he kept until 1954, a year after graduation. Nobel laureate Günter Grass recollects Beuys' influence in Mataré's class as shaping "a Christian anthroposophic atmosphere". He read Joyce, impressed by the "Irish-mythological elements" in his works, the German romantics Novalis and Friedrich Schiller, and studied Galilei and Leonardo–whom he admired as examples of artists and scientists who are conscious of their position in society and who work accordingly. Early shows include participations in the Kleve Artists Association annual exhibition in Kleve's Villa Koekkoek where Beuys showed aquarelles and sketches, a solo show at the home of Hans(German) and Franz Joseph van der Grinten(German) in Kranenburg and a show in the Von der Heydt Museum in Wuppertal.
Beuys finished his education in 1953, graduating as master student from Mataré's class, 32 years old at that time. He had a modest income from a number of crafts-oriented commissions: a gravestone and several pieces of furniture. Throughout the 1950s, Beuys struggled with a dire financial situation and with the trauma of his wartime experiences. His output consisted mainly of drawings, which he produced in the thousands, but he also produced some sculptures. Through his drawing practice, Beuys explored a range of unconventional materials and developed his artistic agenda, exploring metaphorical and symbolic connections between natural phenomena and philosophical systems. Often difficult to interpret in themselves, these drawings constitute a speculative, contingent and rather hermetic exploration of the material world and how that world might be connected to the realm of myth and philosophy. In 1974, 327 drawings, the majority of which were made during the late 1940s and 1950s, were collected into a group entitled The Secret Block for a Secret Person in Ireland (a reference to Joyce), and exhibited in Oxford, Edinburgh, Dublin and Belfast.
In 1956, artistic self-doubt and material impoverishment led to a physical and psychological crisis, and Beuys entered a period of serious depression. He recovered at the house of his most important early patrons, the van der Grinten brothers, in Kranenburg. In 1958, Beuys participated in an international competition for an Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial, but his proposal did not win and his design was never realised. Also in 1958, Beuys began a cycle of drawings related to Joyce's Ulysses. Completed in ca. 1961, the six exercise books of drawings would constitute, Beuys declared, an extension of Joyce's seminal novel. In 1959 Beuys married Eva Wurmbach. They had two children together, Wenzel (born 1961) and Jessyka (born 1964).
In 1961, Beuys was appointed professor of 'monumental sculpture' at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. His students were artists like Anatol Herzfeld, Katharina Sieverding, Jörg Immendorff, Blinky Palermo, Peter Angermann, Elias Maria Reti, Walter Dahn, Johannes Stüttgen Sigmar Polke and Friederike Weske.
What served to launch Beuys into the public consciousness was that which transpired following his performance at the Technical College Aachen in 1964. As part of a festival of new art coinciding with the 20th anniversary of an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler, Beuys created a performance or Aktion. The performance was interrupted by a group of students, one of whom attacked Beuys, punching him in the face. A photograph of the artist, nose bloodied and arm raised, was circulated in the media. It was for this 1964 festival that Beuys produced an idiosyncratic CV, which he titled Lebenslauf/Werklauf (Life Course/Work Course). The document was a self-consciously fictionalised account of the artist's life, in which historical events mingle with metaphorical and mythical speech (he refers to his birth as the 'Exhibition of a wound;' he claims his Ulysses Extension to have been carried out 'at James Joyce's request' – impossible, given that the writer was, by 1961, long dead). This document marks a blurring of fact and fiction that was to be characteristic of Beuys' self-created persona, as well as the source of much controversy (although, significantly, there is no mention here of the famous plane crash).
Beuys manifested his social philosophical ideas in abolishing entry requirements to his Düsseldorf class. Throughout the late 1960s this renegade policy caused great institutional friction, which came to a head in October 1972 when Beuys was dismissed from his post. That year he found 142 applicants who had not been accepted that he wished to enroll under his teaching. 16 of them agreed and he then occupied the offices of the academy to gain a hearing about their admission. They were admitted by the school, but the relationship between Beuys and the school were irreconcilable. The dismissal, which Beuys refused to accept, produced a wave of protests from students, artists and critics. Although now bereft of an institutional position, Beuys continued an intense schedule of public lectures and discussions, as well as becoming increasingly active in German politics. Despite this dismissal, the walkway on the academy's side of the Rhine bears Beuys as its namesake. Later in life, Beuys became a visiting professor at various institutions (1980–1985).
"The most important discussion is epistemological in character," stated Beuys, demonstrating his desire for continuous intellectual exchange. Beuys attempted to apply philosophical concepts to his pedagogical practice. Beuys' Action, "How to explain pictures to a dead hare," exemplifies a performance that is especially relevant to the pedagogical field because it deals with "the difficulty of explaining things". The artist spent three hours explaining his art to a dead hare with his head covered with honey and gold leaf and Ulmer (2007) argues not only the honey on the head but the hare itself is a model of thinking, of man embodying his ideas in forms (Ulmer, 2007, p. 236). Contemporary movements such as performance art may be considered 'laboratories' for a new pedagogy since "research and experiment have replaced form as the guiding force" (Ulmer, 2007, p. 233).
During an Artform interview with Willoughby Sharp in 1969, Beuys added to his famous statement – "teaching is my greatest work of art" – that "the rest is the waste product, a demonstration. If you want to express yourself you must present something tangible. But after awhile this has only the function of a historic document. Objects aren't very important any more. I want to get to the origin of matter, to the thought behind it." Beuys saw his role of an artist as a teacher or shaman who could guide society in a new direction (Sotheby's catalog, 1992).
At the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, Beuys did not impose his artistic style or techniques on his students; in fact, he kept much of his work and exhibitions hidden from the classroom because he wanted his students to explore their own interests, ideas, and talents. Beuys' actions were somewhat contradictory: while he was extremely strict about certain aspects of classroom management and instruction, such as punctuality and the need for students to take draughtsmanship classes, he encouraged his students to freely set their own artistic goals without having to prescribe to set curricula. Another aspect of Beuys' pedagogy included open "ring discussions," where Beuys and his students discussed political and philosophical issues of the day, including the role of art, democracy, and the university in society. Some of Beuys' ideas espoused in class discussion and in his art-making included free art education for all, the discovery of creativity in everyday life, and the belief that "everyone [was] an artist." Beuys himself encouraged peripheral activity and all manner of expression to emerge during the course of these discussions. While some of Beuys' students enjoyed the open discourse of the Ringgesprache, others, including Palermo and Immendorf, disapproved of the classroom disorder, anarchic characteristics, eventually rejecting his methods and philosophies altogether.
Beuys also advocated taking art outside of the boundaries of the (art) system and to open it up to multiple possibilities bringing creativity into all areas of life. His nontraditional and anti-establishment pedagogical practice and philosophy made him the focus of much controversy and in order to battle the policy of "restricted entry" under which only a few select students were allowed to attend art classes, he deliberately allowed students to over-enroll in his courses (Anastasia Shartin), true to his belief those who have something to teach and those who have something to learn should come together. According to Cornelia Lauf (1992), "in order to implement his idea, as well as a host of supporting notions encompassing cultural and political concepts, Beuys crafted a charismatic artistic persona that infused his work with mystical overtones and led him to be called "shaman" and "messianic" in the popular press."
Beuys had adopted shamanism not only as the presentation mode of his art but also in his own life. Although the artist as a shaman has been a trend in modern art (Picasso, Gauguin), Beuys is unusual in that respect as he integrated "his art and his life into the shaman role." Beuys believed that humanity, with its turn on rationality, was trying to eliminate "emotions" and thus eliminate a major source of energy and creativity in every individual. In his first lecture tour in America he was telling the audience that humanity was in an evolving state and that as "spiritual" beings we ought to draw on both our emotions and our thinking as they represent the total energy and creativity for every individual. Beuys described how we must seek out and energize our spirituality and link it to our thinking powers so that "our vision of the world must be extended to encompass all the invisible energies with which we have lost contact." In Beuys' own words,
"So when I appear as a kind of shamanistic figure, or allude to it, I do it to stress my belief in other priorities and the need to come up with a completely different plan for working with substances. For instance, in places like universities, where everyone speaks so rationally, it is necessary for a kind of enchanter to appear."
Beuys, as he often explained in his interviews, saw and used his performative art as shamanistic and psychoanalytic techniques to both educate and heal the general public.
"It was thus a strategic stage to use the shaman's character but, subsequently, I gave scientific lectures. Also, at times, on one hand, I was a kind of modern scientific analyst, on the other hand, in the actions, I had a synthetic existence as shaman. This strategy aimed at creating in people an agitation for instigating questions rather than for conveying a complete and perfect structure. It was a kind of psychoanalysis with all the problems of energy and culture."
In that respect his art was educative as well as therapeutic – "his intention was to use these two forms of discourse and styles of knowledge as pedagogues."He used shamanistic and psychoanalytic techniques to "manipulate symbols" and affect his audience. In his personal life, Beuys had adopted the felt hat, the felt suit, the cane and the vest as his standard look. The imagined story of him being rescued by Tartar herdsmen maybe has an explanation in that Beuys wanted to "create" a ritualistic aspect to his look and to his adoption of materials like felt and fat. Beuys experienced a severe depression between 1955 and 1957. After he recovered, Beuys observed at the time that "his personal crisis" caused him to question everything in life and he called the incident "a shamanistic initiation." Shamanism is related to death and the shaman is the mediator between this world and the "Otherworld". He saw Death not only in the inevitability of death for people but also death in the environment and he became, through his art and his political activism, a strong critic of the environmental destruction. He said at the time,
"I don't use shamanism to refer to death, but vice versa – through shamanism, I refer to the fatal character of the times we live in. But at the same time I also point out that the fatal character of the present can be overcome in the future."
The only major retrospective of Beuys work to be organised in Beuys's lifetime opened at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1979. The exhibition has been described as a "lightning rod for American criticism," eliciting as it did some powerful and polemical responses.
Beuys' extensive body of work principally comprises four domains: works of art in a traditional sense (painting, drawing, sculpture and installations), performance, contributions to the theory of art and academic teaching, and social- and political activities.
In 1962 Beuys befriended his Düsseldorf colleague Nam June Paik, a member of the Fluxus movement. This was the beginning of what was to be a brief formal involvement with Fluxus, a loose international group of artists who championed a radical erosion of the boundaries of art, bringing aspects of creative practice outside of the institution and into the everyday. Although Beuys participated in a number of Fluxus events, it soon became clear that he viewed the implications of art's economic and institutional framework differently. Indeed, whereas Fluxus was directly inspired by the radical Dada activities emerging during the First World War, Beuys in 1964 broadcast (from Second German Television Studio) a rather different message: 'Das Schweigen von Marcel Duchamp wird überbewertet' ('The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overrated'). Beuys's relationship with the legacy of Duchamp and the Readymade is a central (if often unacknowledged) aspect of the controversy surrounding his practice.
On January 12, 1985 Beuys, together with Andy Warhol and the Japanese artist Kaii Higashiyama, became involved in the "Global-Art-Fusion" project. This was a Fax art project, initiated by the conceptual artist Ueli Fuchser, in which a fax was sent with drawings of all three artist within 32 minutes around the world – from Düsseldorf (Germany) via New York (USA) to Tokyo (Japan), received at Vienna's Palais-Liechtenstein Museum of Modern Art. This fax was a sign of peace during the Cold War in the 1980s.
Beuys's first solo exhibition in a private gallery opened on 26 November 1965 with one of the artist's most famous and compelling performances: How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. The artist could be viewed through the glass of the gallery's window. His face was covered in honey and gold leaf, an iron slab was attached to his boot. In his arms he cradled a dead hare, into whose ear he mumbled muffled noises as well as explanations of the drawings that lined the walls. Such materials and actions had specific symbolic value for Beuys. For example, honey is the product of bees, and for Beuys (following Rudolf Steiner), bees represented an ideal society of warmth and brotherhood. Gold had its importance within alchemical enquiry, and iron, the metal of Mars, stood for a masculine principle of strength and connection to the earth. A photograph from the performance, in which Beuys is sitting with the hare, has been described "by some critics as a new Mona Lisa of the 20th century," though Beuys disagreed with the description.
Beuys explained his performance thus: "In putting honey on my head I am clearly doing something that has to do with thinking. Human ability is not to produce honey, but to think, to produce ideas. In this way the deathlike character of thinking becomes lifelike again. For honey is undoubtedly a living substance. Human thinking can be lively too. But it can also be intellectualized to a deadly degree, and remain dead, and express its deadliness in, say, the political or pedagogic fields. "Gold and honey indicate a transformation of the head, and therefore, naturally and logically, the brain and our understanding of thought, consciousness and all the other levels necessary to explain pictures to a hare: the warm stool insulated with felt…and the iron sole with the magnet. I had to walk on this sole when I carried the hare round from picture to picture, so along with the strange limp came the clank of iron on the hard stone floor—that was all that broke the silence, since my explanations were mute… "This seems to have been the action that most captured people's imaginations. On one level this must be because everyone consciously or unconsciously recognizes the problem of explaining things, particularly where art and creative work are concerned, or anything that involves a certain mystery or question. The idea of explaining to an animal conveys a sense of the secrecy of the world and of existence that appeals to the imagination. Then, as I said, even a dead animal preserves more powers of intuition than some human beings with their stubborn rationality. "The problem lies in the word 'understanding' and its many levels which cannot be restricted to rational analysis. Imagination, inspiration, and longing all lead people to sense that these other levels also play a part in understanding. This must be the root of reactions to this action, and is why my technique has been to try and seek out the energy points in the human power field, rather than demanding specific knowledge or reactions on the part of the public. I try to bring to light the complexity of creative areas."
Beuys produced many such spectacular, ritualistic performances, and he developed a compelling persona whereby he took on a liminal, shamanistic role, as if to enable passage between different physical and spiritual states. Further examples of such performances include: EURASIA (1965), Celtic (Kinloch Rannoch) Scottish Symphony (1970), and I Like America and America Likes Me (1974).
In the basement of the floor of the Rene Block Gallery in Berlin, Beuys positioned himself on the floor wrapped in a large felt blanket. Emerging from either end of the blanket were two dead hares, often seen in his performances. Around him was an installation of copper rod, felt and fat. Inside a blanket he held a microphone and for a period of eight hours grunted into the microphone as viewers watched from the doorway. The grunts are compared to those of a stag, as the stag is a symbol of something like a chief. The performance directly relates and even includes elements of the Fluxus movement that Beuys was a part of. The grunting is seen in part of a composition as a reflection of suffering. Being wrapped in a felt blanket mirrors the story of his suffering and rescue by the Tartars after his plane crashed in the war.
In 1966 Beuys presented with piece as a performance. He had made one object, a piano covered entirely in felt with a red cross on its side. The piano could not be played and no sound would ever be heard from beneath the felt. Beuys remarks that the piano will always hold the potential for sound. The red cross is a symbol for the danger that people face when we remain silent. When he presented this work he also used a black board to draw and write on. Beuys often uses this medium to create discussion and memory. What is not often included in the documentation of this piece is the subtitle that Beuys included: "The Greatest Composer here is the Thalidomide Child. Thalidomide was a sleep aid introduced in the 1950s to Germany and then across the west. It was soon found that it aided in morning sickness and was prescribed in unlimited doses to pregnant women. It was quickly apparent that Thalidomide was causing deformities in the children of mothers who had taken the drug. It was on the market for less than four years. In Germany around 2,500 children were affected. During his performance Beuys held a discussion about the Thalidomide child as the greatest composer and the division of the cross.
Art historian Uwe Schneede considers this performance pivotal for the reception of German avant-garde art in the United States, as it paved the way for the recognition of Beuys' own work, but also that of contemporaries such as Lüpertz, Baselitz, Kiefer and many others in the 1980s. In May 1974 Beuys flew to New York and was taken by ambulance to the site of the performance, a room in the René Block Gallery at 409 West Broadway. Beuys lay on the ambulance stretcher swathed in felt. He shared this room with a coyote, for eight hours over three days. At times he stood, wrapped in a thick, grey blanket of felt, leaning on a large shepherd's staff. At times he lay on the straw, at times he watched the coyote as the coyote watched him and cautiously circled the man, or shredded the blanket to pieces, and at times he engaged in symbolic gestures, such as striking a large triangle or tossing his leather gloves to the animal; the performance continuously shifted between elements that were required by the realities of the situation, and elements that had a purely symbolic character. At the end of the three days, Beuys hugged the coyote that had grown quite tolerant of him, and was taken to the airport. Again he rode in a veiled ambulance, leaving America without having set foot on its ground. As Beuys later explained: 'I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote.'
Richard Demarco invited Beuys to Scotland in May 1970 and again in August to show and perform in the Edinburgh International Festival with Gunther Uecker, Blinky Palermo and other Duesseldorf artists plus Robert Filliou where they took over the main spaces of Edinburgh College of Art. The exhibition was one of the defining moments for British and European Art, directly influencing several generations of artists and curators.
In Edinburgh 1970 Beuys created ARENA for Demarco as a retrospective of his art up to that time, and he showed The Pack and performed Celtic Kinloch Rannoch with Henning Christiansen and Johannes Stuttgen in support, seen by several thousands. This was Beuys's first use of blackboards and the beginning of nine trips to Scotland to work with Richard Demarco, and six to Ireland and five to England working mainly with art critic Caroline Tisdall and Troubled Image Group artist Robert McDowell and others in the detailed formulation of the Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research that was presented iat Dokumenta 6 in 1977, in London in 1978 and Edinburgh in 1980 as well as many other iterations.
In Edinburgh, at the end of the 1970s the FIU became one of four organisations that together founded the German Green Party. Beuys became entranced by the periphery of Europe as a dynamic counter in culture and economy terms to Europe's centralisation and this included linking Europe's energies North-South to Italy and East West in the Eurasia concept, with special emphasis on Celtic traditions in landscape, poetry, myths that also define Eurasia. In his view anything that survives as art and ideas and beliefs including the great religions for centuries or millennia contain eternal truths and beauty. The truth of ideas and of 'thinking as form', the sculpture of energies across a wide and variegated spectrum from mythos and spirituality to materialism, Socialism and Capitalism, and of 'creativity = capital' encompassed for him the study of geology, botany, and animal life and finding meanings and precepts in all of these as much as in the study of society. philosophy and he human condition and in his art practice as 'Social Sculpture'.
He adopted and developed a gestalt way of examining and working with both organic and inorganic substances and human social elements, following Leonardo, Loyola, Goethe, Steiner, Joyce, and many other artists and, scientists and thinkers, working with all visible and invisible aspects comprising a totality of cultural, moral and ethical significance as much as practical or scientific value. These trips inspired many works and performances. Beuys considered Edinburgh with its Enlightenment history as a laboratory of inspirational ideas. It was when visiting Loch Awe and Rannoch Moor on his May 1970 visit to Demarco he first conceived the necessity of the 7,000 Oaks work. After making the Loch Awe sculpture, at Rannoch Moor he began what became the Celtic (Kinlock Rannoch) Scottish Symphony performance, developed further in Basel the next year as Celtic+. The performance in Edinburgh includes his first blackboard that later appears in many performances when in discussions with the public. With it and his Eurasian staff he is a transmitter and despite long periods of imperturbable stillness interspersed by Christiansen's 'sound sculptures' he also creates dialogue evoking artists thoughts and in discussion with spectators. He collected gelatin representing crystalline stored energy of ideas that had been spread over the wall. In Basel the action including washing the feet of seven spectators. He immersed himself in water with reference to Christian traditions and baptism and symbolized revolutionary freedom from false preconceptions.
He then as in Edinburgh pushed a blackboard across the floor alternately writing or drawing on it for his audience. He put each piece in a tray and as the tray became full he held it above his head and convulsed causing the gelatin to fall on him and the floor. He followed this with a quiet pause. He stared into emptiness for over half an hour, fairly still in both performances. During this time he had a lance in his hand and was standing by the blackboard where he had drawn a grail. His stance was a protective one. After this he repeated each action in the opposite order ending with the washing with water as a final cleansing. The performances were filled with Celtic symbolism with various interpretation or historical influences. This extended in 1972 with the performance Vitex Agnus Castus in Naples of combining female and male elements and evoking much else and that extended further with I Like America and America Likes Me to have a performance dialogue with the original energy of America represented by the endangered yet highly intelligent coyote.
In 1973, in Edinburgh, Beuys worked with Buckminster Fuller in Demarco's 'Black & White Oil Conference, where Beuys talked of 'The Energy Plan of the Western Man' using blackboards in open discussion with audiences at Demarco's Forrest Hill Schoolhouse. In the 1974 Edinburgh Festival, Beuys performed Three Pots for the Poorhouse again using gelatin in Edinburgh's ancient poorhouse, continuing the development begun with Celtic Kinloch Rannoch. He met there Tadeusz Kantor directing Lovelies and Dowdies and was at Marina Abramovitz's first ever performance. In 1976, Beuys performed In Defence of the Innocent at the Demarco Gallery where he stood for the imprisoned gangster and sculptor Jimmy Boyle in a manner associating Boyle with The Coyote. In 1980 Edinburgh Festival Beuys was at the FIU exhibition and performed Jimmy Boyle Days (the name of the blackboards he used in public discussions), and where he went on temporary hunger strike as a public protest and led with others in a legal action against the Scottish Justice system. This was the first case under the new European Human Rights Act. These eight performances should be understood as one continuum.
It was during the 1960s that Beuys formulated his central theoretical concepts concerning the social, cultural and political function and potential of art. Indebted to Romantic writers such as Novalis and Schiller, Beuys was motivated by a belief in the power of universal human creativity and was confident in the potential for art to bring about revolutionary change. These ideas were founded in the body of social ideas of Rudolf Steiner known as Social Threefolding, of which he was a vigorous and original proponent. This translated into Beuys's formulation of the concept of social sculpture, in which society as a whole was to be regarded as one great work of art (the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk) to which each person can contribute creatively (perhaps Beuys's most famous phrase, borrowed from Novalis, is 'Everyone is an artist'). In the video "Willoughby SHARP, Joseph Beuys, Public Dialogues (1974/120 min)", a record of Beuy's first major public discussion in the U.S., Beuys elaborates three principles: Freedom, Democracy, and Socialism, saying that each of them depends on the other two in order to be meaningful. In 1973, Beuys wrote:
In 1982 he was invited to create a work for Documenta 7. He delivered a large pile of basalt stones. From above one could see that the pile of stones was a large arrow pointing to a single oak tree that he had planted. He announced that the stones should not be moved unless an oak tree was planted in the new location of the stone. 7,000 oak trees were then planted in Kassel, Germany. This project exemplified the idea that a social sculpture was defined as interdisciplinary and participatory. Beuys's wanted to effect environmental and social change through this project. The Dia Art Foundation continues his project still and has planted more trees and paired them with basalt stones too.
Beuys said that:
My point with these seven thousand trees was that each would be a monument, consisting of a living part, the live tree, changing all the time, and a crystalline mass, maintaining its shape, size, and weight. This stone can be transformed only by taking from it, when a piece splinters off, say, never by growing. By placing these two objects side by side, the proportionality of the monument's two parts will never be the same.
In 1982, Beuys recorded a music video for a song he had written entitled "Sonne statt Reagan" which translates to "Sun, not Rain/Reagan" This was an anti-Reagan political piece that included some clever puns in German and continued to reinforce some of the key messages of Beuys' career—namely an extremely liberal, pacifist political attitude; a desire to perpetuate open discourse on art and politics; a refusal to sanctify his own image and 'artistic reputation' by only doing the kinds of work other people expected he would do; and above all an openness to exploring different media forms to get across the messages he wanted to convey. His continued commitment to the demystification and dis-institutionalization of the 'art world' was never more clear than it is here.
Beuys made it clear that he considered this song as a work of art, not the "pop" product it appears to be, which is apparent from the moment one views it. Such becomes more obvious when one looks at the lyrics, which are aimed directly at Reagan, the military complex and whoever is trying to defrost the "Cold War" to make it "hot." The song has to be understood in the context of intense liberal and progressive frustration in 1982. Beuys warns Reagan et al. that the peace-loving masses are behind him, and that includes the Americans as well.
This work has been avoided in some discourse on Beuys because he has been put in artistically sacrosanct position and this is not in conformance with Beuys' other work. In choosing to do a piece in the form of popular music, Beuys demonstrated a commitment to his views and the most expansive ways of having them reach people. While it is easy to resist and ridicule Beuys' efforts in the pop arena, it does not change the fact that this is an important part of his collected works that needs to be acknowledged to better understand his scope, intention and own views of art.
One of Beuys' more famous and ambitious pieces of social sculpture was the 7000 Oaks project. The project was of enormous scope, and met with some controversy.
Amongst other things, Beuys founded (or co-founded) the following political organisations: German Student Party (1967), Organization for Direct Democracy Through Referendum (1971), Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research (1974), and German Green Party Die Grünen (1980). Beuys became a pacifist, was a vocal opponent of nuclear weapons and campaigned strenuously for environmental causes (indeed, he was elected a Green Party candidate for the European Parliament). Some of Beuys's art dealt explicitly with the issues at play in the political groups with which he was affiliated. His song and music video "Sun Instead of Reagan!" (1982) manifests the theme of regeneration (optimism, growth, hope) that runs through his life and work as well as his interest in contemporary nuclear politics: "But we want: sun instead of Reagan, to live without weapons! Whether West, whether East, let missiles rust!"
One thing that the Guggenheim retrospective and its catalogue did was to afford an American critical audience a comprehensive view of Beuys's practice and rhetoric. Whereas Beuys had been a central figure in the post-war European artistic consciousness for some time, American audiences had previously only had partial and fleeting access to his work. In 1980, and building on the scepticism voiced by Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers, who in 1972 Open Letter had compared Beuys to Wagner, art historian Benjamin Buchloh (who was teaching at Staatliche Kunstakademie, just like Beuys) launched a polemically forceful attack on Beuys. The essay was (and remains) the most vitriolic and thoroughgoing critique of both Beuys's rhetoric (referred to as "simple-minded utopian drivel") and persona (Buchloh regards Beuys as both infantile and messianic).
Firstly, Buchloh draws attention to Beuys's fictionalisation of his own biography, which he sees as symptomatic of a dangerous cultural tendency of disavowing a traumatic past and retreating into the realms of myth and esoteric symbolism. Buchloh attacks Beuys for his failure to acknowledge and engage with Nazism, the Holocaust, and their implications. Secondly, Buchloh criticizes Beuys for displaying an inability or reluctance to engage with the consequences of the work of Marcel Duchamp. That is, a failure to acknowledge the framing function of the art institution and the inevitable dependence upon such institutions to create meaning for art objects. If Beuys championed art's power to foster political transformation, he nevertheless failed to acknowledge the limits imposed upon such aspirations by the art museum and dealership networks that served somewhat less utopian ambitions. For Buchloh, rather than acknowledging the collective and contextual formation of meaning, Beuys instead attempted to prescribe and control the meanings of his art, and often in the form of dubious esoteric or symbolic codings. Buchloh's critique has been developed by a number of commentators such as Stefan Germer and Rosalind Krauss.
Buchloh's critique has been subject to revision. His attention is given to dismantling a mythologized artistic persona and utopian rhetoric, which he regarded to be irresponsible and even (it is implied) proto-fascist. Since Buchloh's essay was written, however, a great deal of new archival material has come to light. Most significantly, Beuys's proposal for an Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial, submitted in 1958. It has been claimed that the existence of such a project invalidates Buchloh's claim that Beuys retreated from engaging with the Nazi legacy, a point that Buchloh himself has recently acknowledged, although the charges of romanticism and self-mythologizing remain.
Beuys's charisma and eclecticism have polarised his audience. Beuys has attracted a huge number of admirers and devotees, the tendency of whom has been to uncritically accept Beuys's own explanations as interpretive solutions to his work. In contrast, there are those who, following Buchloh, are relentlessly critical of Beuys's rhetoric and use weaknesses in his argumentation to dismiss his work as bogus. Relatively few accounts have been concerned with an encounter with the works themselves, with exceptions arriving in the scholarship of art historians such as Gene Ray, Claudia Mesch, Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes, Briony Fer, Alex Potts, and others. The drive here has been to wrest the potential of Beuys's work away from the artist's own rhetoric, and to further explore both the wider discursive formations within which Beuys operated (this time, productively), and the specific material properties of the works themselves.
Examples of contemporary artists who have drawn from the legacy of Beuys include AA Bronson, former member of the artists' collaborative General Idea, who, not without irony, adopts the subject position of the shaman to reclaim art's restorative, healing powers; Andy Wear whose installations are deliberately formed according to the Beuysian notion of 'stations' and are (in particular, referencing the Block Beuys in Darmstadt) essentially a constellation of works performed or created externally to the installation; and Peter Gallo, whose drawing cycle "I wish I could draw like Joseph Beuys" features stretches of Beuys's writings combined with images traced from vintage gay pornography onto found pieces of paper.
Additionally the counter-institution of the FIU or Free International University, initiated by Beuys, continues as a publishing concern (FIU Verlag) and has active chapters in various German cities including Hamburg, Munich, and Amorbach.
|Joseph Beuys, Table with Accumulator, Smarthistory, in the Tate Modern|
Franz Joseph and Hans van der Grinten organized Beuys' first solo show at their house in Kranenburg in 1953. The Alfred Schmela Galerie was the first commercial gallery to hold a Beuys solo exhibition in 1965. Beuys participated for the first time in Documenta in Kassel in 1964. In 1969, he was included in Harald Szeemann's groundbreaking exhibition When Attitudes Become Form at the Kunsthalle Bern.
The 1970s were marked by numerous major exhibitions throughout Europe and the United States. In 1970 a large collection of Beuys' work formed under the artist's own aegis, the Ströher Collection, was installed in the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, which remains the most important public collection of his work. Pontus Hultén invited him to exhibit at Moderna Museet in 1971. Beuys exhibited and performed at each Documenta Kassel most notably with The Honeypump at the FIU Workplace in 1977 and with 7,000 Oaks in 1982. He showed four times at the Edinburgh International Festival and represented Germany at the Venice Biennale in 1976 and 1980. A retrospective of his work was held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1979. In 1984, Beuys visited Japan and showed various works, including installations and performances, while also holding discussions with students and giving lectures. His first Beuys exhibition took place at the Seibu Museum of Art in Tokyo that same year. The DIA Art Foundation held exhibitions of Beuys's work in 1987, 1992, and 1998, and has planted trees and basalt columns in New York City as part of his 7000 Eichen, echoing his planting of 7,000 oaks each with a basalt stone project begun in 1982 for Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany. Large collections of his multiples are held by Harvard University, Walker Art Center Minneapolis, and Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, which also has a collection of Beuys vitrines, The Schellmann and D'Offey collections. Most of the Marx collection of Beuys works including The secret Block for a Secret Person in Ireland drawings is at The Hamburger Bahnhof Museum, Berlin. All the major art museums in Germany have many Beuys works including Fond III at Landesmuseum Darmstadt, ehil Moechengladbach Museum has the Poor House Doors and much else, Beuys gave a large collection to the Solidarinosc Movement in Poland. Feuerstätte I und Feuerstätte II (Hearth I and Hearth II) and other works are at the Museum for Contemporary Art Basel, and a dedicated museum was created for 'The Museum des Geldes' collection mainly of FIU blackboards from Documenta 6. Every year there continue to be several hundred Joseph Beuys exhibitions around the world.
The first works Franz Joseph and Hans van der Grinten bought from Joseph Beuys in 1951 cost what would be equivalent today to €10 each. Beginning with small woodcuts, they purchased about 4,000 works and created what is now the largest Beuys collection in the world. In 1967, the 'Beuys Block', a group of first works, was purchased by the collector Karl Ströher in Darmstadt (now part of the Hessisches Landesmuseum).
Since his death, Beuys' artworks have fluctuated in price, sometimes not even selling. At auction, the top price paid for a Beuys work is $900,000 (hammer price) for a bronze sculpture titled Bett (Corsett, 1949/50) at Sotheby's New York in May 2008. His Schlitten (Sled, 1969) sold for $314,500 at Phillips de Pury & Company, New York, in April 2012. At the same auction, a Filzanzug (Felt Suit, 1970) sold for $96,100. This surpassed the previous auction record for a Filzanzug, 62,000 euros ($91,381.80 USD) at Kunsthaus Lempertz (Cologne, Germany) in November 2007.
The artist produced slightly more than 600 original multiples in his lifetime. Large sets of multiples are in the collections of the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, Germany, Harvard University Art Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Kunstmuseum Bonn, Germany. In 2006, the Broad Art Foundation in Los Angeles acquired 570 multiples by Beuys, including a Filzanzug and a Schlitten, thereby becoming the most complete collection of Beuys works in the United States and one of the largest collections of Beuys multiples in the world.
• Adams, David: "Joseph Beuys: Pioneer of a Radical Ecology," Art Journal, vol. 51, no. 2 Summer 1992. 26-34; also published in The Social Artist vol. 2,no. 1 Spring 2014: 3-13. • Adams, David: "From Queen Bee to Social Sculpture: The Artistic Alchemy of Joseph Beuys," Afterword in Rudolf Steiner, Bees. Hudson,N.Y.: Anthroposophic Press, 1998, pp. 187–213.(ISBN 0-88010-457-0)