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Joseph Beuys

(1921—1986) German artist


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(b Krefeld, 12 May 1921; d Düsseldorf, 23 Jan. 1986).

German sculptor, draughtsman, teacher, and Performance artist, one of the most influential figures in avant-garde art in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. Like Yves Klein, he was a leading light in shifting emphasis from what an artist makes to his personality, actions, and opinions, and he succeeded in creating a kind of personal mythology. (As a Luftwaffe pilot he was shot down in the Crimea in 1943 and according to his own account, which has been doubted, he was looked after by nomadic Tartars who kept him warm with fat and felt—materials that came to figure prominently in his work. The hat that he habitually wore hid the head injuries he received in the crash.) After the war he studied at the Düsseldorf Academy, 1946–51, and he became professor of sculpture there in 1961. He worked in various media, but is perhaps best known for his performances, of which the most famous was probably How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965). In this he walked around an exhibition in the Schmela Gallery in Düsseldorf, his face covered in honey and gold leaf, carrying in his arms a dead hare, to which he gave an explanation of various pictures. He described the performance as ‘A complex tableau about the problems of language, and about the problems of thought, of human consciousness and of the consciousness of animals.’ In 1962 Beuys became a member of Fluxus, an international group of artists, opposed to tradition and professionalism in the arts, and he was also active in politics, aligning himself with the West German ecology party, the Greens. His ‘presumptuous political dilettantism’ led to conflict with authority and in 1972 he was dismissed from his professorship. The protests that followed included a strike by his students, and a settlement was eventually reached whereby he kept his title and studio but his teaching contract was ended. He devoted a good deal of his later career to public speaking and debate, and in 1982 he had a meeting with the Dalai Lama in Paris. By the end of his life he was an international celebrity and was regarded by his admirers as a kind of art guru. To many people, however, his work is pretentious or incomprehensible.

Subjects: art.


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