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Joseph Beuys Photo

Joseph Beuys

German Sculptor and Performance Artist

Born: May 12, 1921 - Krefeld, Germany
Died: January 23, 1986 - Düsseldorf, Germany
Movements and Styles:
Conceptual Art
,
Fluxus
,
Performance Art
"Every man is a plastic artist who must determine things for himself."
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Joseph Beuys Signature
"I don't believe that an art school, which should stress new artistic concepts, should lay emphasis on fixed places to work in the school. That sort of thinking is tied up with the idea of art as a craft, with the work-bench and the drawing-table."
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Joseph Beuys Signature
"Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART."
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Joseph Beuys Signature
"EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST who - from his state of freedom - the position of freedom that he experiences at first-hand - learns to determine the other positions in the TOTAL ART WORK OF THE FUTURE SOCIAL ORDER."
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Joseph Beuys Signature
"Art can be learned, though a certain talent is a prerequisite, but hard work is part of the process. Art comes from intelligence, one must have something to say, but on the other side, that of capability, one must be able to express it."
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Joseph Beuys Signature
"Their nomadic ways attracted me of course, although by that time their movements had been restricted. Yet it was they who discovered me in the snow after the crash, when the German search parties had given up. I was still unconscious then and only came round completely after twelve days or so, and by then I was back in a German field hospital. So the memories I have of that time are images that penetrated my consciousness."
- Beuys' recollection of being rescued in Crimea in 1944"
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Joseph Beuys Signature

Summary of Joseph Beuys

Joseph Beuys was a German-born artist active in Europe and the United States from the 1950s through the early 1980s, who came to be associated with that era's international, Conceptual art and Fluxus movements. Beuys's diverse body of work ranges from traditional media of drawing, painting, and sculpture, to process-oriented, or time-based "action" art, the performance of which suggested how art may exercise a healing effect (on both the artist and the audience) when it takes up psychological, social, and/or political subjects. Beuys is especially famous for works incorporating animal fat and felt, two common materials - one organic, the other fabricated, or industrial - that had profound personal meaning to the artist. They were also recurring motifs in works suggesting that art, common materials, and one's "everyday life" were ultimately inseparable.

Accomplishments

  • Beuys was a key participant in the 1960s Fluxus movement. At that time, many artists in Asia, Europe, and the United States became dissatisfied with a long tradition of "heroic," or object-oriented painting and sculpture (much recently typified by Abstract Expressionism). Influenced in part by contemporary experiments in music, such artists found themselves turning away from the art world's prevailing commercialism in favor of "found" and "everyday" items for creating ephemeral, time-based "happenings," impermanent installation art, and/or other largely action-oriented events.
  • From roughly the 1950s through the early 1980s, Beuys demonstrated how art might originate in personal experience yet also address universal artistic, political, and/or social ideas (i.e. topical issues of the day). This is part of the meaning to be gleaned from his 1965 solo performance, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, in which materials of personal significance (one foot wrapped in felt, the cradling of a recently deceased animal) poetically suggest the healing potential of art for a humanity seeking self revitalization and a sense of renewed hope in the future (one should recall that Beuys came of age in the immediate postwar period, when many Germans were just coming to terms with many traumatic aspects of their recent past).
  • Beuys suggested, in both his teaching and in his mature "action" and sculptural artworks, that "art" might not ultimately constitute a specialized profession but, rather, a heightened humanitarian attitude, or way of conducting one's life, in every realm of daily activity. In this regard, Beuys's work signals a new era in which art has increasingly become engaged with social commentary and political activism.
  • Beuys frequently blurred the lines between art and life, and fact and fiction, by suggesting that what one believed to constitute "reality" mattered more in matters of human action, social/political behavior, and personal creativity than any definition of everyday reality based on traditional standards of "normalcy," or social codes of so-called "proper" conduct.

Biography of Joseph Beuys

Joseph Beuys Photo

Joseph Beuys was born in Krefeld, a small city in northwest Germany. He was an only child, to the merchant Josef Jakob Beuys and his wife Johanna Maria Margarete Hulsermann. The two were a devout Catholic couple of the northern Rhine-Westphalian middle-class. Just months after Beuys's birth, the family moved south to the industrial town of Kleve. Beuys would later recall, in an unsubstantiated account, that when, in 1933, the recently formed National Socialist German Workers' Party (or Nazi Party) staged a book-burning rally at Kleve (Beuys would have been aged 12), he rescued from the flames Carolus Linnaeus's Systema Naturae (1735) - one of history's most groundbreaking works of scientific literature. (In an ironic turn, Beuys was himself compelled by legal fiat to join the Hitler Youth movement by the time he was a teenager).



Progression of Art

1956-57

Woman/Animal Skull

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

1964-85

Fat Chair

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

1965

How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare

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

1966

Homogenous Infiltration for Grand Piano

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

1969

The Pack

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

1982-87

7000 Oaks: City Forestation Instead of City Administration

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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Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Joseph Beuys 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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First published on 01 Dec 2010. Updated and modified regularly
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