The Weird and Wonderful World of Joseph Beuys
He liked to embellish facts about his life.
Painter, sculptor, and conceptualist Joseph Beuys is one of the most influential artists of the latter half of the 20th century.
Beuys was born in 1921 in Kleve, Germany, making him just the right age to fight in the Second World War. He served as as a pilot in the Luftwaffe until his plane was shot down at the Crimean Front in 1944, where, supposedly, he was saved by nomadic Tartars who inhabited the region. According to Beuys, the tribe wrapped him in animal fat and nursed him back to health.
Reports from Beuys’ fellow soldiers differ, however. They stated that although the pilot of the plane died, the rear gunner, Beuys, survived after being taken to a military hospital. Beuys’ version of events is considerably more exciting, and coincides nicely with both his love of reinvention and his use of animal fat in his sculptural work.
Regardless, after living out the end of the war in a British interment camp, Beuys returned to his hometown of Kleve in August 1945. It was then that Beuys joined the Kleve Artists Association, founded by artists Walter Brüx and Hanns Lamers. They encouraged him to consider a full-time career as an artist, and just a year later in 1946, Beuys began attending the famed Düsseldorf Art Academy.
Initially focusing on sculpture, Beuys studied under Joseph Enseling before switching to a less representational class taught by Ewald Mataré, who had been recently reinstated after being dismissed during the Nazi regime. Beuys would continue to study with Mataré for the duration of his time at the Academy.
In 1947, Beuys co-founded the Thursday Group with other artists including Hanns Trier. The group organized exhibitions, talks, and events between 1947 and 1950. Graduating in 1953 at the age of 32, Beuys was greeted by the harsh realities of living as an artist in post-war Germany: money was tight and work was scarce, and so he made furniture as well as art to survive. Beuys produced many drawings—some inspired by his love of the modernist writer James Joyce and his groundbreaking work Ulysses—which were later exhibited all over the UK.
In 1961, Beuys took up a post as a professor of monumental sculpture at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, teaching such figures as Blinky Palermo and Peter Angermann, among others. His profile began to rise as began holding performances, one of which culminated with him being punched in the face by one of his own students. The image of him with a bloodied face circulated throughout the media. It was also during this time that he circulated an openly fictionalized version of his CV that enhanced and sensationalized aspects of his life and career.
Beuys was introduced to performance art in 1962 while teaching at the Academy, when he became involved with the Fluxus movement and Nam June Paik. The aims of Fluxus were to erode the barrier between institutional art and the everyday, which Beuys took to heart. His renegade approach to teaching, which included abolishing the need-to-entry requirements for his course, forced the Academy to admit 142 students they had previously rejected. Beuys was finally dismissed in 1972.
“Teaching is my greatest work of art,” he exclaimed to Artforum in 1969. “The rest is the waste product, a demonstration. If you want to express yourself you must present something tangible. But after a while 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 was an opinionated and charismatic speaker, which earned him both friends and enemies. His performance works were equally divisive. Key performances include How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), shown in conjunction with Beuys’ first solo exhibition in 1965. The performance, or “action,” consisted of Beuys, covered in gold and honey with an iron slab attached to one foot, solemnly explaining a picture to the dead hare he cradled in his arms. It was ultimately a touching scene, as Beuys firmly believed that art should be felt rather than intellectually understood.
For his work I Like America and America Likes Me (1974), he began at Kennedy Airport by wrapping himself in layers of felt, and was transported to René Block Gallery by ambulance. There he was locked in a room with a live coyote, which attacked his felt covering several times. He stayed in this room for eight hours over three days. At the conclusion of the performance, he took an ambulance back to the airport and returned to Germany, his feet never having touched American soil.
“I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote,” he is said to have remarked afterwards.
Beuys became increasingly political over the course of his life, founding the German Students Party in 1967, the Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research in 1974, and the German Green Party in 1980. He exhibited all over the United States and Europe, including a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in 1979, representing Germany at the Venice Biennale in both 1976 and 1980, and his landmark “social sculpture” 7000 Oaks at documenta in 1982. With the help of volunteers, Beuys committed to planting 7,000 trees in and around Kassel, each accompanied by its own stone column. The planting continued long after his death in 1986, following a prolonged illness.
Though he ultimately died not far from his birthplace, Beuys is revered the world over for his uncompromising and groundbreaking ideas. His ideas have permeated the thinking of countless artists, and, with an entire wing of the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin dedicated to his work, his influence is likely to continue for decades to come.
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