Joseph Beuys (May 12, 1921 - January 23, 1986) was a German artist who produced work in a number of forms including sculpture, performance art, video art and installations. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential European artists of the second half of the 20th century.
Beuys was born in Krefeld but grew up mainly in two nearby towns, Kleve and Rindern. He had some contact with art, visiting the studio of Achilles Moortgat on a number of occasions, but decided to pursue a career in medicine. However, with the outbreak of World War II, he joined the Luftwaffe, where he trained as a Stuka pilot.
It is often said that the predominance of felt and fat as materials in Beuys' work can be traced back to the war. Beuys was shot down while flying a mission over the Crimea and was subsequently rescued by Tatars. The story goes that they kept him warm by covering him with fat and wrapping him in felt. It is not clear whether this last part of the story is actually true, but it has been often repeated, not least by Beuys himself, and has become part of the myth that surrounds Beuys.
Following the war, Beuys concentrated on art, and studied at the academy in Düsseldorf from 1946 to 1951. For most of the 1950s he concentrated mainly on drawing. In 1961 he became professor of sculpture there, but was dismissed from his post in 1972 after he insisted that his classes must be open to anybody who wanted to take them. His students protested, and he was allowed to keep his studio there, but still lost his job.
In 1962, Beuys became acquainted with the Fluxus movement, and the multi-disciplinary performances and works of that group, which drew together art, music and literature, seems to have pushed his work in a new, more performance art-led direction. Beuys became associated with the group, eventually becoming its most significant and famous member. As part he moved from drawing toward performance art motivated by his belief that art has a larger role to play in society.
Among Beuys' better known works are Felt Suit (1970), a felt suit exhibited on a coat hanger; the performance piece Coyote, "I Love America and America Loves Me", for which Beuys wrapped himself in felt and stayed in a room with a coyote for five days; and the sculpture Fat Corner, which is fat piled into the corner of a space, left to melt and turn rancid over a number of days.
Perhaps Beuys' most famous performance work is How To Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), in which he walked around a gallery with his face smeared with honey and covered in gold leaf, carrying a dead hare to whom he talked, explaining the pictures before them. The audience for this performance was kept outside, only able to see the goings on from behind a clear screen. Beuys said the work was concerned with issues such as human and animal consciousness, and the problems of thought and language.
Beuys was a keen environmentalist, and was also involved in politics. He founded a number of political organisations, including the German Student Party in 1967, and the Organization for Direct Democracy in 1970. In 1979 he became a founding member of the German Green Party. In 1982 he began a project 7000 oaks in which 7000 oak trees would be planted in Kassel, Germany in the hope that the idea would spread to more cities.
In 1979, a large retrospective of Beuys' work at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City cemented his reputation as one of the most important artists of his time. He died in 1986 in Düsseldorf.