Joseph Beuys - Nicole Katz


Joseph Beuys : Actions, Vitrines, Environments
Tate Modern, London
February 4 – May 2, 2005

Nicole Katz

It is difficult to consider Joseph Beuys without first mentioning the legend behind the artist, one which he himself actively cultivated during his lifetime, a legend which has by now become inseparable from his work. In its essence it is this: during World War II Beuys was drafted into the German air force, and in 1942 his plane was shot down over Crimea where he was rescued by Tartars who wrapped him in animal fat and felt to warm him and heal his wounds, thereby saving his life. Robert Hughes has remarked: “Beuys’ wartime experiences have for his followers almost joined Van Gogh’s ear in the hagiography of modern art.” Yet this single, sketchy biographical detail remains important because it serves as an entry point into Beuys’ world, simultaneously providing an introduction to his particular aesthetic and to his most commonly used materials, fat and felt; and also to the significant ideas of healing and transformation that are at the heart of his life’s work. Fat and felt, and a good dose of ideology, a regenerative balm for a traumatised post-war Europe.

Beuys the artist-healer-teacher, eternally dressed in his felt hat and pilot’s vest, worked extensively both within and beyond the art world. The Tate Modern show divides his oeuvre into three main areas: vitrines (small scale assemblages in glass cases); actions (Beuys’ preferred word for performances) and; environments (what Beuys called his large scale installations). His art also encompassed teaching, politics, and social and environmental activism. He had ambitions for a sweeping programme of human transformation which was to be catalysed by individual creative energy, what Beuys called his “expanded concept of art”, a world in which “everyone is an artist”. His didacticism did not appeal to everyone, nor his “claims for universal solutions and global validity”, but his aesthetic of the damaged seems to have struck an enduring chord. His work can be found in major museums across the globe and sells for millions of dollars, ranking Beuys among the world’s most expensive modern artists.

Beuys’ objects, often in part readymades, consist almost entirely of society’s detritus: discarded things with an awkward, scarred presence, unpolished, rough, fragments of life turned into art. His objects are also predominantly organic, incorporating elements from the human, animal, plant and mineral worlds, the kind found in rural, not urban, settings. Plucked from everyday life, these objects consist mainly of plain, unclothed matter that are recontextualised in Beuys’ visual vocabulary to convey disruption and damage. “Burned door, beak and ears of a hare, 1953” incorporates all the materials of the piece’s title; similarly “Cross with kneecap and hare’s skull, 1961”. Bandages, dirt, mould, broken objects, imperfections and dead animals are symbolic reminders of the decay and destruction all around us that must be attended to. And their colour is the colour of the earth, a shade of brown that looks as if it were made of rust and blood. “Virgin 1952” is a female torso of wax, wrapped in gauze binding resting on a soiled pillow. “No title (bathtub)” from 1960 is a chipped enamel bathtub on a stand covered in adhesive bandages and gauze.

But the Beuysian cure is never far, his iconic “Felt suit” from 1970 is specially designed to generate, store and transmit energy which is integral to the creative process; and in the case of “The pack, 1969”, rescue is at hand. This large-scale installation consists of a Volkswagen van where 20 sledges, each equipped with a felt roll, fat and torches spills out into the room, ready to come to the viewer’s aid.

Central to Beuys’ programme of healing was transformation, and in the realm of the environment, Beuys’ timing was superb. In 1979, he was one of the founding members of the Green Party in Germany, which catapulted environmental issues into mainstream politics. Although he failed to be elected by his party to stand for state elections, Beuys used his work as a conduit for raising ecological awareness. His 1965 performance “How I explain paintings to a dead hare”; his part animal-part medical “Horns, 1961” made using two rhinoceros horns, painted iron, plastic tubing and red paint, a regenerative infusion for the animal kingdom; and “Snowfall, 1965” where branches of fir trees are tucked under layers of felt like blanketed patients in a sick ward.

In 1982, at Documenta VII, four years before his death, Beuys inaugurated “7,000 oaks”, his most ambitious large-scale work. The project involved planting 7,000 oak trees, each one aligned with a basalt stone. The tree planting on this monumental scale was meant to provoke an “ecological awakening” by initiating social and environmental transformation in nerve centres of the art world, in Kassel, and later in New York, where the project has continued. About “7,000 oaks”, Beuys said: “I think the tree is an element of regeneration which in itself is a concept of time. The oak is especially so because it is a slowly growing tree with a kind of really solid heartwood. It has always been a form of sculpture, a symbol for this planet.”

Joseph Beuys, perhaps more than any other artist of his generation, was responsible for bringing Germany out of cultural isolation in the aftermath of the war. Messages of healing and transformation were encoded into his entire life’s work, over half a century later the world is no less in need of them.


1921: May 5, born in Krefeld, Germany
1940: drafted in the Luftwaffe
1941-46: shot down over Crimea, wounded five times, held in a British POW camp
1947-57: studies art, exhibits and lives in Dusseldorf
1954-55: suffers a nervous breakdown
1959: marries Eva Wurmbach with whom he has two children
1961-72: appointed Professor of Monumental Sculpture at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf, is part of the Fluxus movement, is eventually dismissed for protesting student admission process
1979: major retrospective at Guggenheim Museum in New York
1982: begins “7000 oaks” at Documenta VII
1986: January 23, dies of heart failure

“Our relation to nature is characterised by its having become thoroughly disturbed. There is the threat of total destruction of our fundamental natural basis. We are doing exactly what it takes to destroy this basis by putting into action an economic system which consists in unscrupulous exploitation of this natural basis. The destruction is implemented on a world-wide scale. Between the mine and the garbage dump extends the one-way street of the modern industrial civilisation to whose expansive growth more and more lifelines and life cycles of the ecological systems are sacrificed.” Joseph Beuys, 1982