Joseph Beuys

1921 - 1986

Born in Krefeld (DE), died in Düsseldorf (DE).

Joseph Beuys: controversial war artist

German artist Joseph Heinrich Beuys (Krefeld, 1921 - Düsseldorf, 1986) grew up as a child with unusual musical talent; the cello and piano were his most cherished companions. At age 15, in 1936, Beuys became a cellist in the Hitler Youth Orchestra. After the war, he hoped to pursue an art career and studied from 1946 to 1951 at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. As a visual artist, Beuys creates furore with socio-politically inspired installations, plastic objects, drawings, and performances. He taught at the Düsseldorf Academy and is considered one of the most influential German artists of his generation...and one of the most controversial.

In World War II, Beuys was a ‘marconist’ (a telegraph operator) in a Stuka dive bomber. However, his aircraft was shot down during a mission over Crimea. He survived, and Tartars discovered him suffering from hypothermia and comatose under the plane’s wreckage. They rubbed animal fat into his body and wrapped him in felt to keep him warm. Eventually, Beuys awoke from his coma in a German field hospital. Every aspect of this incident was a prelude to the evolution of his art in the postwar years. Beuys’ international trademark, the felt fedora, covers the silver plate inserted in his skull after the accident. This personal myth greatly influenced his later work, characterised by unusual materials (felt, fat, tea, etc.) and contradictory content that clearly refers to the contrasts between East and West, rich and poor, prisoner and free. In his iconic performance, I Like America and America Likes Me, in which he lives for three days with a coyote, wrapped in felt and carrying a shepherd’s crook, he also seems, among others, to allude to his stay with the nomadic Tatars. He teases that fear for the other in a shamanic healing ritual that symbolised his opposition to the Vietnam War. The title is also reminiscent of the 7UP soft drink commercial.

But his piece Wirtschaftswerte (‘economic values’) captures the spirit of his oeuvre. It consists of a series of metal shelves displaying food products from the former GDR, surrounded by 19th-century paintings and accompanied by a block of plaster. This arrangement confronts the historical division between communist East Germany and capitalist West Germany. The faded-out colours of the frayed communist packaging contrast sharply with the garish packaging of the West, while the bourgeois paintings only reinforce the divide between the ‘rich’ West and the ‘poor’ East. The artist greased up the huge plaster block (symbolic of rational thought) with a layer of softened butter.

In the late 1960s, Joseph Beuys was particularly active in Antwerp, where he assisted Anny De Decker and Bernd Lohaus in developing their avant-garde Wide White Space Gallery. He also developed a special rapport with Panamarenko, who always considered him an artistic supporter. Both were devoted to demolishing borders and giving art free rein. Beuys used to make statements like ‘thought is a form of plastic art’ and ‘art is a science of freedom’.

Even as professor at the academy, this freethinker was unwilling to abstain from his responsibility. He poured inordinate amounts of time and energy into explaining his ideas and critiquing his students’ works. He wanted to empower them to succeed as independent artists. However, in 1972, the Minister of Education summarily dismissed Beuys because he refused to respect the admission ban on new students. Consequently, the exiled professor stubbornly proceeded to hold class on the lawn in the park next to the academy. His dismissal led to a legal battle that the artist ultimately won. Beuys was reinstated and allowed to retain his title and his classroom at the academy.

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