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Posted on: May 12th, 2015 by Lewis Mindenhall No Comments

Born Today. Avant-Garde Artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986).

By Lewis Mindenhall

Born today. On May 12th 1921, influential German Avant-Garde artist Joseph Beuys.

Joseph Beuys was a German born artist and intellectual that worked in a diverse field including Painting/Drawing, Performance Art, Sculpture, Installation Art, Graphic Art, Politics and Theory. His extensive work mainly deals with the concepts of Humanism, Social Philosophy and Anthroposophy.


Joseph Beuys, Action Piece, 1972.

Born in 1921. From an early age Joseph Beuys displayed a keen interest in natural science and was considering a career in medical science before deciding to become a sculpter. It is well documented that Beuys was an active member of the Hitler youth organization in 1936 when he was 15 years old, and was a participant at the Nuremberg rally in september of the same year. With the outbreak of the second World War by 1941, Beuys had volunteered for the Luftwaffe and became an aircraft radio operator. It was during this time that he had started to consider a career as an artist. On march 16th 1944 Beuys’s plane was shot down on the Crimean front in no man’s land between the Russian and German fronts and crashed, badly injured he was rescued by a nomadic tribe and his body wrapped in animal fat and felt. Although it has also been suggested that Beuys fabricated the story somewhat and that a letter sent to the family of the dead pilot by Beuys indicated that the plane crash was due to weather conditions rather than from artillery fire?.

The Fluxus Movement. Beuys was a key figure in the 1960’s Fluxus Movement. Dissatisfied with the long tradition of object-orientated painting and sculpture and influenced in part by contemporary experiments in music, literature and the visual arts, the group (made up of artists in Europe, United States and Asia) turned against the art worlds commercialism in favour of “found” and “everyday” items for creating time-based “happenings”, installation and action-orientated events. The group became known as a Neo-Dada, Anti-Art and Anti-Commercial Movement in the United States. The origins of fluxus actually lie in many concepts explored by experimental composer John Cage from the 1950’s in New York City which explored notions of indeterminacy in art. Another key influence was the Dada artist Marcel Duchamp who was also a resident of New York and the innovator  of the “readymade” object as a work of art.

Actions. Beuys was introduced to performance art in 1962 with The Fluxus Movement and created 70 performances or “Actions” throughout his career and up until his death, as well as creating more than 50 installations while conducting interviews, lectures, seminars and solo exhibitions. He believed that performance art had the potential for self healing and social transformation and by enacting self-invented rituals he could become a modern day shaman and effect the world around him. Using elements of the absurd that contained layers of meanings and symbols. He wanted to create an atmosphere for the spectator that would unite a passionate intuitiveness with an intellectual mind and create a spiritual evolution for the individual. The Actions were often described as intimate, autobiographical, political and intense. By the mid 1970’s, Beuys was using his Actions as a forum for his political and environment beliefs.

How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. One of the artists most famous performances. Beuys covered his head with honey and fifty dollars worth of gold leaf.. He cradles a dead hare in his arms whilst strapped to an iron plate on the bottom of his right shoe. Viewed from behind glass in a gallery, the audience could see Beuys walking from drawing to drawing, quietly whispering in the dead hares ear. As he walked around the room, the silence was pierced by intermittent sound of his footsteps; the loud crack of the iron on the floor and the soundless whisper of the sole of his shoe.

Artist : Ute Klophaus (Germany, b.1940) Title : Date : 1965 {printed later}, 1997 {printed} Medium Description: gelatin silver photograph Dimensions : Credit Line : Mervyn Horton Bequest Fund 1997 Image Credit Line : Accession Number : 434.1997.9

How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 1965.

I Like America and America Likes Me (1974). A notable ‘Action’ work by Beuys occured in 1974 when he managed to spend three days in a room with a coyote, after flying into New York. With reference to his experience in 1944 was swathed in felt and loaded into an ambulance, then driven to the gallery where the ‘Action’ took place. Beuys later explained that ‘I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote’. It was meant as a statement opposed to The military actions in Vietnam and in addition to the props used in the work, fifty copies of the Wall Street Journal were delivered each day and then urinated on by the coyote. Beuys saw the coyote as a symbol of the damage done by white man to the American continent and it’s native cultures (for Native Americans, the coyote is a powerful god, with the power to move between the physical and spiritual world).

Legacy. Beuys’s aesthetic of social sculpture and performances suggested art’s potential to transform the life of the individual. His insistence on the human nature of creativity implied that every fully thinking person is, by definition, an artist. He would also come to play a larger role in to the notion that art should address social, political and similar concerns by blurring the boundaries between it’s own practice as a discipline, and everyday reality. He was also motivated by a belief in the power of universal human creativity and was confident in the potential for art to bring about revolutionary change. Beuys elaborates three principles; Freedom, Democracy, and Socialism, saying that each of them depends on the other two in order to be meaningful.

Since his death in 1986, Joseph Beuys has made a major impact on art practice and theory. He also founded (or co-founded) the German Student Party (1967), Organization for Direct Democracy Through Referendum (1971), Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research (1974) and the German Green Party (1980).

Joseph Beuys. How To Explain Pictures To A Dead Hare (below). Documentary on Joseph Beuys’ 1965 performance piece “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” which is considered a key work in the artist career that had specific symbolic values for Beuys.

“For me the hare is a symbol of incarnation, which the hare really enacts. Something a human can only do in imagination. It burrows, building itself a home in the earth. Thus it incarnates itself in the earth: that alone is important. So it seems to me. Honey on my head of course has to do with thought. While humans do not have the ability to produce honey, they do have the ability to think, to produce ideas. Therefore the stale and morbid nature of thought is once again made living. Honey is an undoubtedly living substance- human thoughts can also become alive. On the other hand intellectualizing can be deadly to thought: One can talk one’s mind to death in politics or in academia.” (Joseph Beuys).