Introduction to Beuys' Art
by David Adams


From the 1960s through the 1980s the innovative sculptures, drawings, installations, and performance art of German artist Joseph Beuys have often been cited as the most significant expression of avant-garde art in post-war Europe.   In his familiar felt hat, air force ammunition (fisherman’s) vest, & jeans, Beuys became a cult figure for hundreds of students and artists from around the world. Through his own striking but enigmatic artworks as well as his extensive teaching, Beuys influenced two generations of contemporary artists. Beyond the artworld, Beuys also played a role in European politics, higher education, environmentalism, and social reform.

 Beuys is known for his ritualistic “Actions” (performances), his provocative uses of unfamiliar artistic mediums (for example, fat, honey, felt, iron, copper, horns, bones, gelatin, peat, blood, chocolate, conversation), his challenging arrangements of objects and artwork in gallery installations and vitrines, his creative blurring of the boundaries between art and life, his articulate theoretical statements on art and social reform, and his intense, wiry drawings. 

 Although Beuys adapted for his work aspects of the 1960s avant garde, postminimalist movements known as process, performance, installation, and conceptual art, he used them in personal and unusual ways. In his performances he extended his thinking from his own body in action to the body social and politic, which he felt could also be sculpted (and healed). He stated that his artworks could only be understood by an intuitive, spiritual awareness, not by linear, logical thought.

 Unhappy with the social role for art represented by the isolated “art-world ghetto,” Beuys saw the end of modernism in art as a transition to an expanded “social art” or “social sculpture” in which everyone could be creative and participate democratically to re-sculpt the body social.  Beuys’s “totalized concept of art” referred to the fundamental process of human form-making, whether this occurred in artworks, thoughts, speech, or social interaction. “Every human being is an artist” was his motto.

 After working his way through a more conventional modern artistic training and a number of personal crises, Beuys began participating in 1962 in the radical and often raucous art performances of the international Fluxus movement.  While he supported the Fluxus goal of abolishing the distinction between artistic and nonartistic practices of creativity, he criticized their anti-individualism and their lack of a theory of knowledge with a clearly defined social goal. His performances were generally more complex, metaphorical, and multi-leveled than the usual short, simple, outrageous, and funny Fluxus events.

 In anthroposophy Beuys found both a suitably holistic theory of knowledge and clearly articulated social and spiritual ideals.  He had been studying Steiner since age 20 in 1941, and, while the context of his artwork was quite different from Steiner's own artistic creations, Beuys based much of his artwork on anthroposophical ideas and experiences.26

 Much of Beuys's work attempted to convey forces, energies, and mysteries of the natural and human worlds, often grasped at a prelinguistic level or presented in ways that helped to focus viewers on their experiences rather than the art objects.  “All my actions are based upon concepts of basic human energies in the form of images,” he remarked.27   For example, in The Chief, a nine-hour meditative performance of 1964 in Berlin, Beuys used fat, felt-wrapped copper rods, and two dead hares (representatives of the animal world) placed at the ends of a large hare-fur-felt roll  with Beuys lying inside uttering amplified primitive sounds, especially the call of the wild stag and other animals.  As the human being could be said to be the irresponsible "chief" within the household of nature, Beuys attempted temporarily to "die" to his own species and contact animal forms of life and to remind his human viewers of other modes of existence that could help expand restricted human understanding. It was also related to the old "temple-sleep" initiation death-experience as a means of self-transformation. This Action seems to prefigure his famous 1974 performance in New York, Coyote (or I Like America and America Likes Me), another effort to raise questions about the nature and root-problems of western culture, where Beuys lived three days in the gallery with a wild coyote as a representative of the persecuted, unappreciated, and misunderstood natural world and Native Americans.

 He hoped both to connect the human being "from below with the animals, the plants, with nature, and in the same way tie him with the heights with the angels or spirits."28  Beuys saw the animal kingdom as an ally for the evolutionary process of broadening and deepening human awareness.  The bee, horse, stag, elk, coyote, fox, swan, goat, hare, moose, and wasp all appeared in his drawings, performances, and sculptures.  Beuys felt that the essential, higher being of animals gave access to forgotten spiritual energies now needed again by human society.

 Beuys also explored new approaches to visual art based more on the spiritual and even sacramental qualities of substances themselves than on their elements of form or content within a specific artwork (an understanding of art that might be called "alchemical").  For example, many of his creations work with balancing polarities (related to Steiner's Christic conception of "mediated polarity") – for example, between iron and copper (Mars and Venus), or between chaotic, expanded forms and ordered, contracted forms within a single medium, such as beeswax or fat. Beuys’s art questioned the belief that we can adequately understand the inner workings of our world through normal modes of perception.  He felt that organs of Imagination, Inspiration, and Intuition quite different from ordinary logical, analytical thinking must be employed to apprehend the forces at work in material substances (as well as in his own artworks).  For Beuys, visual art only had a real meaning if it worked upon the development of human consciousness.

 From the vast range of Beuys's artistic production, I only want here to point briefly to a few of his artworks as examples of each of the four new postminimalist modes of artistic expression. Many of his performance props and sculptures were either made with perishable materials, such as fat, chocolate, or sausages, or were made so that they demonstrate the process of their making. Beuys himself pointed out, ". . . the nature of my scupture is not fixed and finished. Processes continue in most of them: chemical reactions, fermentations, color changes, decay, drying up. Everything is in a state of change."29  So, as examples of process art or installation, we could cite The Pack of 1969 (fig. ), a Volkswagen bus from whose open rear door spill a number of survival sleds, each equipped with a roll of felt, fat, and a flashlight. Fond III/3 of 1979, consisting of nine piles of felt and copper, is one of many sprawling installations that could be labeled a "scatter piece."

 In a sense, all of Beuys's work is "conceptual art." Unlike most conceptual artists of the period, Beuys did not just demonstrate the possibility of conceptual art by exhibiting a pithy or witty verbal phrase, but he shaped a more complex and meaningful conceptual structure that he felt had the power to change the world. This is not to mention his presenting and working out of advanced potentials of human thinking to develop Imagination and higher powers of knowledge. Probably the clearest example of Beuys's conceptual art are his many blackboard drawings, derived in part from those of Steiner, and used to illustrate Actions and conversations (fig. Sun State, 1974, chalkboard drawing, Chicago).

 As for earthworks, 7000 Oaks, begun in 1982 as “an ecological sign,” is still the largest sculpture in world. It consisted of 7,000 oak trees matched by 7,000 tall basalt stones gathered together in Kassel, Germany, from which they were gradually placed in parallel installations all around the world. Some of Beuys's works focused on exposing "trauma points" in modern materialistic social life and then attempting to effect a symbolic healing. For Tallow of 1977 he chose a "sick" spot in the town of Münster, a pedestrian underpass representing a "wound" of an ugly corner of a rectilinear building created out of the abstract thinking of modern city planning and architecture. He cast the "negative" form of this urban access ramp in a huge block composed of 20 tons of animal fat, which was then cut into 5 elements of which the largest was 78 3/4 x 78 3/4 x 118" (fig. ) Through the qualities of fat, he hoped to bring a new warmth to the cold one-sidedness of the underpass, and thus effect a healing of our soulless modern urban environment by reintegrating the warm and cold poles.

 Despite Beuys's widely varied artistic production, he still is probably best known for his imaginative performance pieces. As one example from his more than one hundred "Actions," we can consider How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare of 1965. This was a three-hour gallery Action for the opening of his art exhibition at Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf.  In this strange but compelling performance, Beuys sat on a stool or walked about inside the closed gallery gesturing as he silently explained his artworks to a dead hare he cradled in his arm or let touch the pictures with its paw. Viewers could watch through an open doorway or a window. They saw Beuys speaking to the hare, with his head covered in honey and gold leaf, a felt sole tied to his left shoe, an identical iron sole tied to his right shoe, a leg of the stool wrapped in felt, and under the stool a “radio” constructed of modern electronic parts and animal bones connected to an amplifier. The felt was made of hare’s fur and carried a warming, insulating and/or infiltrating effect. The felt sole was attached to the more inner, receptive left side of his body, while the sole made of hard, masculine iron was attached to the more active, outwardly-oriented right side.

 The Action raised questions about the possibilities of adequately explaining art or the world and about what capacities would be necessary for real understanding.  Beuys commented: “Using honey on my head I am naturally doing something that is concerned with thought.  The human capacity is not to give honey, but to think — to give ideas. In this way the deathlike character of thought is made living again. Honey is doubtlessly a living substance.  Human thought can also be living.”30  Gold is the metal of the sun, and Beuys was also indicating the potential for bringing a sunlike quality into thinking, a Christ-related human potential Steiner had spoken about. The hare, which literally digs into matter, represented the sharpened materialistic thinking of modern science that now needed to be filled by living intuitive thinking. The fact that the hare was dead, recalls the deathly qualities of modern abstract, scientific thought. Beuys spoke to an externalized part of himself (representative of all human beings), re-enlivening and reintegrating the dead thing that now existed outside himself as “object.” At the same time, the hare represented a still authentic spiritual power alive in the animal world that human beings have largely forgotten. “The idea of explaining to an animal conveys a sense of the secrecy of the world and of existence that appeals to the imagination. . . . even a dead animal preserves more powers of intuition than some human beings with their stubborn rationality.”31

 Beuys also always pursued art within the context of Steiner's ideas on the Threefold Social Organism, which he promoted tirelessly through both his artistic and political activities.  This is the conception of society organized into three independent areas, each with its own fundamental principle: freedom in the cultural-spiritual sphere, equality in the political-legal sphere, and cooperation ("brotherhood") in the economic sphere. JB: "In the future it will be unimaginable that a conscious person could work solely within culture, like a painter who would make lots of paintings without paying attention to what happens in the democratic structures and the economic activities. . . . It's an element of degeneration in so-called modern art. It's the statement of a kind of emptiness, of an absence of meaning, in favor of curious innovations. . . . The new art is concerned with the needs of everyone to create things, not only art...."32 

 This was part of Beuys's radically broadened concept of art itself, his compassionate version of postmodernism as "social sculpture." He began to speak of an "ecological Gesamtkunstwerk," to be created through the democratic participation of all citizens in reconstructing "a social organism as a work of art."33  His solution to the riddle of the work of art is the end of modernism and the development of a new concept of art as social art, where every person recognizes him/herself as a creative being with powers of thinking, feeling, and willing – as well as their more highly developed forms – and participates in the reshaping of the world out of the free, self-conscious ego.

 Yet Beuys's last work, an installation titled Plight, was somewhat pessimistic (fig. Plight 1985 felt, grand piano, blackboard, & clinical thermometer, London). It can be read as an image of the modernist isolation (by rolls of felt insulation) of culture and art (represented by the piano) from the rest of the contemporary social world. A thermometer records the temperature of artistic activity in relationship to the rebalancing warmth forces so needed by modern society.

 As his own original contributions to art and culture, Beuys once cited his “totalized,” “anthropological” understanding of art — the ideas that everyone is an artist, that one can be a form-creating artist already in thinking or in speech, that art expanded to life as ”social sculpture” is what is needed in our time, and also that this creative intelligence of the people, this enlarged art, is the real capital of an economy.34  His primary purpose was always to stimulate social and spiritual reform, and he used new contemporary art forms as his means for bringing this message in ways that he hoped would reach people more deeply than purely intellectual dialogue and hopefully motivate them to get creatively involved in changing themselves & their world. His example still stands as an alternative example for working artistically out of anthroposophical inspiration within a postmodernist climate.