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Joseph Beuys

German Sculptor and Performance Artist

Movements: Conceptual Art, Fluxus

Born: May 12, 1921 - Krefeld, Germany

Died: January 23, 1986 - Dusseldorf, Germany

Important Art by Joseph Beuys

The below artworks are the most important by Joseph Beuys - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.


Artwork Images

Woman/Animal Skull (1956-1957)

Artwork description & Analysis: This work on paper dates from Beuys's early experimental phase, which was characterized by the artist's production of thousands of drawings under a self-imposed program of aesthetic asceticism. Beuys worked at this time mostly in solitude, as though under a strenuous search for self-enlightenment, simultaneously seeking a new artistic language that would combine the spiritual and the physical, the solid and the fluid, the ephemeral and the permanent. Woman/Animal Skull suggests a melding of the rational and the instinctual, or of the human and the animal minds out of a primordial state of organic chaos.

Oil pigment, ink, turpentine and pencil on paper - Collection of Heiga and Walther Lauffs


Artwork Images

Fat Chair (1964-1985)

Artwork description & Analysis: Fat Chair exemplifies how Beuys could turn two common materials of everyday life - here the organic components of fat and wood - into a composite, open-ended metaphor for the human body, its impermanent condition, and the tendencies for social life to conform to constructed convention. Created in 1964 and encased in a glass, temperature-controlled museum display case, Fat Chair subsequently underwent a slow, natural process of decay until 1985, by which time the fat had almost entirely decomposed and virtually evaporated. Through these basic organic compounds, viewers may well have imagined themselves occupying this chair, thus endowing Fat Chair with the status of a "proxy" for self-reflection on the transience of human life and the need to consciously and expeditiously channel one's own organic and-alas-ephemeral energies.

Wood chair, animal fat - Estate of Joseph Beuys


Artwork Images

How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965)

Artwork description & Analysis: In this performance piece, Beuys could be viewed - his head and face covered in honey and gold leaf - through a gallery's windows, a slab of iron tied to one boot, a felt pad to the other, as the artist cradled a dead hare. As though carrying out a strange music (if not some macabre bedtime story), Beuys frequently whispered things to the animal carcass about his own drawings hanging on the walls around him. Beuys would periodically vary the bleak rhythm of this scenario by walking around the cramped space, one footstep muffled by the felt, the other amplified by the iron. Every item in the room - a wilting fir tree, the honey, the felt, and the fifty-dollars-worth of gold leaf - was chosen specifically for both its symbolic potential as well as its literal significance: honey for life, gold for wealth, hare as death, metal as conductor of invisible energies, felt as protection, and so forth. As for most of his subsequent installations and performance work, Beuys had created a new visual syntax not only for himself, but for all conceptual art that might follow him.

Gold leaf, honey, dead hare, felt pad, iron, fir tree, miscellaneous drawings and clothing items - Galerie Schmela, Dresden, Germany


Artwork Images

Homogenous Infiltration for Grand Piano (1966)

Artwork description & Analysis: In simply wrapping a grand piano in utilitarian grey felt, Beuys encased a mammoth, sonic instrument normally employed for the creation of music, with a "bandage" that essentially muted and muzzled it. Like most of his works, the title reveals much of the idea behind it. "Homogenous" suggests that the composite work is, or has recently become, a singular item, something formerly sundered apart and healed, or made whole again. "Infiltration" may suggest one's desire to penetrate the felt skin and restore the instrument back to the practical realm of the everyday bourgeois living room, or recital hall. The entire ensemble (in the manner of a visual "chamber music") relates back to the artist's own experience after being shot out of the skies during war duties and the German nation's own desperate aspiration for a new kind of postwar, collective composure.

Grand piano, felt - Georges Pompidou Center, Paris


Artwork Images

The Pack (1969)

Artwork description & Analysis: As though it were an oblique self-portrait, there is arguably no other work by Beuys that is so intimately representative of the artist's healing fable by nomadic Tartars during World War II. Tethered to the Volkswagon Bus - a sure sign of an entire era of antiwar demonstration, international social upheaval, and underlying global nuclear Cold War dread - are twenty sleds, each equipped with what Beuys considered essential for personal survival of an unspecified (or unanticipated) human or natural calamity. Perhaps even more important, the sleds are exiting the bus, not being towed by it, as at first it may seem. This suggests that each sled is an independent and sentient entity, here released (or born) into the wild to find others in need of rescue.

Volkswagen Bus (1961), 20 wooden sleds, each equipped with fat, rolled-up felt blanket, rope, flashlight, and leather belt - Staatliche Museen, Kassel, Germany


Artwork Images

7000 Oaks: City Forestation Instead of City Administration (1982-1987)

Artwork description & Analysis: The subtitle of this work indicates that 7,000 Oaks was fundamentally a time-based, or "process" work of environmentalism and eco-urbanization. Beuys planted 7000 trees in the small, historic city of Kassel, Germany, over several years (carried out with the assistance of volunteers), each oak accompanied by a stone of basalt. Beuys's concerted effort to physically, spiritually and metaphorically alter the city's social spaces - economic, political, and cultural, among others - is what finally constituted a community-wide "social sculpture" (Beuys's own terminology). 7000 Oaks officially began in 1982 at Documenta 7, the international exhibition of modern and contemporary art that is organized, by a guest curator, at Kassel every five years (since 1955). Beuys's own ecological "happening" drew to an official close five years later, at Documenta 8, after being continued by others for a full year after Beuys's own death.

7000 oak trees and 7000 basalt stones - Kassel, Germany



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Related Art and Artists


Artwork Images

4'33" (1952)

Artist: John Cage

Artwork description & Analysis: Like Theater Piece No. 1, Cage created 4'33" while at Black Mountain. However, instead of relying on a number of performers to bring it to fruition, this work depends on the environment in which it is performed and chance. The three-movement composition does not contain a single note of music. Instead, Cage wrote detailed instructions for a single musician to enter the stage, prepare the instrument - initially a piano, but other instruments have been used - and then sit in absolute silence for the full duration of the piece, 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The performer's silence allowed the sounds of the surroundings and audience members to become the music itself. This piece clearly defines Cage's interest in aleatory music, in which chance determines the outcome and any sound can be musical. This shift towards the music of silence was sparked by a 1951 visit to an anechoic chamber at Harvard. Cage expected to hear nothing within the sound-proofed room, but instead heard two sounds, one high and one low - his nervous system and his circulatory system respectively. Within that anechoic chamber, he discovered the impossibility of silence. This realization led Cage to compose 4'33" and to focus on the music created by our bodies and environments.

This piece was first performed in an outdoor amphitheatre in Woodstock, NY as part of a recital of contemporary piano compositions. Cage's revolutionary re-definition of music was received quite poorly at this first performance, with the sounds of nature overshadowed by the audience's outrage at the performer's silence. Despite the initial negative response, 4'33" was embraced by progressive artists as an important foray into the incorporation of ambient sound and durational elements within musical performance. The sheer spontaneity of 4'33" is an important precursor to Allan Kaprow's happenings, which fully matured in the late 1950s and early 1960s and also relied wholly on audience members to dictate the outcome of the art.

Performance art, with musician, instrument and audience


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Zen for Film (1964/1965)

Movement: Fluxus

Artist: Nam June Paik

Artwork description & Analysis: Zen for Film is an example of another Fluxus medium. It is an eight-minute film showing nothing but a white screen with occasional scratches and graininess flickering across the viewers' field of vision. Even though it is a film, it follows the general consistency of Fluxus art, which is usually simple, ironic, and succinct. Just as Cage used silence as part of his musical compositions, Paik is using an absence of imagery as the work of art. It has a distinct Zen sensibility, as it encourages meditative interiority, as opposed to active involvement.

Film


Artwork Images

A Chair with a History (1966)

Movement: Happenings

Artist: George Brecht

Artwork description & Analysis: A Chair with a History by George Brecht consisted of a chair that he bought and a red leather bound book placed on the seat of the chair. The viewer was invited to add to the "history" of the chair by sitting in it and recording the events taking place in the leather bound book. Brecht was greatly influenced by Marcel Duchamp's views on chance, clearly seen in this piece: whatever is recorded in the book has no relation to the artist's intentions or goals and is entirely in the hands of the viewer. Brecht's projects were often more intimate in scale than other artists who put on Happenings, as seen here with the piece entirely focused on a simple chair, the solitary act of sitting and writing, and the focus on a single person's experience.

Chair and book

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Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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