Photograph: © Mimmo Jodice, 1979

A towering creative figure, whose work remains the subject of intense, often heated debate, the impact of Joseph Beuys on the art world of the past fifty years would be difficult to overstate.

Beuys was born in Krefeld in the German Rhineland in 1921, but was raised in the nearby town of Kleve, a short distance from the Dutch border. During the Second World War he trained as a radio operator in fighter planes.1 After being shot down in Crimea in 1944, he suffered major injuries, which would impact his health for the remainder of his life.

Following the war, Beuys took his first concrete steps toward becoming an artist. Enrolling at the Düsseldorf State Art Academy, from 1947–1953 he studied with the sculptor Ewald Mataré, a prominent German artist, well-known for his animal figures and religious commissions.

Working in an elegantly streamlined graphic style, in which a process of formal reduction evoked a sense of drawing nearer to the essence of his subjects, Mataré attempted in his art to move beyond appearances and connect with reality’s hidden core. This transcendental outlook resonated deeply with Beuys, whose drawings and sculptures of this period were initially indebted strongly to Mataré’s work. 2 As time progressed, however, Beuys drew away from his teacher’s influence. Formally, his art became more complex, developing the rougher, more off-hand and erratic qualities that would mark his mature aesthetic. Thematically, it was increasingly marked by oblique symbolic references and mythological allusions.

An important catalyst for this transition were the teachings of Rudolf Steiner.3 Concerned to counter what he saw as the excessive materialism of modern society, in which rationality had become the leading mode of experience, Steiner sought to reawaken what he termed humanity’s more ‘spiritual’ faculties, such as imagination, inspiration and intuition. In this way he hoped to rebalance social life and contribute to a broader process of human evolution.4 As a practice in which intuition, imagination and inspiration are of paramount significance, art, Steiner argued, could assume a leading role in this endeavour.5 Aligning himself with this position, Beuys would come to see himself as an advocate for spiritual development, a conviction he would never relinquish.6

In 1961, Beuys succeeded Sepp Mages as Professor of Monumental Sculpture at the Düsseldorf Academy and in the decade that followed would rise rapidly to prominence in the German art world. Encouraged by the emergence of the Fluxus movement, Beuys entered the arena of performance art, creating enigmatic, ritualistic ‘Kunstaktionen’ [art actions] in which he manipulated props that he had fashioned from a range of unorthodox materials, including copper, fat, felt and honey.

Investing these materials and his own actions with a complex symbolism, whose meanings, he contended, were impervious to rational thought, Beuys attempted to engage his audience through intuitive channels of communication.7 As the decade progressed, both his Kunstaktionen and the sculptures and drawings he produced alongside them, would win Beuys considerable renown. From the outset, however, he was a polarising figure. While his supporters were drawn to the rawness and allusive richness of his material aesthetics, his detractors often branded him a charlatan, who trafficked in obscure and irrational mysticism. For his part, Beuys likened his role to that of a shaman, attempting by means of his artistic activities to exercise a healing role within society.8 His engagement with multiples at this time formed part of this initiative. Fanning out into collections throughout Germany and the wider world, they served as vehicles for carrying his art, and the experiences it sought to communicate, beyond the confines of museums, galleries and elite private collections into the homes and everyday lives of a broader audience.

Art in my opinion is the only evolutionary power. This means that only through man’s [sic] creativity can circumstances change. And I believe that many people feel that humanism can best be developed through art.

Beginning In the early 1970s, Beuys’s art grew more expressly political. Seeking in the spirit of his multiples to extend the social reach of his practice, he began developing an ‘expanded concept of art’. Embracing the creative potential of public activities, such as lecturing, teaching and political discussion, he began conceiving of society as a ‘social sculpture,’ shaped by the collective efforts of its members. Equating art with all forms of human creativity, Beuys sought to harness the creative capabilities of every individual. In pursuit of this goal, he played a founding role in several organisations, including a university, an agricultural alliance and a political party. Prominent among his numerous political projects was an effort to democratise higher education, in which connection he opened his class in Düsseldorf to all who wished to join it. As a result, he was dismissed from the Academy, a decision that was overturned at trial six years later. In the wake of his dismissal Beuys travelled widely, visiting the United States, Australia, Japan, Italy and many other countries to promote his artistic ideas. He continued to work relentlessly in this capacity until the mid-1980s, when his gradually failing health obliged him to slow the pace of this routine.
At his death in 1986, Beuys had long since become a leading artist of his era, admired deeply as a sculptor and a draftsman and respected for his efforts to enhance the social role of art. With several of his students already recognised as leading international artists, his stature as a teacher had been confirmed, and in the years that followed, his legacy would continue to grow, above all in the domain of social sculpture. Though much-resisted during Beuys’s lifetime, his notion that an artwork might arise as the product of social interaction would be embraced by many younger artists, who throughout the 1990s and 2000s would use it to reshape the landscape of contemporary art. By virtue of this steadily expanding influence, Beuys’s shadow has become inescapable and his position as a watershed figure within the history of recent art has been cemented.

  1. For the most thorough account of Beuys’s life until World War Two, see H.P. Riegel, Beuys. Die Biographie (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 2013), 9–64. 

  2. On Beuys’s studies with Mataré and response to Mataré’s work, see H. P. Riegel, Beuys. Die Biographie (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 2013), 91–99; and Heiner Stachelhaus, Joseph Beuys (Düsseldorf; Wien; New York: Icon Verlag, 1991), 31–42. 

  3. On Beuys’s relationship to Rudolf Steiner, see Verena Kuni, Der Künstler als ‘Magier’ und ‘Alchemist’ im Spannungsfeld von Produktion und Rezeption Aspekte der Auseinandersetzung mit okkulten Traditionen in der europäischen Kunstgeschichte nach 1945. Eine vergleichende Fokusstudie – ausgehend von Joseph Beuys, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Philipps-Universität Marburg, 2004, 185–196; H. P. Riegel, Beuys. Die Biographie, 100–110,124–132 and passim; and John F. Moffitt, Occultism in Avant-Garde Art: The Case of Joseph Beuys (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988), ch.s 5 and 6. 

  4. For two of Steiner’s own introductions to his teachings and his concept of human spiritual evolution, see: Rudolf Steiner, Theosophy. An introduction to the Supersensible Knowledge of the World and the Destination of Man,; Rudolf Steiner, Knowledge of the Higher Worlds And Its Attainment, Accessed April 20th, 2014. 

  5. Steiner devoted a series of lectures to the arts in 1923, in which he put forward this idea. These talks were subsequently published as The Arts and Their Mission, Accessed April 20th, 2014. 

  6. As Beuys noted in this connection in a 1972 discussion:
    “Art in my opinion is the only evolutionary power. This means that only through man’s [sic] creativity can circumstances change. And I believe that many people feel that humanism can best be developed through art.”
    (Cited in Werner Krüger, ‘Beuys: Mein Kampf ist eine Plastik. Trotz Rausschmiß und Lehrverbot will er hart bleiben,’ Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, October 19th, 1972; reprinted and translated in Götz Adriani, Winfried Konnertz and Karin Thomas, trans. Patricia Leach, Joseph Beuys. Life and Works (New York: Barron’s, 1979), 255.)  

  7. Among the most vivid of these gestures was the action wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt (1965), in which Beuys whispered incomprehensibly to a dead hare cradled in his arms, while parading it before a group of nearby pictures. He would later describe this activity as an attempt to demonstrate the limited capacities of reason, especially in relationship to art:
    “The idea of explaining to an animal conveys a sense of the secrecy of the world and of existence that appeals to the imagination. Then, as I said, even a dead animal preserves more powers of intuition than some human beings with their stubborn rationality.”
    (Cited in Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys (London: Thames & Hudson, 1979), 105.)  

  8. For comments by Beuys on art’s capacity to serve as a source of healing or therapy, see, for example: Joseph Beuys (New York: DIA Art Foundation, 1987), 18; and ‘Extracts from a Discussion with Joseph Beuys,’ in Axel Hinrich Murken, Beuys und die Medizin (Münster: Coppenrath, 1979), 152. On Beuys’s interest in adopting the role of the shaman, in a bid to provide a conduit between the visible realm of matter and the invisible domain of spirit, see Murken, ibid., 131–132; ‘Joseph Beuys im Gespräch mit Caroline Tisdall, 1974,’ in Secret Block for a Secret Person in Ireland (Tübingen: Kunsthalle Tübingen, 1988), 49; and Joseph Beuys. Schamane (Nürnberg: Verlag für Moderne Kunst, 2008), 2.