Joseph Beuys



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Joseph Beuys was an outstanding artistic personality whose work is still the subject of intense and often heated debate today. His influence on the art world over the last fifty years cannot be overestimated.

Joseph Beuys was born in Krefeld in 1921, but grew up in nearby Kleve on the Dutch border. During the Second World War, he trained as a radio operator in a fighter plane.1 In 1944, he was shot down over the Crimea and suffered injuries from which he never fully recovered.

After the war, Beuys soon turned to art: in 1947, he enrolled at the State Academy of Art in Düsseldorf and studied there until 1953 under the sculptor Ewald Mataré – a renowned German artist who is best known for his animal sculptures and commissioned works for churches. Mataré is characterised by a style of drawing reduced to the essentials, with which he wanted to penetrate beyond mere appearance to the true core of the underlying reality. The metaphysical quality of these works is reflected in Beuys’ first graphic and sculptural works, which are still clearly influenced by Mataré.2

Gradually, however, Beuys emancipated himself from his teacher and developed his own aesthetic with a subjective iconography charged with complex meaning, which remained decisive for his entire oeuvre.

Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical teachings were an important catalyst for Beuys.3 Steiner saw rationalism as a consequence of the materialistic thinking of modern society, which he wanted to counter by promoting spiritual abilities such as imagination, inspiration and intuition. In this way, society was to regain its balance and develop according to humanitarian principles,4 with art playing a central role in Steiner’s view.5 Beuys shared this conviction and saw himself in the role of someone who wanted to advocate such a spiritual renewal.6

In 1961, Beuys took over the professorship for sculpture at the Düsseldorf Academy from Sepp Mages. In the following years, in the context of the Fluxus movement, he began to develop his action art, in which materials that had previously been alien to art, such as copper, grease, felt and honey, were used. Like his actions, these materials were charged with complex symbolic meanings, which Beuys relied on his intuitive abilities to understand, which are not accessible to rational thought.7

He quickly became well known in the years that followed due to his activity and his diverse artistic and political activities, but he was not without controversy. While his supporters were attracted by the immediacy of his aesthetics and the complex layers of meaning in his materials, critics branded him a charlatan who utilised obscure and irrational mysticism. Beuys saw himself as a shaman who could contribute to the healing of society through the means of art.8 His preoccupation with multiples, which began at this time, also points in this direction. He hoped that they would find their way beyond the narrow confines of museums, galleries and exclusive private collections into numerous German and international collections and thus serve as a vehicle for his art to communicate its intentions to a broad public.

In the early 1970s, Beuys intensified his socio-political commitment. As was already evident in the production of his multiples, he intended to expand his artistic practice, which led him to his “expanded concept of art”. Beuys recognised the creative potential inherent in public performances such as lectures, teaching events and political debates and began to see society as a “social sculpture” shaped by the collective participation of its members. By seeing every form of human creativity as an artistic act, he wanted to harness the creative abilities of each individual. Accordingly, he campaigned for the establishment of various organisations, including a university, an agricultural foundation and a political party. In the course of his numerous political projects, his attempt to democratise the university became particularly well known. To this end, he opened his Düsseldorf class to all applicants, which led to his dismissal without notice in 1972, although this was declared invalid by the Federal Labour Court six years later. In the years that followed, Beuys travelled extensively, including to the USA, Australia, Japan and Italy, to spread his artistic ideas through installations, exhibitions and actions, and continued on his path undeterred against all odds until his deteriorating health forced him to reduce his workload in the mid-1980s.

“In my opinion, art is the only evolutionary force. In other words, only human creativity can change circumstances. And I believe that many people feel that the human aspect, i.e. this human point, can be developed most in art.”

When Beuys died in 1986, he had long since become one of the most important artists of his time. His appreciation was not limited to his actual artistic works; he was also recognised for having raised public awareness of the social role of art. In addition, his special abilities as a teacher were also recognised by many of his students, who had themselves become internationally successful artists in the meantime.

In the years that followed, his artistic legacy became increasingly important – particularly in the field of social sculpture. His idea of a work of art as the product of a social process was now taken up by many artists of the younger generation and led to a lasting change in the contemporary art of the 1990s and 2000s. Despite all the controversies to which he was exposed during his lifetime, Joseph Beuys has left deep traces that have led to a fundamentally new understanding of the concept of art.


For a detailed overview of Beuys’ life up to the Second World War, see H. P. Riegel, Beuys. The Biography, Berlin 2013, pp. 9-64.

On Beuys’ studies and his dialogue with Mataré, see ibid., pp. 91-99, and Heiner Stachelhaus, Joseph Beuys, Düsseldorf, Vienna, New York 1991, pp. 31-42.

On the relationship between Beuys and Rudolf Steiner, see Verena Kuni, Der Künstler als “Magier” und “Alchemist” im Spannungsfeld von Produktion und Rezeption. Aspects of the engagement with occult traditions in European art history after 1945: A comparative focus study – starting with Joseph Beuys, unpublished dissertation, Philipps-Universität Marburg 2004, pp. 185-196; H. P. Riegel, Beuys. Die Biographie, pp. 100-110, pp. 124-132 and passim; John F. Moffitt, Occultism in Avant-Garde Art: The Case of Joseph Beuys, Ann Arbor 1988, chapters 5 and 6.

Cf. two introductions by Steiner to his teachings and his view of spiritual human development: Rudolf Steiner, Theosophie. Einführung in übersinnliche Welterkenntnis und Menschenbestimmung,; Wie erlangt man Erkenntnisse der höheren Welten?, Retrieved on 24 May 2014.

In 1923, Steiner dealt with art in a series of lectures. These lectures were later published under the title The Mission of Art. Retrieved on 24 May 2014.

Beuys commented on this in a discussion in 1972: “In my opinion, art is the only evolutionary force. In other words, only human creativity can change circumstances. And I believe that many people feel that the human, i.e. this human point, can be developed most in art.” Quoted from Werner Krüger, “Beuys: Mein Kampf ist eine Plastik. Despite being kicked out and banned from teaching, he wants to remain firm”, in: Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, 19 October 1972. reprinted in: Götz Adriani, Winfried Konnertz and Karin Thomas, Joseph Beuys, Cologne 1973, p. 169.

This became particularly vivid in the action wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt (1965), in which Beuys held a dead hare in his arms, to which he whispered something that the audience could not understand as he walked past pictures with it. He later explained that he wanted to demonstrate the limited possibilities of rational abilities, especially in the context of art: “The idea of explaining something to an animal promotes a sense of the mystery of the world and of existence, which appeals to the imagination. As I said, even a dead animal retains stronger powers of intuition than some human beings with their relentless rationalism.” Quoted in Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, London 1979, p. 105. German translation in: Uwe M. Schneede, Joseph Beuys. The Actions, Ostfildern-Ruit 1994, p. 103.

For Beuysʼ statements on the healing or therapeutic function of art, see for example: Joseph Beuys, Dia Art Foundation, New York 1987, p. 18, as well as “Excerpts from a discussion with Joseph Beuys”, in: Axel Hinrich Murken, Beuys und die Medizin, Münster 1979, p. 152. On the significance of Beuys assuming the role of shaman as an attempt to establish a connection between the visible realm of matter and the invisible sphere of the spirit, cf. Murken, p. 131 f.; “Joseph Beuys in conversation with Caroline Tisdall, 1974” in: Secret Block for a Secret Person in Ireland, Kunsthalle Tübingen, Tübingen 1988, p. 49, and Joseph Beuys.Schamane, Nuremberg 2008, p. 2.