Biography / Life Course/Work Course


Joseph Beuys, Düsseldorf Art Academy, October 1972

German sculptor, painter, draughtsman, printmaker, action artist, art theorist, politician. He opposed the concept of art as based on such autonomous genres as panel painting and sculpture. Instead he pursued in his performance art ('Aktionen') and sculpture an 'expanded concept of art', aimed at a total permeation of life by creative acts. By his provocative and often misunderstood statement that 'each person is an artist', he did not mean that everyone is a painter or a sculptor. Rather, he wanted to express the idea that any person could become creatively active. This concept culminated logically in his idea of 'social sculpture, an art that drew upon the creative power possessed by every individual.

1. EARLY CAREER AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE 'EXPANDED CONCEPT OF ART'. Son of the businessman Josef Jakob Beuys and his wife Johanna, who moved to Kleve in autumn 1921. From 1927—32, he attended elementary school and then Kleve Grammar school. During his school years he visited the studio of Achilles Moortgart, the Kleves sculptor who was influenced by Constantin Meunier and Georg Minne. Through photographs he examined Wilhelm Lehmbruck's sculptures, which were branded as 'degenerate' during the National Socialist regime. As well as immersing himself in creative and humanistic interests, he pursued natural scientific and technical studies.

Around 1939 he worked for almost a year as a performer in a circus. At Easter in 1941 he graduated from grammar school. In spite of wanting to study medicine, Beuys volunteered for the military on May 1, 1941, in anticipation of his conscription. After training as an air fleet radio operator in Posen and Erfurt, he was stationed in the 7th student company of the air fleet communications school in Königsgrätz from December 1, 1942. He then belonged to various dive squadrons, in which he worked 'all branches of the service', as an on-board radio operator and crashed on March 16, 1944 with the pilot Hans Laurinck on flight 1026 '200m east of Freifeld/Crimea'. The pilot died. On March 17, Beuys was taken to mobile field hospital 179 with serious injuries, which he was only able to leave on April 7, 1944. Beuys was not wounded on the top of the skull and did not receive a metal implant, as is often purported. From August 12, 1944 he was trained as a pilot. Deployed as a paratrooper on the 'Western Front', where he was again wounded several times. After the surrender in 1945, he was taken prisoner by the British.

In the war letters that can still be verified, mainly from 1943, he informed his parents from Italy on May 18, 1943: "I have decided to learn the profession of sculptor after the war". On May 28, 1943 he wrote: "I wrote to the Prussian Academy for Fine Arts in Berlin." Later, Beuys used the traumatic experiences of the war in a poetic curriculum vitae (Life Course/Work Course [Lebenslauf/Werklauf]) to consciously create a myth, in which the account of his rescue by the Crimean Tatars who cared for him over a longer period of time (treating his serious wounds with animal fat and wrapping him in felt to keep him warm; this formative experience led to the continuous use of felt and fat in his later sculptural works and a concern for the 'warmth' of sculptures), is of particular importance: "After I finally left the Tatar family and decided to continue fighting as a soldier I decided to write the play with the following characters" (1963). The experiences had a great influence on his later artistic aims of transforming mythic achievements and questioning their anthropological content.

Beuys studied art under Joseph Enseling (1886—1957) and Ewald Matare at the Staatliche Kunstakademie, Düsseldorf (1947—51). His earliest works showed his abiding concern with primitive symbolism (e.g. Basalt Cross, 1955; Krefeld, Kaiser Wilhelm Mus.). Their orthodox materials were abandoned in the late 1950s in favour of 'found objects'. These were subsequently displayed with later pieces in characteristic steel and glass 'vitrines', designed in 1964.

In the 1960s Beuys used fat in such sculptures as the famous Fat Chair (1964; Darmstadt, Hess. Landesmus.). In these works Beuys demonstrated some basic features of his conception of sculpture. For him it was not a rigid form but an energetic process. Beuys went so far as to claim seriously that sculpture was a primarily audible medium, since, as he understood it, the swirling of flowing water or the rhythm of a heartbeat was sculpture. He also related his conception of sculpture as energy to his various `Aktionen' with felt, and to his felt sculptures (e.g. Snowfall, 1965; Basle, Mus. Gegenwartskst ). These served for him as heat reservoirs or power stations. With rigorous logic Beuys defined his sculpture as a medicament, referring to it as an art ointment or art tablet.

Beuys's 'expanded concept of art' originated in the Fluxus group that became active in 1960. Fluxus's aim was to abolish the frontiers between the arts and between life and art. It is evidence of Beuys's individuality that, after his initial attempts to integrate with Fluxus, he soon became isolated and was able to develop the artistic potential that had grown up in Fluxus on his own account with an ever expanding theory of sculpture. The spectacular opening of this unique development was marked by a Fluxus 'Fest der neuen Kunst', held on 20 July 1964 in the assembly hall of the Rheinisch-Westfilische Technische Hochschule in Aachen. During the festival a spectator, incensed at the show put on by Beuys and his colleagues, charged on to the stage and punched Beuys on the nose, which began to bleed. Instead of trying to stem the flow of blood, Beuys suddenly held up a wooden crucifix with an extendable plinth in his left hand and saluted the audience with his right. This played a major part in raising Beuys's public profile, in both the positive and the negative sense.

Beuys elaborated a philosophy of art based primarily on such models as Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe and Rudolf Steiner. He also stated that the sculptors Wilhelm Lehmbruck and Ewald Matare had been important for his development. Beuys was especially fascinated by Steiner's philosophy, in particular on politics, economics and intellectual freedom, and his concepts of redemption and the structure of nature and man. Beuys also knew of the lecture on bees that Steiner had given to workers at the Goetheanum in Dornach in 1923. In it he spoke of the bee as a sacred animal even in ancient times : 'sacred because it actually reveals in its entire work what goes on within the human being'. Beuys recognized the sculptural process in the work of bees and applied it to his own philosophy of art: sculpture was for him an 'organic forming from within'. He compared sculpture to a bone formed by liquid processes that have solidified. Everything in human physiology that later hardens, Beuys argued, came originally from a liquid process. His catchword for this was 'embryology'. Beuys was inspired repeatedly from the 1950s to represent the subject of the bee in his work.

In Honey Pump at the Workplace for the Documenta exhibition in Kassel in 1977 (now Humlebaek, Louisiana Mus.), he achieved in an installation an extraordinary transformation of the theme. Electric motors pumped honey through a gigantic assemblage of perspex pipes in the stairwell of the Museum Fridericianum, symbolizing the circulation of life and flowing energy.

Beuys's work continually referred to animal life. Apart from bees the main animals were the stag, the elk, the sheep, the swan and, in particular, the hare, with which he appeared publicly in a number of his 'Aktionen'. In 1965 he demonstrated in the Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. Beuys poured honey over his head and stuck gold leaf to it. Holding the dead hare on his arm, he walked through the small gallery showing it the pictures on the walls and conducting it over a withered pine tree. Other pieces with hares included, in 1964 in the Galerie Block, Berlin, The Boss and, two years later in Copenhagen and again in Galerie Block, Eurasia. At the Documenta in 1982 Beuys formed a hare and a sun from a melted copy of the crown of the Russian Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible (reg 1533-84). Beuys sometimes referred to himself as a hare. He saw in this animal a strong relationship to women, to birth and to all the chemical transformations of the blood. He believed the hare to be the creature through which he could revivify buried myths and rites. He saw the hare as an external organ of the human being, admiring its fertility and its skill at reproducing.

2. TEACHING CAREER AND 'SOCIAL SCULPTURE. From 1961 Beuys taught at the Staatliche Kunstakademie, Düsseldorf, where he was idolized by most of the students, although the teaching staff were divided in their support for him. With his actions against restricted entry for students to the academy, he brought himself into conflict with the institution's administrators: he periodically had the secretariat occupied by rejected applicants. In October 1972 he was summarily dismissed by the Minister for Science and Research of the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen. An industrial tribunal that went before several authorities ended in 1978 with a settlement between the parties. Beuys's worldwide fame was then at its height.

Beuys said, 'Where I am, academy is.' Despite its biblical timbre, there was truth in the statement. Beuys was an impassioned and inspired teacher, a role that was a central component of his 'expanded art concept'. This was true both at the Kunstakademie and in his countless public appearances, which from the early 1970s were accompanied by annotated blackboard diagrams. These were subsequently preserved as important evidence of his thinking (e.g. Directional Forces, 100 blackboards, 1974—7; Berlin, Neue N.G.). He also produced anti-pictures, for example enactments of death scenes (e.g. Show your Wound, 1976; performed in Munich), or of childhood memories (e.g. Tram Stop, 1976; Venice, Biennale).

Beuys's dismissal from the Kunstakademie enabled him to devote more time to the other very diverse demands made on him. First among these was his commitment to the 'Eerie Internationale Universitat' that he had founded in 1972 in Düsseldorf as the 'central organ of the expanded concept of art'. This was to base its practice on the idea that creativity is a capacity of the whole population, which, Beuys believed, was not being sufficiently acknowledged in schools, academies and universities. For him this principle of creativity was identical to that of resurrection. He said the old form had ossified: it needed to be transformed into a living, pulsating form that fostered life, spirit and mind. This could only be achieved by the 'expanded concept of art', which Beuys therefore called his best work of art.

The 'expanded concept of art' culminated logically in 'social sculpture, an entirely new category of art based on the universal ability to be creative: for example, at the Documenta of 1982, Beuys instigated the collective planting of 7000 Oaks. Anthropology, not the museum, interested Beuys as a context for art. He took the view that all human knowledge stems from art and that the concept of science has evolved from that of creativity. He concluded that only artists had created a historical consciousness and that the decisive need was to experience the plastic aspect of history. History therefore should be seen in terms of sculpture—history was sculpture.

Beuys subordinated everything to the 'expanded concept of art—economics, ecology, democracy, the student party he founded (1967), his support of Die Grunen, his Organisation fur direkte Demokratie (founded 1970). He also ascribed an important sculptural role to his thinking and speaking. 'My way went through language, curious as that may sound; it did not start from a so-called visual gift', he said in Munich in 1985. It goes without saying that Beuys also subordinated the shaman-role frequently held against him to his 'expanded concept of art'. He pointed out that he had no wish to return to primeval states. For him the shaman was a figure in whom material and spiritual forces were able to unite. It was therefore clear to him that in the present materialistic age the shaman represented something belonging to the future. Beuys left behind an immense, enigmatic body of work. He completed the installation Palazzo Regale on 23 December 1985 in the Museo e Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte, Naples, shortly before he died.

Life Course/Work Course (Lebenslauf/Werklauf)

1921 Kleve Exhibition of a wound drawn together with plaster
1922 Exhibition of dairy cows Molkerei near Kleve
1923 Exhibition of a moustache cup (contents: coffee with egg)
1924 Kleve Open exhibition of heathen children
1925 Kleve Documentation: "Beuys as Exhibitor"
1926 Kleve Exhibition of a stagleader
1927 Kleve Exhibition of radiation
1928 Kleve First exhibition of an excavated trench
Kleve Exhibition to elucidate the difference between loamy sand and sandy loam
1929 Exhibition at the grave of Genghis Khan
1930 Donsbriiggen Exhibition of heathers with healing herbs
1931 Kleve Connecting exhibition
Kleve Exhibition of connections
1933 Kleve Underground exhibition (digging beneath the ground parallel to the surface)
1940 Posen Exhibition of an arsenal (together with Heinz Sielmann, Hermann Ulrich Asemissen, and Eduard Spranger)
Exhibition of an airfield, Erfurt-Bindersleben Exhibition of an airfield, Erfurt-Nord
1942 Sebastopol Exhibition of my friend
Sebastopol Exhibition during the interception of a JU-87
1943 Oranienburg Interim exhibition (together with Fritz Rolf Rothenburg + Heinz Sielmann)
1945 Kleve Exhibition of cold
1946 Kleve warm exhibition
Kleve Artists' Union "Profile of the Successor"
Happening Central Station, Heilbronn
1947 Kleve Artists' Union "Profile of the Successor"
Kleve Exhibition for the hard of hearing
1948 Kleve Artists' Union "Profile of the Successor" Düsseldorf Exhibition in the Pillen Bettenhaus
Krefeld Exhibition "Kullhaus" (together with A. R. Lynen)
1949 Heerdt Total exhibition three times in a row
Kleve Artists' Union "Profile of the Successor"
1950 Beuys reads "Finnegans Wake" in "Haus Wylermeer"
Kranenburg Haus van der Grinten "Giocondologie"
Kleve Artists' Union "Profile of the Successor"
1951 Kranenburg Van der Grinten Collection Beuys: Sculpture and Drawing
1952 Düsseldorf 19th prize in "Steel and Pig's Trotter"(consolation prize, a light-ballet by Piene)
Wuppertal Museum of Art Beuys: Crucifixes Amsterdam Exhibition in honor of the Amsterdam — Rhine Canal
Nijmegen Museum of Art Beuys: Sculpture
1953 Kranenburg Van der Grinten Collection Beuys: Painting
1955 End of the Artists' Union "Profile of the Successor"
1956–57 Beuys works in the fields
1957–60 Recovery from working in the fields
1961 Beuys is appointed Professor of Sculpture at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art
Beuys adds two chapters to "Ulysses" at James Joyce's request
1962 Beuys: The Earth Piano
1963 FLUXUS Düsseldorf Academy of Art
On a warm July evening on the occasion of a lecture by Allan Kaprow in the Zwirner Gallery, Cologne Kolumba churchyard Beuys exhibits his warm fat
Joseph Beuys Fluxus stable exhibition in Haus van der Grinten, Kranenburg, Lower Rhine
1964 Documenta 3 Sculpture Drawing
1964 Beuys recommends that the Berlin Wall be heightened by 5 cm (better proportions!); 1964 Beuys "VEHICLE ART”; Beuys the Art Pill; Aachen; Copenhagen Festival; Beuys Felt works and Fat Corners, why?; Friendship with Bob Morris and Yvonne Rainer; Beuys Mouse Tooth Happening Düsseldorf —New York; Beuys Berlin "The Chief"; Beuys: The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is overrated. 1964 Beuys Brown Rooms; Beuys Stag Hunt (behind); 1965 and in us . . . under us . . . landunder, Parnass Gallery, Wuppertal; Western Man Project; Schmela Gallery, Düsseldorf: . . . any old noose . . . ; Schmela Gallery, Düsseldorf "How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare"; 1966 and here already is the end of Beuys: Per Kirkeby "2,15"; Beuys Eurasia 32nd Set 1963 —Rene Block, Berlin— ". . . with brown cross"; Copenhagen: Traekvogn Eurasia; Affirmation: the greatest contemporary composer is the thalidomide child; Division the Cross; Homogen for grand piano (Felt); Homogen for Cello (Felt); Manresa with Bjorn Norgard, Schmela Gallery, Düsseldorf; Beuys The Moving Insulator; Beuys The difference between Image Head and Mover Head; Drawings, St. Stephan Gallery, Vienna; 1967 Darmstadt Joseph Beuys and Henning Christiansen "Hauptstrom"; Darmstadt Fat Room, Franz Dahlem Gallery, Aha-Strasse; Vienna Beuys and Christiansen: "Eurasienstab" 82 minute fluxorum organum; Düsseldorf June 21st, Beuys founds the DSP German Student Party; 1967 Monchengladbach (Johannes Cladders) Parallel Process 1; Karl Stroher; THE EARTH TELEPHONE Antwerp Wide White Space Gallery: Image Head —Mover Head (Eurasienstab); Parallel Process 2; THE GREAT GENERATOR 1968 Eindhoven Stedelijk van Abbe Museum Jan Leering. Parallel Process 3; Kassel Documenta 4 Parallel Process 4; Munich Neue Pinakothek; Hamburg ALMEND(EArtUnion); Nuremberg ROOM563 x 491 X 563 (Fat); Earjom Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, Braunschweig, Wiirm-Glazial (Parallel Process 5); Frankfurt: Felt TVII The Leg of Rochus Kowallek not carried out in fat (jom)! Düsseldorf Felt TVIII Parallel Process; Intermedia Gallery, Cologne: VACUU-MASS(Fat) Parallel Process . . . Gulo borealis ... for Bazon Brock; Johannes Stuttgen FLUXUS ZONEWEST Parallel Process —Düsseldorf, Academy of Art, Eiskellerstrasse 1:LEBEVRERBOT; Intermedia Gallery, Cologne: Drawings 1947—1956; Christmas 1968: Crossing over of the IMAGE HEAD track with the track of the mover head in All (Space) Parallel Process —1969 Düsseldorf Schmela Gallery FOND III; 12.2.69 Appearance of MOVER HEAD over the Düsseldorf Academy of Art; Beuys takes the blame for the snowfall from 15th—20th February; Berlin — Rene Block Gallery: Joseph Beuys and Henning Christiansen Concert: I attempt to set (make) you free —Grand piano jom (zone jom). Berlin: National Gallery; Berlin: Academy of Art: Sauerkraut Score — Eat the Score! Monchengladbach: Transformation Concert with Henning Christiansen; Düsseldorf Kunsthalle Exhibition (Karl Stroher); Lucerne Fat Room (Clock); Basel Kunstmuseum Drawings; Düsseldorf PROSPECTE: ELASTIC FOOT PLASTIC FOOT.
1973 Joseph Beuys born in Brixton