Joseph Beuys images and biography
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Joseph Beuys

See also: Contemporary/Postmodern Art; Lothar Wolleh's photographic portrait of Josef Beuys


(The following article was written by Greg Masters and is included in The Artchive with his permission.)


Joseph Beuys: Past the Affable

"... just as you have come to me, because of what I've made, and we can talk about it ..."— Beuys

The two most acclaimed German artists at the moment, at least in this country, are Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys. Kiefer's stardom was earned by his dealing with what, in Germany, had been unapproachable before: a looking at the recent past and an accepting of the facts with an attempt to express a response where before there had only been avoidance and denial. With his paintings of the early 1980s of the raped landscape and funerary cellars (in effect, of the brutalized psyche), a dialog was finally opened. Here was the invitation to begin a public discussion, a way to express feelings long suppressed in collective shame and blindness at unknowable solutions.
   Beuys was rewarded for similar reasons. As clown, shaman, and creative force whose artistry respected no boundary lines, the public welcomed this alert distraction from the immense shadow of the recent past. Beuys answered a need of the population, waking up from the shock of its economic social and cultural lethargy following the war, and showed a way to rise from the ashes that was as fun as it was holistic and spiritually challenging.
   Non-Germans seem glad to be able to embrace both these figures, beyond the achievements of their art, as a way of forgiving, for a reconciliation with that part of Germany that is most acceptable, most generative, least harmful or threatening, and certainly, most profitable.
   Beuys's work certainly served, in its initial contact with an audience, as a diversion. But to regard his work simply as an entertainment to nullify the realities in which it was created, is to miss the point of its revolutionary nature. For Beuys, a moment of rapture in engagement with an art article, or art as a respite from the daily grind, is a sentimental act that has no purpose in today's world. He calls for nothing less than a complete overhaul of that system in which art is a product of a consumer society who needs paintings to decorate walls, to use as barter, or to receive momentary uplifting. "Art is," he said, "a genuinely human medium for revolutionary change in the sense of completing the transformation from a sick world to a healthy one." (Beuys quoted in Quartetto, exhibition catalog, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1984, Milano, p. 106)
   Beuys's project challenges the established assumptions. The subscription audience expects its standards to be played year after year. These rules are put in place by the powers that be to enforce their own perpetuation. Large doses of the repertoire—Mozart, Schubert, Picasso, Hemingway—uphold the values of the ticket buyers. They're made into cultural icons, like flags waving, like a crest for the bourgeois. These are the models, we're told. This canon is defended by the tastemakers to preserve their values and to acclaim them as the standard.
   It's not that one must choose sides, that you must either pledge allegiance to easel painting or to Beuys. But Beuys encourages a new attitude at regarding our former preconceptions, our assumptions in looking at art, at the museum and gallery visit. Beuys is not so reactionary as to deny the existence of the entire art history repertoire, or even to extinguish it from present consciousness. He does, however, break with the tradition that would have him making precious objects to be exhibited in a system that needs these accouterments to congratulate itself for its creative achievement or to applaud itself for its taste.
   For Beuys, the art piece no longer has to be an object to worship for its beauty, for its achievement at duplicating or interpreting in some way our own nostalgia for the unspoiled wilderness (in landscape), or human desirability (nudes, pretty people), portraits (persistence of the regal, historical perpetuation of the conqueror and vanquished), or religious fervor (biblical reenactments, testaments to observance [getting with the program] or its corollary: physical or spiritual pain for straying).
   His is an art that rejects that academic perseverance and dedication to craft, the years of figure drawing, of working from models, from casts. His agenda turns away from the need to duplicate, to accurately render. He abandons that skill which we all so admire in artists of the past who are so able to fool us, with their craft of illusion making, by creating those scenes we long to see.
   In recognizing the responsibility of the post-World War II artist to offer new possibilities, Lyotard says: "Those who refuse to reexamine the rules of art pursue successful careers in mass conformism by communicating, by means of the 'correct rules,' the endemic desire for reality with objects and situations capable of gratifying it." (Lyotard, Jean-Francois, "Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism," in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1984, p. 75) The experimental nature of Beuys's work and its insistence on process is a response to the "rules of the beautiful" (Lyotard) that a complacent public desires from its artists; a public that would have simple, easily pleasing, pretty pictures to gaze at and admire, to deal with as commodity, accept as necessary embellishments to its comfort, with perhaps a hint at transformation or enlightenment. Beuys moves past the conservative crowd's intent on perpetuating itself with images of beauty, images that can only remind one of the familiar and which fail to initiate any thought but that of pleasure in the comfortable and accepted. He won't accept the narrow confines of a beauty that is a "form of defense from the inertia of the everyday." (Leon Battista Alberti quoted by Achille Bonito Olivia, Quartetto, p. 102)
   Beuys's art objects and performances weren't/aren't about entertaining an audience, though in their confluence of wacky happenings with strange substances, in their novelty, they must have at least entertained the most unwilling observer. Beuys wanted to awaken the populace, shake one out of the routines, the acceptable rigors one can pass through life with unobservant of the disparities and conflicts all around. "...I not only want to stimulate people, I want to provoke them." (Bastian, Heines and Jeannot Simmen, "Interview with Joseph Beuys," in the catalog exhibition, Joseph Beuys, Drawings, Victoria and Albert Museum, Westerham Press, 1983, no folio)
   Beuys insisted on a recognition of the whole, not just those aspects of the whole which were capable of giving pleasure and instant gratification. Beuys opened up a route to the possible, a kinetic realm where beauty was as available as anything else. All that was forbidden was apathy.
   Beauty, however, becomes an archaic concept in Beuys's sphere. Not that what we recognize as beautiful is banished. Rather, that limitation of regarding beauty as an object of veneration or a holding a mirror up to the ideal is extended. Beuys creates a new idea of beauty. One that would regard as silly the traditional conception of that being beautiful which satisfies a sentiment within us that reflects to us some scene of recreation or sereneness or leisure (I'm thinking of Impressionism); the art object existing to soothe us.
   While Impressionist paintings are undeniably beautiful, it is also undeniable that they helped to create and to preserve—in their depiction of the pleasures of cafe life, the comfortable drawing room interiors, the attended ladies at bath—a class divided from the world in its comforts and signs of sophistication. Beauty is attendant as the price paid for financial superiority.
   Beauty, here, is a means of escaping from the issues and obligations of the day. It is a way to avoid engagement with the mundane reality surrounding one; a way to lift oneself out of the ditch of the ordinary; to ascend to a plane where comfort is allowable to those who can afford it. Beauty separates those who appreciate it and wish to reside within its frontiers, from the peasant and working class who can only dream. Lotto is a current beauty.
   Recently, Arthur Danto, in his Nation column, made the distinction between art that retained "a continuity with classical antiquity, with marble forms and cadenced architectures, with clarity, certainty, exactitude and the kind of universability Kant believed integral to our concept of beauty..." (Danto, Arthur, "What Happened to Beauty," The Nation, Vol. 254, No. 12, March 30, 1992, p. 419) and that contemporary work which he saw as discontinuous with that tradition.
   I'd contend that beauty is found in the unfamiliarity of Beuys's work. To the person who comes to a Beuys's piece of action, who is open to the encounter, a whole new realm, unconceived before, is made available. Beauty comes in the steering of us into new places where we transcend the familiar relation we had with objects. In his ritualizations, those objects or materials—like fat, felt—are transformed into instruments of a secular upheaval. It is that moving away from the traditional models, Beuys's insistence on rejecting just those standards the usually less conservative Danto defines as necessary for the beauty experience, that openness to a multicultural model, a willingness to include all models not just the white bourgeois crowd pleaser standard, that shapes what Beuys has called his "social sculpture."
   Duchamp's urinal blazed the trail. If the Dada movement insisted on slapping the public's face in order to demand alternatives to the affable, to impolitely wake society up to the limits of its current progression, it still continued to operate in that society's forum. Though it wished to transform society, its operators were too bound with that system to give up the privileges that society afforded them. What are its artists doing, in photo after photo, wearing the clothes of the bourgeois they deride so aggressively? Why do they adapt the affectations and symbols—in their tuxedos, stiff collars, and fine dresses—of that system they would seem to detest? Many of the Dada artists come right out of the privileged class, and that's the point: you don't come out. You remain, no matter how fervently you deny it. You're connected and a degree of outrageousness will be accepted as the euphoria of an art parlor game. Which is not to deny the power of the art itself by regarding it as product for patrons who had the taste and foresight to collect it.
   Beuys certainly inherits Dada's rage at the powers that be and he responds with Dada's audacity at not remaining subservient to the restrictions that system would oppress expression with. Dada was an awakening in the form of a movement—artistic, activist/social, but most forcefully, psychological: Its artists refused to adhere to the limits of the expected, or the patronized obligation to entertain and please. Their break was radical in its insistence on offending. It was a people voicing resistance to a social system that would prefer decoration to intellectual fervor. Dada sought to undermine, to question, to reject.
   Speaking of Polke, Danto points out that being that the artist was born in 1941, his "aesthetic of ruin" proceeds from the conditions of his childhood in a devastated Germany, going on to surmise that "in the older spirit of Dada, his art is an indictment of the values of those responsible for the ruination of World War II." (Danto, p. 421)
   Beuys might be seen in the same way. Except Beuys's work doesn't need to condemn or indict or find blame or name names. It reacts by offering alternatives, by not playing by the rules of that system which would destroy itself. His art breaks with the need for that value system; it makes not attempt to be accepted or to offer itself for judgment to that bureaucratic maze. By not accepting the criteria, the rules, Beuys courageously forges ahead into new, unexplored territory. He doesn't prolong the themes and variations of the machinery. What his step tells us is that it's possible, indeed necessary, to seek new routes. He takes former student Kiefer to task, sighing that Kiefer just didn't get it.
   Many of the aspects of Arnold Schoenberg's music that Theodor Adorno investigates so passionately, further illustrates what I'm addressing here. Adorno speaks of Schoenberg's being "driven incessantly by the disgust of everything he produces which is not entirely new." (Adorno, Theodor W., "Arnold Schoenberg, 1874–1951," in Prisms, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA., 1981, p. 151) The boldness of creating a music varying from the Wagnerian standard is stressed. Adorno finds in Schoenberg a champion of new processes, a perfect exemplifier of that daring, courage and conviction so necessary in making it new. Adorno recognizes the psychological daring of Schoenberg's breakthrough, his willingness to forge ahead into unfamiliar terrain. He calls for the "renunciation of the customary crutches of a listening which always knows what to expect." (Adorno, p. 149)
   This is what Beuys demands. His work points to the necessity of not depending on a conforming to the established norms as this can only lead to stasis. With Beuys, affability ceases, as Adorno exclaimed about Schoenberg. No longer can art be used to separate the pleasing from the entirety of experience. Beuys's work demonstrates how to accept the range of sensations and include them all. "He sins against the division of life into work and leisure . . ." (Adorno, p. 150)

Currently on display on the second floor of the DIA Center for the Arts' building at 548 West 22nd Street is a version of Beuys's installation Arena—where would I have got if had been intelligent!, dated 1970–72.
   Approaching the DIA building on a Sunday afternoon, salsa music blares out of an open doorway, the only sound on the otherwise desolate westernmost edge of 22nd street. With the street of closed warehouses empty of all activity, it seems like old New York. Corrugated steel gates are drawn on most doorways. The culture seeker is drawn to the one building on the block with trees in front and a neat facade. One enters the building and feels a slight sense of rescue from the dangers of the street as you quickly acclimate to the familiarity of the museum lobby and welcome its safety: front desk, book and gift shop, doors and stairs leading to the quested. This experience has its price: $3.
   The second floor space is a huge, clean expanse. The concrete floor is painted a light gray and extends in its uninterrupted flatness much further than one would expect in a city context. The outer perimeter arcs around with its wings divided into 3 alcoves on each side. One hundred panels are hung neatly and orderly winding around the entirety of the wall space. The panels are each of an identical size with identical industrial-type frames fabricated from two rectangular rimes that fit together and are bolted flush. Most panels display photographs of Beuys in performance or capture him in conversation at various "actions" with audience members and participants, or the photos are of objects from his workshop, some the basic materials, others the materials juxtaposed with other objects instituting a piece.
   Though this is a Beuys exhibit, most, if not all, of the photos were not made by Beuys. The art is not the usually ascribed medium of photography. The photographs document the art, the performances, the tools and component elements used in the performances.
   The person or persons who took these photos—who in a traditional context would be the "artist"—is not even mentioned. That person is an anonymous helper, a lab assistant or studio assistant, performing the drudge work. Beuys's aura hogs the attention, absorbs the focus. Photos of corners of workplaces become Beuys's workplace, close-up details become details of Beuys's objects. A ready-made page, removed from a magazine, smeared with, perhaps, animal fat, is a Beuysian piece. There are no labels, no titles to insist on a meaning or to steer our associations.
   The photos are the relics, the holy objects in the enshrining of Beuys's work, of offering witness to the energy field still emanating from these performances and the studio clutter. The photograph's grainy textures, torn edges, out of focus, badly lit, obscured subjects, irreverently cropped, poorly printed, creased—all elements abhorrent to the gallery/archival system—point the way to a reordering of priorities: It announces that the acts recorded are more important than the materials used to preserve them. A radical restructuring is going on. Beuys's emphasis is not on creating objects, or in this case, "high-art" photographs (in the sense of pristine, sellable prints). He's involving the viewer in a different way. He's offering, like a scrapbook, some samples from his playing field. These are the ingredients of his recipe. We don't regard these photos as fine art prints, each to be admired and praised. Instead, they become evidence and part of Beuys's process, defying the devotional aspects of art: art piece as precious object, as material for consumer passion, art as collateral, art as prestigious product.
   Beuys doesn't participate in that process. His system offers the alternative of accepting all as part of the art process, not just the pristine result, suitable for framing and admiring; and buying and selling. His art is a call for inclusion; of calling into the realm of art the everyday object—felt, workshop materials—as well as inviting in the organic—live and dead animals, trees, fat, himself.
   We recognize common things—a phonograph record, a piano, branches, flashlights, a horse, tools, string—but it is their arrangement into unfamiliar confluences that startles us and transforms the way we perceive the formerly taken for granted.
   What is "arty" about putting a branch over a phonograph record or two bricks on a hotplate? Just as we might adjust to the shock of the carelessness, casualness of the materials, our sense of values might adjust to this reordering, this playful questioning of structures, the crossing of boundaries, not adhering to the rigidity of formerly unquestioned purposefulness, the refusal to accept the authority of the preconscribed, to become acclimated to the re-ordering of a things' "thingness."
   The photos are remnants, reminders of his actions. They capture the vitality, document the essence of his performance. They show new crowds, who weren't there, what occurred. They're ample testimony preserving the experience by showing what went on, detailing the assemblage of materials, the arrangements, the atmospheres, the rooms, the people present, the clothes worn. All attests to the nature of the event showing the confluence of people, the contact Beuys made with his audience, the sharing. "The image, then, is the perturbing factor, determining a signal of alarm that will wholly pervade social language and imagery." (Oliva in Quartetto, p. 102)
   This particular installation was assembled after the artist's death from elements that had been gradually built up over the years. In 1970, a version was brought to Edinburgh as part of Beuys's presence for the action Celtic (Kinloch Rannoch) Scottish Symphony. Beuys's performance was described by Alastair MacKintosh as taking place in a large studio in the Edinburgh College of Art. Five tape recorders under the operation of Beuys's collaborator Henning Christiansen were running. Beuys's action was to sit, but with a "sense of concentration, of possessing himself...[he] scribbles on a board and pushes it around the floor with a stick in a forty minute circuit of Christiansen." (MacKintosh, Alastair, "Beuys in Edinburgh," Art and Artists, Vol. 5, No. 8, November 1970, p. 10) Films by Beuys, or rather from his studio, are shown, including one of Beuys traipsing around Rannoch Moor. He spends an hour and a half peeling bits of gelatin off the walls, putting them onto a tray and, with a convulsive movement, emptying it. Finally, he stands still for forty minutes. MacKintosh, though astounded at what is going on, admits he and the audience were impressed.
   In 1972, for an exhibition in Naples, the panels were added to, framed, and accompanied the artist's performance of Vitex agnus castus [Latin name for the chaste tree]. This was a four-hour action which had Beuys lying on the floor and simply rubbing his oil-stained fingers against a copper slab inserted amidst a pile of stone blocks beside him. A spring from a chaste tree was attached to Beuys's hat and a cobalt ribbon with the tree's Latin name printed on it ran down his back. Caroline Tisdall, who often accompanied Beuys and has written frequently on him, interprets this action:
"By combining Vitex agnus castus with the coldness of cobalt and the warmth of sulphur, then making active manual contact with the female element copper, Beuys was asserting the role of the human being by activating the battery; 'Energy emanates from the two poles, male and female. My action drew them together. I mean a different concept of chastity produced by this reaction and the conflict of elements.' . . . This implies an active struggle and leads back to the meaning of the arena in which so much of Beuys's life is spent, in discussion, political organization, permanent conference and the circus of the art world." (Tisdall, Caroline, Joseph Beuys, The Solomon Guggenheim Museum, NY, 1979, p. 225)
In this current incarnation at DIA, the two-foot-high piles of slabs stand apart in the vastness of the room with an oil can placed besides them. This is what remains from that occurrence and seems a sentimental reminder. It's difficult to label this arrangement as sculpture. It exists on its own terms yet is also the cocoon from which Beuys emerged. It's like a postcard from the artist to remind us not only of the essential elements themselves, but also of what he did with them twenty years ago in Edinburgh, Naples, and Rome.
   This presentation, even in the solemnity of its 100 cast frames, arranged so pristinely in perfect symmetry in the trade-hall-like expanse of the DIA room, is about process and celebrates indeterminacy and flux. It is unwilling to accept the idea of the fixed, the end product. It refuses the finality that a finished product represents. The polished surface, the slick facade, the object of veneration is a death to Beuys. It's a closed door, an end to discussion: There it is. Now there's nothing to be done but admire it.
   The whole body of Beuys's project is to suggest transformation, to show the way, to set an example. The "actions," or performances he staged, were rituals to induce new ways of perceiving and to heighten appreciation of the everyday objects involved. Skeptics can call these acts silly and ridiculous—Beuys sitting in a tub of water with flashlights attached to each thigh is documented in this installation—but the act initiates a change. One is changed simply by contact with the site, absorbed into the theater, the ritualization. One has come freely to participate. There are no observers, one can't remain detached. You become an initiate. Beuys's performance—his invocations and even his talking to the audience afterwards—has a charisma and power that survives and casts its healing spell even in these photographs and piles of stones with oil can from twenty years ago.


Adorno, Theodor W., "Arnold Schoenberg, 1874–1951," in Prisms, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA., 1981

Danto, Arthur, "What Happened to Beauty," The Nation, Vol. 254, No. 12, March 30, 1992

Galloway, David, "A Report from Germany," Art in America, Vol. 74, No. 5, May 1986

Kuoni, Carin, editor, Energy Plan for the Western Man: Joseph Beuys in America, Four Walls Eight Windows, NYC, 1990

Kuspit, Donald, "Joseph Beuys: The Body of the Artist," Artforum, Vol. XXIX, No. 10, Summer 1991

Lyotard, Jean-Francois, "Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism," in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1984

MacKintosh, Alastair, "Beuys in Edinburgh," Art and Artists, Vol. 5, No. 8, November 1970

Morgan, Robert C., review, ARTS Magazine, Vol. 63, No. 7, March 1989

Quartetto, exhibition catalog, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, Milano, 1984

Schellman, Jorg and Bernd Kluser, editors, Multiples—Joseph Beuys, Catalogue Raisonne—Multiple Prints 1965–80, NYU Press, NYC 1980

Seymour, Anne, Joseph Beuys, Drawings, Victoria and Albert Museum, Westerham Press, 1983

Tisdall, Caroline, Joseph Beuys, The Solomon Guggenheim Museum, NYC, 1979

Zweite, Armin, editor, Beuys zu Ehren, catalog of exhibition at Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, 1986
(at DIA Center for the Arts)

— previously unpublished


For queries and comments on this article, please email the author.

For more essays and interviews by Greg Masters, see his home page.

Text © 1998 Greg Masters

Further reading on Joseph Beuys:

Joseph Beuys Images on the Web

* Links to other Beuys images online can be found at Artcyclopedia.
Das Ende des 20 Jahrhunderts (The End of the 20th Century)
Schlitten (Sled)
Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein auf Hirsch
Felt Suit
Halved Felt Cross with Dust Image "Magda"
I like America and America likes Me
King's Daughter Sees Iceland
7000 Oaks
Sibylla (Justice)
Table with Aggregate

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