Joseph Beuys


Joseph Beuys (b. 1921, Krefeld; d. 1986, Dusseldorf) is an important cultural figure in post-war European art. His experimental method emphasised the mutual significance of theory, action and object, and the transition between them. The term ‘social sculpture’ he coined to describe an expanded and all-inclusive interpretation of art, foremost meant to transform and improve society. This social imperative was born from post-war Germany in devastation, spawning a generation concerned with its economic, political and spiritual rebuilding. Beuys orchestrated aktionen (‘actions’), which took the form of debates, lectures, even tree-planting, to empower art with real political and social potency. This fluidity between art and reality, staged actions and politics, was an important development of gesamtkunstwerk (‘total artwork’). Organic matter such as felt, fat, honey, blood, dead and live animals in his work symbolised the motifs of his own real and fictionalised wartime experience. From the 1970s onwards, Beuys’ work became increasingly political. He founded several organisations dedicated to democracy, disarmament and free education. He would continue to fuse pedagogy with his artistic practice, using travelling lectures to promulgate his ideas. Beuys remains an influential figure of the late twentieth century; his cultural personage and artistic legacy permeate ongoing debates in the contemporary art world today.


Beuys enrolled at the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1947, graduating with a master’s degree in 1951. His first solo show was held at the van der Grinten farm, Kranenburg, in 1953. Beuys was appointed Professor of Monumental Sculpture at the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1961. In 1963, he conducted his first two public actions ‘Composition for 2 musicians’ and ‘Siberian Symphony, 1st Movement’ in association with Fluxus, an international avant-garde collective founded by George Maciunas in 1960. Maciunas severed ties with Beuys in 1964 over philosophical and aesthetic differences. He participated at documenta in the years 1964, 1968, 1972, 1977 and 1982. In 1967, Beuys founded the ‘German Student Party’, and in 1971, the ‘Organisation for Direct Democracy through Referendum’, which advocated increased political power for individuals. Following his dismissal from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1972, Beuys established the Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research (FIU) in 1974.


In 1975, Beuys was awarded an honorary doctorate from Nova Scotia College of Art, Halifax, Canada, and in 1978 became a member of the Akademie der kunst, Berlin. Beuys had numerous exhibitions throughout the 1970s, including a major retrospective at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1979. He co-founded the German Green party in the same year. In January 1986, the artist received the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Prize in Duisburg. Beuys’ work has been exhibited worldwide and features in several private and public collections including the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; Museum of Modern Art, New York. Recent museum exhibitions include Tate Modern, London, 2015–16; Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, 2016; and an exhibition of drawings at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, 2016.

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