He is most famous for his ritualistic public performances and his energetic championing of the healing potential of art and the power of a universal human creativity. As well as performances, Beuys produced sculptures, environments, vitrines, 450 prints and posters, and thousands of drawings. He was also a committed teacher and increasingly devoted much of his energy to German politics. A charismatic and controversial figure, the nature and value of Beuys’s contribution to Western art has elicited a hotly contested and often polarised debate.
The Beuys family soon moved to Kleve, an industrial town in the Lower Rhine region of Germany close to the Dutch border, and it was in this region that Beuys spent most of his childhood. An aspect of Beuys’s adolescence that has dominated much commentary on his practice is his involvement with the Hitler Youth (to which adherence was, it should be noted, obligatory). From an early age Beuys displayed a keen interest in the natural sciences and had considered a career in medical studies before volunteering for the Luftwaffe in 1940. He began his military training as an aircraft radio operator in 1941, under the tutelage of Heinz Sielmann in Posen. During his leave, Beuys attended lectures in biology, botany, geography and philosophy. 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. On 16 March 1944 Beuys’s Ju 87 plane crashed on the Crimean Front. The pilot was killed but Beuys was found by a German search commando and brought to a military hospital where he stayed from March 17 to April 7. This incident, and Beuys’s subsequent embellishment of it, is perhaps the most controversial aspect of his artistic persona. Beuys later recounted how he had been rescued from the crash by Tartar tribesmen, who had wrapped his broken body in animal fat and felt and nursed him back to health. Beuys recounted the story in 1979:
Although entering Beuys’s rhetoric somewhat later than some commentators have acknowledged, this 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).
After the war Beuys returned to his parents’ house in Rindern. In 1946, he met sculptor Walter Brüx and painter Hanns Lamers, who encouraged him to become an artist. He enrolled at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1947 and after switching classes, joined the class of Ewald Mataré. Beuys began to read widely, evolving ideas around science, art, literature, philosophy and spirituality. Key figures in Beuys’s intellectual formation include Rudolf Steiner, Carl Jung, Novalis, Schiller, Leonardo da Vinci, James Joyce and the 16th century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus. Beuys finished his education in 1951, graduating as master pupil from Mataré’s class.
Throughout the 1950s, Beuys struggled with a dire financial situation and with the trauma of his wartime experiences. His output consisted mainly of thousands of drawings, 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 begins 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 he was appointed professor of 'monumental sculpture' at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf.
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.
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’s self-created persona, as well as the source of much controversy (although, significantly, there is no mention here of the famous plane crash).
Beuys’s first solo exhibition in a private gallery was opened on November 26 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 was the product of bees who, for Beuys (following Rudolf Steiner), represented as 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 did not agree with that. 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).
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 utopian belief in the power of universal human creativity and was confident in the potential for art to bring about revolutionary change. 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:
Beuys manifested these ideas most notoriously 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 eventually dismissed from his post. The dismissal, which Beuys would not accept, produced a wave of protests from students, artists and critics. Although now bereft of an institutional position, Beuys continued a voracious schedule of public lectures and discussions, as well as becoming increasingly active in German politics. Amongst other things, Beuys founded (or co-founded) the following political organisations: German Student Party (1967), Organization for Direct Democracy Through Referendum (1971), and Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research (1974). 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). Beuys also continued to make sculptures, installations, drawings and performances until his death in 1986. In 1982, for example, he planted 7,000 oak trees in Kassel, Germany, for Documenta 7 (7,000 Oaks). The first and 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.
He was a vigorous and original proponent of Rudolf Steiner's social ideas.
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 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 falsification of his own biography, which he sees as symptomatic of a dangerous cultural tendency of dis-avowing a traumatic past and a retreat 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, 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; 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.