Joseph Beuys portrait
Portrait of Joseph Beuys 1975

Joseph Beuys (1921-86) was one of the most important German artists of the twentieth century. No ordinary sculptor, he was also a shaman, showman, teacher and tireless debater. Highly influential in shifting the emphasis from what an artist makes to his personality, activities and opinions, his expanded concept of art was communicated through a series of performances, and public discussions. Beuys’s charismatic presence and his unconventional artistic style (incorporating ritualised movement and sound, and materials such as fat, felt, earth, honey, blood, and even dead animals) gained him international fame.

This exhibition focuses on three of the distinctive ways in which Beuys worked, particularly during the second half of his career: his ‘Actions’ or performances; his sculptural environments; and the vitrines in which he gathered small sculptures into thematic groups.

Born into a Catholic family in northwestern Germany, the young Beuys pursued dual interests in the natural sciences and art. In 1940 he joined the air force as a combat pilot and radio operator. The process of coming to terms with his involvement in the war is a constant subtext in much of his work. After the war, Beuys enrolled in the Düsseldorf Academy of Art to study sculpture. He returned to the Academy in 1961 to take up a professorship. During the early 1960s, Beuys was associated with the avant-garde Fluxus group, whose public ‘concerts’ blurred the boundaries between literature, music, visual art and everyday life. These ideas were a catalyst for Beuys’s own performances, and his evolving concept of the artist as agitator for social change. In the 1970s he became increasingly active in politics, campaigning for educational reform, grassroots democracy and the Green Party. As his reputation grew, Beuys was invited to make ever-more ambitious projects, many of which resulted in large-scale installations.