Joseph Beuys was a German Fluxus, happening, and performance artist as well as a sculptor, installation artist, graphic artist, art theorist, and pedagogue.
Joseph Beuys was born May 12, 1921, in Krefeld on the German/Dutch border near his parents' home in Cleves. The family moved from here to the nearby Rindern where his father and uncle owned a flour and fodder business in 1930. The geography of this border region of the lower Rhine valley left a permanent impression. Childhood memories of the common local wildlife-hare, stag, and swans-were to take on significant meanings in his mature art. As a child Beuys was fascinated with the role of the shepherd and carried around a large staff.
Beuys was educated in local schools with a concentration in natural science. He knew the local sculptor Achilles Moortgat and was aware of the work of Wilhelm Lehmbruck, which gave him his first impression of the potential power of sculptural form. In 1943 he entered the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, becoming a student of the sculptor Ewald Matare.
Early in World War II Beuys was inducted to serve as a radio operator and then as a pilot, but he was able to continue his studies intermittently. By 1943 he had begun making sketches based on his experiences and had come to the realization that science would not be his profession. One significant experience of the war years occurred in 1943. Beuys's plane was shot down while he was flying behind enemy lines in the Crimea. He landed in a region between the Russian and German lines populated by Tartar nomads. They discovered him unconscious and saved his life by wrapping his frozen body in fat and felt to conserve heat. The regenerative power of these natural materials was to be explored in many later sculptures made of these non-traditional materials. After the war Beuys exhibited drawings with a local group of artists in Cleves.
His early sculptures were of natural elements-Crystal (1949) and Moon (1950)-but others such as Sleds (1949) and Gas Cellar (1954) begin the exploration of themes that dominated his later work based on traumatic war experiences. In these same years Beuys continued to produce a large number of drawings of organic matter, plants, animals, and myths. From 1954 through the late 19506 Beuys experienced a personal crisis during which he withdrew to the farm of close friends and patrons where he worked in the fields and barns. During this period his concept of art coalesced and he found a way to communicate the social and personal values with which he would be concerned in the succeeding decades. A major installation drawn from work of this period on the theme of Auschwitz at the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt is called Concentration Camp Essen (1958). It displays various materials including a picture of a starved and crippled girl, charred remains, a dead rat, small bottles of poison, lengths of blutwurst sausage, and electric plates with blocks of fat. The use of organic materials such as fat relates the whole to the natural world. The transformability of fat from solid to liquid at different temperatures makes it an analogy for natural change and regeneration while at the same time it bears memories of crematoria. His rescue by the Tartar nomads had made fat seem an intensely meaningful material that could communicate a range of deeply personal and at the same time universal meanings. Beeswax shares the property of having different forms at different temperatures and was used by Beuys, along with honey, in his art. This complex intertwining of relationships and meanings is characteristic of Beuys's mature work, as is the use of unusual organic materials and the seemingly informal organization of the whole.
In the late 1960, a time when students were actively involved in political issues, Beuys was accused of contributing to the disruption of the Düsseldorf Academy. In 1971 he invited students to his class who had been denied entry, with the argument that education should not be restricted to those who already have achieved competency. His activities culminated in his dismissal in October of 1972, and the start of litigation that was not resolved until his vindication in 1978. He was deeply involved in political issues and in working toward the creation of open educational opportunities, a Free International University. Major exhibitions devoted to Beuys were organized in the 19706, such as in 1979 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Enigmatic, powerful, mythic, Beuys's art defied boundaries and explanations. Direct experience of his art communicated intuitively by touching universal areas of shared imagery and memory. He died in Düsseldorf January 23, 1986, of heart failure after a long illness.
As a Fluxus Member, Beuys's performances, which he called "actions, " were intensely memorable, puzzling landmarks in his art. In The Chief (1963 - 1964), Beuys lay for nine hours wrapped in felt with two dead hares, the only sound an occasional intense cry as from a stag. Another memorable action from this decade was How To Explain Paintings to a Dead Hare (1965) in which Beuys, head covered with honey and gold leaf, carried a dead hare through an exhibit of his pictures and then sat talking to the hare about them. For Beuys this action was about the source of ideas and how the intellect can be deadly in politics and education. His actions had the feel of mythic communications whose impact was hard to explain but intensely felt by observers.
His youthful fascination with the shepherd was transformed into the idea of the artist as a shaman, a point of contact with the spiritual roots that nourish human existence. Like a shaman, Beuys wore emblems of his role, most particularly a flat brimmed felt hat that became his most identifiable characteristic.