A social sculptor, a performance artist, an educator, a mystic, a radio operator—Joseph Beuys was all of these things and more. Over the course of his career, Beuys, who has sometimes been grouped with the Fluxus movement of the 1960s, refused to fit his life and art into one squarely defined category. Half a century on, his work still manages to capture the public imagination: This year, a group of German institutions will band together to host shows devoted to Beuys’s career on the occasion of the centenary of his birth in 1921. Ahead of these exhibitions, below is a look back at Beuys’s continually fascinating work.
Bizarre questions often went unanswered in Beuys’s art.
Why is that piano wrapped in felt? What’s with a sled with a flashlight affixed to it? Why present huge stacks of felt atop sheets of copper? Why make a wax cast of a bee? Who cares if a lightbulb is plugged into a lemon?
Beuys’s sculptures—which rank among his best-known works, even though he produced a number of pieces that exist only in the form of documentation—often create these questions and then some within the minds of viewers. For the artist, pondering such queries could initiate new kinds of consciousness. “Sculpture must always obstinately question the basic premises of the prevailing culture,” he said in a famed 1969 Artforum interview. “This is the function of all art, which society is always trying to suppress. But it’s impossible to suppress it.”
Such objects present surreal combinations of seemingly unlike objects that appear to have no business being together at all. But, for viewers with a knowledge of Beuys’s biography, his favored materials—fat, felt, beeswax, among them—allude to a personal mythology rife with meaning.
Beuys had one of the strangest artist life stories of all time—if you believe it.
If artists can be said to have origin stories, Beuys’s is certainly among the most unusual of them. Born in 1921, Beuys was raised in Kleve, a small German town where he had little exposure to art. (Once he became a famous artist, he claimed to have created a series of shows there as a child, listing an “exhibition of dairy cows” in 1922, an “exhibition of radiation” in 1927, and more on his CV dating to the mid-’60s.) During World War II, he volunteered for the Luftwaffe, the Nazi air force, working first as a radio operator, and was stationed in Crimea in 1942. Two years later, in 1944, he was on a plane that crashed; he could have died were it not for a group of Tatars who found him and cared for him, putting him on a sled and wrapping his body in felt and fat to warm it. “Had it not been for the Tartars I would not be alive today,” Beuys said in 1979, speaking to a Guggenheim Museum curator.
The Crimea plane crash became a foundational event, both for Beuys as a persona and as an artist, but it’s possible he made it up. Art historian Benjamin H. D. Buchloh famously questioned whether the tale was a fabrication, pointing out that Beuys had posed for a photograph after his plane fell from the sky—an unlikely thing to do for someone who was seriously hurt. “Who would, or could, pose for photographs after a plane crash, when severely injured?” Buchloh asked in a 1980 Artforum essay. “And who took the photographs? The Tartars with their fat-and-felt camera?” (In addition to attacking Beuys for his self-mythologizing tendencies, Buchloh also argued that the artist’s work bore out unsavory semi-fascist ideologies—a criticism others have since voiced, too.)
Whatever the case may be, Beuys ran with it. After a period in a British internment camp, Beuys eventually returned to his family in Kleve, and then went to Dusseldorf to study art, having relinquished his ambitions of studying biology. He linked up with other budding German artists in the postwar years, and by the mid-’60s, while he was a professor at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, he had risen to fame and was repeating the Crimea episode in just about every interview he gave.
Beuys revolutionized what art education could be.
Throughout art history, many artists have helped spur on the next generation by teaching them their ways, but few have done it with as much fervor as Beuys did when he taught at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf. So famous are his teachings that they have even been represented in glossy prestige films, including the 2018 Gerhard Richter biopic Never Look Away, in which an unnamed Beuys-like character appears at the school Richter attends. At a certain point, Beuys even considered his pedagogical practice his “greatest work of art”—something of even more important than his physical objects, which he did not exhibit often during his lifetime.
For Beuys, education was intimately tied to politics, and his students often engaged in dialogues about current issues alongside lessons about art-making. At one point, Beuys and his students even formed their own political group, the German Student Party. For an artist who practiced the concept of “social sculpture”—the idea that life was one great big artwork that everyone was permanently sculpting—it only made sense that politics was art and vice versa.
When the London-based magazine Studio International asked Beuys why he prioritized art education in the way he did in 1972, the artist said, “I am interested in getting as far as talking of a picture of man that cannot be constrained by the prevailing scientific concepts. For this, man needs the Aesthetic Education. The isolated concept of art education must be done away with, and the artistic element must be embodied in every subject, whether it is our mother tongue, geography, mathematics, or gymnastics.”
In educating his students in such a then-unusual way, Beuys helped foster a whole new generation of German artists. Among his students were a smattering of all-stars, including Lothar Baumgarten, Anselm Kiefer, Jörg Immendorff, and Blinky Palermo. He continued teaching at the Kunstakademie until 1972, when he was dismissed without notice after getting into a standoff with the school’s leaders over admissions policies.
His performances pushed his myth-making to new extremes.
Today, Beuys is best remembered for his more grandiose gestures—for example, 7000 Oaks (1982), a work involving the planting of thousands of trees, each of them with a basalt stone placed alongside it, around Kassel, Germany, to tie in with Documenta 7. (It has since been expanded to New York by the Dia Art Foundation.) Yet during his day, he was known for his performances, many of which only exist now in the form of documentation.
Beuys’s most famous performance—and his most famous work altogether—is I Like America and America Likes Me (1974), which, like many of the artist’s other pieces, relied on something akin to a ritual. For it, Beuys was taken from an airport to New York’s René Block Gallery, where he was confined himself to the space with a coyote for a week. For much of that time, Beuys covered himself in felt, allowing a crooked staff to stick out toward the animal. At first, the coyote was antagonistic toward Beuys, but eventually the two developed a strange companionship. After the week ended, Beuys was taken back to the airport by an ambulance.
That performance, along with others by Beuys like the seminal 1965 work How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, channeled something primordial—a state in which nature and humanity coexisted and in which man could get in touch with animalistic impulses. It was hardly the first time Beuys endeavored to do something like that. During the 1969 Artforum interview, Beuys said he’d developed a “political party for animals,” with himself as the leader. “You’re crazy,” his interviewer, Willoughby Sharp, said with a laugh. Beuys responded, “And therefore I am a very mighty man. Mightier than Nixon.”