Joseph Beuys (1921-1986)
Date of Birth: May 12, 1921
Date of Death: January 21, 1986
Place of Birth: Krefeld, Germany
Occupation: Sculptor, Installation Art
Movement: Conceptual Art, Fluxus
Education: Kunstakademie Dusseldorf
“Every human being is an artist, a freedom being, called to participate in transforming and reshaping the conditions, thinking, and structures that shape and inform our lives.”
“In places like universities, where everyone talks too rationally, it is necessary for a kind of enchanter to appear.”
“To be a teacher is my greatest work of art. The rest is the waste product, a demonstration.”
“Woman/Animal Skull,” 1957
“How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare,”1965
Joseph Beuys was a German artist and teacher, who taught art theory and worked in graphic art, and was a performance artist. A well-known teacher, he said that his greatest contribution to art was his teaching of it.
Joseph Beuys was born in the town of Krefeld in 1921. He was the son of a fertilizer dealer, Joseph Jacob Beuys, and Johanna Maria Margarete. They moved a few months after his birth to the nearby town of Kleve. The family was well off, and Joseph was sent to school at the Staatliche Gymnasium in town. He received piano and cello lessons, and his talent for drawing was noticed early in school. He was in the habit of visiting the studio of the artist Achilles Moortgat who lived in Kleve. Moortgat introduced him to the works of a number of artists, including Constantin Meunier and George Minne.
Beuys had chosen to become a sculptor during his student-days. When he was 15, it is recorded that he joined the Hitler Youth. He was also with a circus for a year in 1939.
The Air Force Period
Beuys finished school in 1941, and immediately volunteered to join the German Air Force. He was trained as a radio operator, and stationed in Crimea in 1942. He continued drawing and sketching through his years in the Luftwaffe. His plane was shot down in 1944. According to him, he was rescued by Tartar tribesmen who nursed him back to health by covering his wounds in fat and wrapping him in animal felt, though this version of events may have been fabricated by him.
After recovering from his wounds, he went back into action as a paratrooper. He was captured by British forces and became a prisoner of war. He was released a few months later and returned to his parents’ home in Kleve.
Education and Beginnings in Art
Beuys joined the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf in 1946, studying monumental sculpture, first under Joseph Enseling, and then, in 1947, joined the class taught by Ewald Mataré. He was made master student by Mataré in 1951, and began helping his teacher in the creation of projects. He finished his studies in 1953. He made a small living by doing minor projects for clients. He made many thousands of drawings and, infrequently, sculptures, through the 1950s.
Wartime experiences had profoundly impacted Beuys, and he suffered serious depression in 1956. However, he recovered and began participating in exhibitions in 1958. He married Eva Wurmbach in 1959, and they had two children, Wenzel and Jessyka.
The Mature Years
Beuys and his family moved to Düsseldorf in 1961, as he had been appointed to teach monumental sculpture at the Kunstakademie there. He had been dabbling in performance art at this time, and in 1964, performed at the Technical College in Aachen. It turned out to be a controversial performance, with a student attacking him. He had also begun fictionalizing parts of his life, a trait that was to enter his art and personal life.
Beuys began making a breakthrough in the art world with a performance of “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” in 1965 in Dusseldorf. Another breakthrough came with his exhibition at the Cologne Art Fair in 1969.
Beuys was deeply interested in teaching, and had a number of novel ideas that he put into action. He refused to impose entrance exams and qualifications for participating in his classes — due to this and a number of other reasons, he was dismissed from his teaching post in 1972. This led to a furor, with a large body of students coming out in his defense. He initiated a legal process against the university, and in 1980, was finally allowed to rejoin as professor.
The Later Years, Death, and Legacy
Beuys visited the United States in 1974 where he was exhibiting and lecturing. He also exhibited in 1976 at the Venice Biennale, where he installed his work, “Straßenbahnhaltestelle/ Tram Stop/ Fermata del Tram.” The only retrospective of his to be held in his own lifetime was in 1979, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Beuys died of a heart failure in 1986 in Dusseldorf.
The work “7000 Oaks,” in which Beuys began planting oaks in 1982, continued to be developed after his death a few years later, with people adding to the oak grove, and in a sense, building upon his work.
1921 - Born in the Krefeld, Germany
1936 - Joins the Hitler Youth
1941 - Graduates from school
1941 - Begins training in the German Air Force
1944 - Beuys’ plane shot down in Crimea
1946 - Enrolls at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf
1953 - Graduates from the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf
1959 - Marries Eva Wurmbach
1961 - Appointed professor at theKunstakademie Dusseldorf
1979 - Retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, New York
1986 - Dies of heart failure in Dusseldorf
1953 - First solo exhibition in Kranenberg, Germany
1961 - Solo exhibition at the Städtisches Museum Haus Koekkoek, Kleve, Germany
1965 - Performance of “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare,” Dusseldorf, Germany
1969 - Participates in the Cologne Art Fair, Germany
1979 - Retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, New York
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain
National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland
Fotomuseum, Winterthur, Switzerland
Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland
Kunstmuseum, Bonn, Germany
Lenbach House, Munich
Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Trento, Italy
Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands
Musuem Sztuki, Lodz, Poland
“Joseph Beuys: Life and Works” by Adriani, Gotz, Winfried Konnertz, and Karin Thomas
“The Essential Joseph Beuys” by Alain Borer
“Beuys: Die Biographie” by Hans-Peter Riegel