Updated in this version
updated and revised, 16 October 2013; updated and revised, 27 September 1999
German painter, sculptor, décollagist, composer, video artist, and performance artist. He was one of the fathers of the European Happening movement. Vostell studied typography, lithography, and painting in Cologne, Wuppertal, Paris, and Düsseldorf (1950–58). In 1959 he married Mercedes Guardado Olivenza in Cáceres, Spain. Early in his career he discovered Décollage , a technique of cutting, tearing away or otherwise removing pieces of an image. His spelling of the term, dé-coll/age, underlined the term’s dialectical implications of destruction and creation. In the 1960s he worked with chemicals to transfer the process to photography, video, and film, turning it into an all-encompassing strategy of image deconstruction, often within the iconographic framework of violence and sexuality as communicated by mass media.
Vostell’s combined décollage with car parts and television sets, being one of the first artists using such a device as part of a sculpture in 1958. In 1962 he joined the Fluxus movement and started expanding sculptural environments into happenings of increasing complexity and duration, which were meant to activate the public, transforming spectators into participants. He defined his artistic credo as an equation: ‘Art is Life is Art’, stating that society’s problems also were the contemporary artists’ problems. Consequently, his objects and materials represent modern consumer society and its communication infrastructure: television sets, telephones, cars, trains, and concrete.
In 1963 Vostell’s environment 6 TV dé-coll/ages was shown at a New York gallery. He took also part in a Fluxus festival and subsequently arranged several Happenings in New York: You (1964), Put a Tiger in Your Tank (1966), and Dogs and Chinese Not Allowed (1966), the latter involving the entire Subway system. Some of his Happening documentations were published in translated American editions. In 1969 he created his first sculpture embedding a car in concrete in Cologne, followed by a second in Chicago in 1970.
Besides a growing number of exhibitions, Vostell continued to organize Happenings and ‘event sculptures’. From the 1980s Vostell created large oil paintings dealing with the tragic state of human existence. Following first retrospectives in Paris and Berlin (1974–5), he founded the Museo Vostell, which opened in 1976, in Malpartida de Cáceres, Spain. The museum now also houses a documentation centre for Fluxus and Happenings, including Vostell’s own archives.
- ed.: Dé-coll/age: Bulletin der aktuellen Ideen (1962–9)
- with J. Becker: Happenings, Flux, Pop Art, Nouveau Réalisme (Cologne, 1965)
- Berlin and Phenomena (New York, 1966)
- dé-coll/ae happenings (New York, 1966)
- Miss Vietnam and Texts of Other Happenings (San Francisco, 1968)
- Wolf Vostell: dé-coll/agen, 1954–69 (Berlin, 1969)
- ed.: Aktionen: Happenings und Demonstrationen seit 1965 (Reinbek, 1970)
- Happening und Leben (Neuwied and Berlin, 1970)
- Wolf Vostell: Retrospektive 1958–1974 (exh. cat., Berlin, Neue N.G., 1975)
- Wolf Vostell: 25 Jahre Zeichnungen, 1952–1976 (exh. cat., Dortmund, Mus. Ostwall; Hannover, Kestner-Ges.; Barcelona, Cent. Miró; 1977)
- Wolf Vostell: dé-coll/agen, Verwischungen, Schichtenbilder, Bleibilder, Objektbilder, 1955–1979 (exh. cat., Brunswick, Kstver., 1980) [incl. interview by W. Schmied]
- Vostell und Berlin: Leben und Werk, 1971–1981 (exh. cat., text W. Schmied, W. Berlin, daad gal., 1982)
- Wolf Vostell: Das plastische Werk, 1953–1987 (exh. cat., Milan, Gal. Mult(H)ipla, 1987)
- U. Rüdiger, ed.: Vostell: Leben=Kunst=Leben (exh. cat., Gera, Kstgal., 1993)
- P. J. Rico, ed.: Vostell: Automobile (Tübingen and Berlin, 2000)
- W. Vomm: Wolf Vostell: Die Druckgraphik (Bergisch Gladbach, 2005)
- Wolf Vostell: Video Works (exh. cat., New York, Janos Gat Gallery, 2006)
- Wolf Vostell—Meine Kunst ist der ewige Widerstand gegen den Tod (exh. cat., ed. I. Baecker; Bonn, Rhein. Landes.; Nîmes, Mus. A. Contemp., 2007)