Joseph Beuys was a German Fluxus, happening and performance artist as well as a sculptor, installation artist, graphic artist, art theorist and pedagogue of art. His extensive work is grounded in concepts of humanism, social philosophy and anthroposophy; it culminates in his "extended definition of art" and the idea of social sculpture as a gesamtkunstwerk, for which he claimed a creative, participatory role in shaping society and politics. His career was characterized by passionate, even acrimonious public debate, but he is now regarded as one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century.
Joseph Beuys was born in Krefeld then moved to Kleve, an industrial town in the Lower Rhine region of Germany, close to the Dutch border. There, Joseph attended primary school and secondary/high- school. His teachers considered him to have a talent for drawing; he also took piano and cello lessons. On several occasions he visited the studio of the Flemish painter and sculptor Achilles Moortgat. Other interests of note include Nordic history and mythology and especially the natural sciences. According to his own account, when the Nazi Party staged their book-burning in Kleve on 19 May 1933 in the courtyard of his school, he salvaged the book Systema Naturae by Carl Linnaeus.
As of 1936, Beuys' membership in the Hitler Youth is documented; the organization comprised a large majority of German children and adolescents at that time and later that year membership became compulsory. He participated in the Nuremberg rally in September 1936, when he was 15 years old. From an early age, Beuys displayed a keen interest in the natural sciences and had considered a career in medical studies, but in his last years of school - possibly influenced by pictures of Wilhelm Lehmbruck's sculptures - he had decided to become a sculptor himself. Around 1939 he worked for a circus on the side, postering and taking care of animals for about a year. He graduated from school in the spring of 1941 with his Abitur.
In 1941, Beuys volunteered for the Luftwaffe. He began his military training as an aircraft radio operator in 1941. In 1942, Beuys was stationed in the Crimea and was a member of various combat bomber units. From 1943 on he was deployed as rear-gunner in the Ju 87 "Stuka" dive-bomber, initially stationed in Königgrätz, later in the eastern Adriatic region. Drawings and sketches from that time have been preserved and already show his characteristic style. On 16 March 1944, Beuys's plane was shot down on the Crimean Front and crashed. Beuys's subsequent recount (1979) of the event became one of the most controversial aspects of his artistic persona. He claimed to have been rescued from the crash by nomadic Tatar tribesmen, who had wrapped his broken body in animal fat and felt and nursed him back to health. There were evidence that what said Beuys was found wrong. Beuys was brought to a military hospital where he stayed for three weeks. It is not inconsistent with Beuys' work that his biography would have been subject to his own reinterpretation; this particular story has served as a powerful myth of origins for Beuys's artistic identity.
Despite prior injuries, he was deployed to the Western Front in August 1944, into a poorly equipped and trained paratrooper unit. He received the German Wound Badge in gold for being wounded in action more than five times. On the day after the German unconditional surrender on 8 May 1945, Beuys was taken prisoner in Cuxhaven and brought to a British internment camp from which he was released 5 August of that year. He returned to his parents who had moved to a suburb of Kleve.
After his return to Kleve Beuys met the local sculptor Walter Brüx and painter Hanns Lamers, who encouraged him to take up art as a full-time career. He joined the Kleve Artists Association that had been established by Brüx and Lamers. On 1 April 1946, Beuys enrolled in the "Monumental Sculpture" program at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts. The anthroposophic philosophy of Rudolf Steiner became an increasingly important basis for Beuys' reasoning. Early shows include participations in the Kleve Artists Association annual exhibition where Beuys showed aquarelles and sketches. Beuys finished his education in 1953, graduating as master student from Mataré's class, 32 years old at that time.
He had a modest income from a number of crafts-oriented commissions: a gravestone and several pieces of furniture. Throughout the 1950s, Beuys struggled with a dire financial situation and with the trauma of his wartime experiences. His output consisted mainly of drawings, which he produced in the thousands, but he also produced some sculptures. Through his drawing practice, Beuys explored a range of unconventional materials and developed his artistic agenda, exploring metaphorical and symbolic connections between natural phenomena and philosophical systems. Often difficult to interpret in themselves, these drawings constitute a speculative, contingent and rather hermetic exploration of the material world and how that world might be connected to the realm of myth and philosophy. In 1974, 327 drawings, the majority of which were made during the late 1940s and 1950s, were collected into a group entitled The Secret Block for a Secret Person in Ireland.
In 1956, artistic self-doubt and material impoverishment led to a physical and psychological crisis, and Beuys entered a period of serious depression. In 1958, Beuys participated in an international competition for an Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial, but his proposal did not win and his design was never realised. In 1959 Beuys married Eva Wurmbach. They had two children together.
In 1961, Beuys was appointed professor of 'monumental sculpture' at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. What served to launch Beuys into the public consciousness was that which transpired following his performance at the Technical College Aachen in 1964. As part of a festival of new art coinciding with the 20th anniversary of an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler, Beuys created a performance or Aktion. The performance was interrupted by a group of students, one of whom attacked Beuys, punching him in the face. A photograph of the artist, nose bloodied and arm raised, was circulated in the media. It was for this 1964 festival that Beuys produced an idiosyncratic CV. The document was a self-consciously fictionalised account of the artist's life, in which historical events mingle with metaphorical and mythical speech. This document marks a blurring of fact and fiction that was to be characteristic of Beuys' self-created persona, as well as the source of much controversy (although, significantly, there is no mention here of the famous plane crash).
Beuys manifested his social philosophical ideas in abolishing entry requirements to his Düsseldorf class. Throughout the late 1960s this renegade policy caused great institutional friction, which came to a head in October 1972 when Beuys was dismissed from his post. The dismissal, which Beuys refused to accept, produced a wave of protests from students, artists and critics. At the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, Beuys did not impose his artistic style or techniques on his students; in fact, he kept much of his work and exhibitions hidden from the classroom because he wanted his students to explore their own interests, ideas, and talents.
Beuys had adopted shamanism not only as his presentation mode of his art but also in his own life. Although the artist as a shaman has been a trend in modern art (Picasso, Gauguin), Beuys is unusual in that respect as he integrated “his art and his life into the shaman role".Beuys, as he often explained in his interviews, saw and used his performative art as shamanistic and psychoanalytic techniques to both educate and heal the general public.
The only major retrospective of Beuys work to be organised in Beuys's lifetime opened at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1979. The exhibition has been described as a “lightning rod for American criticism,” eliciting as it did some powerful and polemical responses. Beuys died of heart failure on 23 January 1986, in Düsseldorf, after a long illness.