1921; Krefeld, Germany
1986; Düsseldorf, Germany
Joseph Beuys was a German sculptor, painter, installation artist, art theorist and art pedagogue, and is considered one of the most influential European performance artists. In his early school years, he was considered to have a natural talent for drawing, and he visited the sculpting studio of Achilles Moortgat many times. His later childhood was spent in the era of the Nazi Third Reich. When he was 15 years old, he was a member of the Hitler Youth, and participated in the Nuremburg rally. In 1941, he volunteered for the German Luftwaffe, first acting as an aircraft radio operator, and later part of various bombing missions in the Crimea. In 1944, Beuy’s plane was shot down on the Crimean Front. Beuys was the only person to survive the crash, and later claimed to have been rescued by Tartar tribesmen, who covered him with animal fat and felt to keep him warm and nursed him back to health. Eyewitness accounts, however, claim that although Beuys was the only one to survive the crash, there were no Tartar tribesmen. He was instead rescued by a German search commando, and taken to a military hospital where he stayed for three weeks. He was redeployed later the same year, and held as a prisoner of war after the German surrender in 1945.
Upon his return to civilian life, Beuys became an active member in the art community, and an outspoken proponent of anthroposophy, which posited that one could experience the spiritual world through inner development. He graduated from art school in 1953, to a dire financial situation, which was compounded by the traumas he experienced in war. By 1956, he was facing a serious depression, due to his materially and psychologically impoverished situation, from which he recovered and married his wife Eva Wurmbach in 1959.
Beuy’s financial situation improved in 1961 when he was appointed professor of sculpture at the Dusseldorf Academy. It was during his tenure at the academy that he released his essay Lebenslauf/Werklauf, which was a somewhat fictionalized account of the artist’s life, and created much controversy, due to its blurring of fact and fiction. It was at this point that Beuy’s work became more polarizing, and his renegade philosophical and political beliefs led to his dismissal from his professorial position in 1972.
Much of Beuys most popular works were his performance and installation pieces, including “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” in 1965, “I Like America and America Likes Me” in 1974, and a social sculpture project that involved planting 7,000 trees in Germany. His legacy now includes dozens of exhibition all across the world, continued participation in his oak tree social sculpture, which has expanded to New York City, and growing sales of his work at auction.