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date: 23 April 2024

Beuys, Josephfree

(b Krefeld, May 12, 1921; d Düsseldorf, Jan 23, 1986).

Beuys, Josephfree

(b Krefeld, May 12, 1921; d Düsseldorf, Jan 23, 1986).
  • Heiner Stachelhaus
  • , revised by Ina Blom

Updated in this version

updated and revised, 16 September 2010

German sculptor, performance artist, printmaker teacher, and political activist. He opposed a concept of art based on such autonomous genres as panel painting and sculpture. Instead he pursued in his performance art (‘Aktionen’) and sculpture an ‘expanded concept of art’, aimed at a total permeation of life by creative acts. By his provocative and often misunderstood statement that ‘each person is an artist’, he did not mean that everyone is a painter or a sculptor. Rather, he wanted to express the idea that any person could become creatively active. This concept culminated logically in his idea of ‘social sculpture’, an art designed to activate the creative power possessed by every individual to form his or her own life situation.

1. Early career and development of the ‘expanded concept of art’.

As a schoolboy Beuys was strongly interested in natural science, which remained significant for his later work. After taking his Abitur in 1940 in Kleve on the Lower Rhine, where he grew up, he first wanted to become a paediatrician. However, in 1940 he was enlisted, trained as a radio operator and flew sorties in dive-bombers. According to Beuys’s own account, in winter 1943 he crashed in the Crimea; he was discovered in deep snow by a group of nomadic Tatars. They took him to their tent and looked after him for a week, treating his serious wounds with animal fat and wrapping him in felt to keep him warm. This formative experience led to the continuous use of felt and fat in his later sculptural works and a concern for the ‘warmth’ of sculptures. The near-death experience also seems to have informed his later association between performative activities and shamanistic ritual. A number of Beuys’s works draw on the general structure of ritually repeating through trance-like states the experience of a close encounter with death.

Beuys studied art under Joseph Enseling (1886–1957) and Ewald Mataré at the Staatliche Kunstakademie, Düsseldorf (1947–51). His earliest works showed his abiding concern with primitive symbolism (e.g. Basalt Cross, 3.37×1.47×0.49 m, 1955; Krefeld, Kaiser Wilhelm Mus.). Their orthodox materials were abandoned in the late 1950s in favour of ‘found objects’. These were subsequently displayed with later pieces in characteristic steel and glass ‘vitrines’, designed in 1964.

In the 1960s Beuys used fat in such sculptures as the famous Fat Chair (1964; Darmstadt, Hess. Landesmus.). In these works Beuys demonstrated some basic features of his conception of sculpture. For him it was not a rigid form but an energetic process. Beuys went so far as to claim seriously that sculpture was a primarily audible medium, since, as he understood it, the swirling of flowing water or the rhythm of a heartbeat was sculpture. He also related his conception of sculpture as energy to his various ‘Aktionen’ with felt and to his felt sculptures (e.g. Snowfall, 1965; Basle, Mus. Gegenwartskst). These served for him as heat reservoirs or power stations. With rigourous logic Beuys defined his sculpture as a medicament, referring to it as an art ointment or art tablet.

Beuys’s new theory of sculpture and his expanded art activities evolved through contact with the international Fluxus group that became active c. 1963. Fluxus’s aim was to abolish the frontiers between life and art. However, the expressionist and symbolist tendencies in Beuys’s work were at odds with predominant emphasis on radically asubjective and minimalist practices among the early Fluxus artists. Despite using the term Fluxus for many of his activities, his work is closer in spirit to that of other practitioners on the 1960s expanded arts circuit, such as the Wiener Actionists or a number of the ‘happening’ artists. A defining moment of Beuys’s new artistic approach came with the Fluxus ‘Fest der neuen Kunst’, held on 20 July 1964 in the assembly hall of the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule in Aachen. During the festival a spectator, incensed at the show put on by Beuys and his colleagues, charged onto the stage and punched Beuys on the nose, which began to bleed. Instead of trying to stem the flow of blood, Beuys suddenly held up a wooden crucifix with an extendable plinth in his left hand and saluted the audience with his right. Beuys seized the chance to style himself publicly as a martyr in the presence of a photographer. This played a major part in raising Beuys’s public profile, in both the positive and the negative sense. In the years that followed he would systematically project his own artist persona—always dressed in the same outfit of felt hat and fisherman’s vest—as an integral part of his work.

Beuys elaborated a philosophy of art based primarily on such models as Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe and Rudolf Steiner. He also stated that the sculptors Wilhelm Lehmbruck and Ewald Mataré had been important for his development. Beuys was especially fascinated by Steiner’s philosophy, in particular on politics, economics and intellectual freedom, and his concepts of redemption and the structure of nature and man. Beuys also knew of the lecture on bees that Steiner had given to workers at the Goetheanum in Dornach in 1923. In the lecture he spoke of the bee as a sacred animal even in ancient times: ‘sacred because it actually reveals in its entire work what goes on within the human being’. Beuys recognized the sculptural process in the work of bees and applied it to his own philosophy of art: sculpture was for him an ‘organic forming from within’. He compared sculpture to a bone formed by liquid processes that have solidified. Everything in human physiology that later hardens, Beuys argued, came originally from a liquid process. His catchword for this was ‘embryology’. Beuys was inspired repeatedly from the 1950s to represent the subject of the bee in his work. In Honey Pump at the Workplace for the Documenta exhibition in Kassel in 1977 (now Humlebæk, Louisiana Mus.), he achieved in an installation an extraordinary transformation of the theme. Electric motors pumped honey through a gigantic assemblage of Perspex pipes in the stairwell of the Museum Fridericianum, symbolizing the circulation of life and flowing energy.

Joseph Beuys: Eurasia Siberian Symphony, 1963, panel with chalk drawing, felt and fat, hare and blue painted poles, 1.83×2.31×0.51 m, 1966 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, photo © Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

Beuys’s work continually referred to animal life. Apart from bees the main animals were the stag, the elk, the sheep, the swan and, in particular, the hare, with which he appeared publicly in a number of his ‘Aktionen’. In 1965 he demonstrated in the Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. Beuys poured honey over his head and stuck gold leaf to it. Holding the dead hare on his arm, he walked through the small gallery showing it the pictures on the walls and conducting it over a withered pine tree. Other pieces with hares included, in 1964 in the Galerie Block, Berlin, The Boss and, two years later in Copenhagen and again in Galerie Block, Eurasia (see Eurasia Siberian Symphony, 1963, 1966; New York, MOMA). At the Documenta in 1982 Beuys formed a hare and a sun from a melted copy of the crown of the Russian Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible (reg 1533–84). Beuys sometimes referred to himself as a hare and believed the hare to be the creature through which he could revivify buried myths and rites. Beuys’s most spectacular exchange with animal life was conducted during the Aktion I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974, where Beuys spent three days together with a wild American coyote, artist and animal locked up together inside an enclosure created in the Galerie Block, New York. Having been transported from and to his Düsseldorf home in ambulances and rolled up in felt (Beuys kept a piece of cloth over his face during the airplane trip so as not to interrupt his trancelike state), the days spent with the coyote seemed to expand on the idea that a shamanistic trance may involve close communication with animals. Charged with primitivism and with appropriating Native American mythologies for his own self-mythologising, Beuys pointed out that he had no wish to return to primeval states. For him the shamanistic ritual represented a general principle of collective transformation that had a bearing on the future, rather than pointing towards some premodern ideal (see Shamanism).

2. Teaching career and ‘social sculpture’.

From 1961 Beuys taught at the Staatliche Kunstakademie, Düsseldorf, where he was idolized by most of the students, although the teaching staff were divided in their support for him. With his actions against restricted entry for students to the academy, he brought the institution to the verge of ruin: he periodically had the secretariat occupied by rejected applicants. In October 1972 he was summarily dismissed by the Minister for Science and Research of the state of Nordrhein–Westfalen. An industrial tribunal that went before several authorities ended in 1978 with a settlement between the parties. Beuys’s worldwide fame was then at its height.

Beuys said, ‘Where I am, academy is.’ Despite its biblical timbre, there was truth in the statement. Beuys was an impassioned and inspired teacher, and pedagogy in the wide sense of the term seemed to be a central component of his ‘expanded art concept’. This was true both at the Kunstakademie and in his countless public appearances, which from the early 1970s were accompanied by annotated blackboard diagrams. These were subsequently preserved as important evidence of his thinking (e.g. Directional Forces, 100 blackboards, 1974–7; Berlin, Neue N.G.) However, his sculptural objects and multiples (e.g. Felt Suit, 1976, Intuition, 1968, and Noiseless Blackboard Eraser, 1974) could also be seen as devices of a modern form of pedagogy, in the sense that they were designed to trigger thinking, rather than just communicate or transmit a specific form or content. This notion was related to Beuys’s concept of anti-images—the notion that looking at a grey and indistinct object (a heap of felt) may create a ‘colourful’ response in the beholder just as looking fixedly at a red light may produce a green after-image if you close your eyes.

Beuys’s dismissal from the Kunstakademie certainly gave him a severe shock, but it enabled him to devote more time to the other very diverse demands made on him. First among these was his commitment to the ‘Freie Internationale Universität’ that he had founded in 1972 in Düsseldorf as the ‘central organ of the expanded concept of art’. This was to base its practice on the idea that creativity is a capacity of the whole population, which, Beuys believed, was not being sufficiently acknowledged in schools, academies and universities. For him this principle of creativity was identical to that of resurrection. He said the old form had ossified: it needed to be transformed into a living, pulsating form that fostered life, spirit and mind. This could only be achieved by the ‘expanded concept of art’, which Beuys therefore called his best work of art.

The ‘expanded concept of art’ culminated logically in ‘social sculpture’, an entirely new category of art based on the universal ability to be creative: for example, at the Documenta of 1982, Beuys instigated the collective planting of 7000 Oaks. Anthropology, not the museum, interested Beuys as a context for art. He took the view that all human knowledge stems from art and that the concept of science has evolved from that of creativity. He concluded that only artists had created a historical consciousness and that the decisive need was to experience the plastic aspect of history. History therefore should be seen in terms of sculpture—history was sculpture.

Beuys subordinated everything to the ‘expanded concept of art’—economics, ecology, democracy, the student party he founded (1967), his support of Die Grünen, his Organisation für direkte Demokratie (founded 1970). He also ascribed an important sculptural role to his thinking and speaking. ‘My way went through language, curious as that may sound; it did not start from a so-called visual gift’, he said in Munich in 1985. Beuys left behind an immense, enigmatic body of work that may be viewed in prominent museums around the world. However, his perhaps most significant and enigmatic museum installation remains the enormous Block Beuys in the Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt—a dense, storage-like permanent installation that spans seven rooms and contains a number of his most important works. Beuys himself worked on this installation from 1970 until his death.


  • Multiples, 2 vols (Munich, 1974)
  • Lotta poetica: 3 Pots Action, Edinburgh (Brescia, 1975)
  • Zeichnungen zu ‘Codices Madrid’ von Leonardo da Vinci (Stuttgart, 1975)
  • with C. Bodenmann-Ritter: Jeder Mensch ein Künstler: Gespräche auf de Documenta 5, 1972 (Frankfurt am Main, 1975)


  • Beuys (exh. cat. by J. Cladders and H. Strelow, Mönchengladbach, Städt. Museen, 1967)
  • L. Romain and R. Wedewer: Über Beuys (Düsseldorf, 1972)
  • G. Adriani, W. Konnertz and K. Thomas: Joseph Beuys (Cologne, 1973)
  • Joseph Beuys: Zeichnungen/Bilder/Plastiken/Objekte/Aktionsphotographien (exh. cat. by F. J. van der Grinten and H. van der Grinten, Freiburg im Breisgau, Kstver., 1975)
  • C. Tisdall: Joseph Beuys, Coyote (Munich, 1976)
  • Beuys, Gerz, Ruthenbeck (exh. cat. by K. Gallwitz and others, Venice, Biennale, 1976)
  • Joseph Beuys (exh. cat. by C. Tisdall, New York, Guggenheim, 1979)
  • D. B. Kuspit: ‘Beuys: Fat, Felt and Alchemy’, Art in America [cont. as A. America & Elsewhere; A. America], 68/5 (1980), pp. 78–89
  • T. Vischer: Beuys und die Romantik (Cologne, 1983)
  • F. J. van der Grinten and F. Mennekes: Menschenbild Christusbild (Stuttgart, 1984)
  • F. J. Verspohl: Joseph Beuys: Das Kapital: Raum, 1970–77 (Frankfurt am Main, 1984)
  • W. Bojescul: Zum Kunstbegriff des Joseph Beuys: Kultur—Literatur—Kunst (Essen, 1985)
  • J. Schellmann and B. Klüser, eds: Joseph Beuys—Multiples, Werkverzeichnis Multiples und Druckgraphik, 1965–1985 (Munich and New York, 1985)
  • Kreuz + Zeichen: Religiöse Grundlagen im Werk von Joseph Beuys (exh. cat., ed. A. C. Oellers and F. J. van der Grinten; Aachen, Suermondt-Ludwig-Mus., 1985)
  • G. Adriani, W. Konnertz and K. Thomas: Joseph Beuys (Köln, 1986)
  • P. Iden: Obituary, Das Kunstwerk: Eine Zeitschrift über alle Gebiete der bildenden Kunst, 39/1 (1986), pp. 51–3
  • H. Stachelhaus: Joseph Beuys (Düsseldorf, 1987)
  • Joseph Beuys: Werken in het Fluxus-archief (exh. cat. by H. Ruhé, Amsterdam, Gal. A, 1987)
  • S. Paas and B. Strieder: Der Beuys-Block im hessischen Landesmuseum in Darmstadt (Darmstadt, 1988)
  • Joseph Beuys: Skulpturen und Objekte and The Secret Block for a Secret Person in Ireland, 2 vols (exh. cat., ed. H. Bastian; Berlin, Gropiusbau, 1988)
  • H. Stachelhaus: Joseph Beuys (New York, 1991)
  • G. Schöllhammer: ‘Vienna Beuys?’, Guardian (10 June 1993)
  • M. Müller: Wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt. Schamanismus und Erkenntnis im Werk von Joseph Beuys (Alfter, 1994)
  • U. M. Schneede: Die Aktionen (Ostfildern, 1994)
  • D. Thistlewood, ed.: Joseph Beuys. Diverging Critiques (Liverpool, 1995)
  • A. Borer: The Essential Joseph Beuys (Cambridge, MA, 1997)
  • D. Luckow: Joseph Beuys und die amerikanische Anti Form-Kunst (Berlin, 1998)
  • C. Mesch and V. Michely, eds.: Joseph Beuys. The Reader (Cambridge, MA, 2007)