On the centenary of Beuys’s birth, his former student remembers what it was like to study under the iconoclastic artist
I wasn’t familiar with Joseph Beuys before I started studying at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1964. After dropping out of medical school, I studied art at the Hochschule für bildenden Künste in Hamburg, but I was soon looking for another challenge. Fascinated by the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, I took a job with theatre director Fritz Kortner. He introduced me to the stage designer Teo Otto, who was so impressed by my designs that he convinced me to join his class in Düsseldorf, and often asked me to assist him on larger theatre productions. In 1964, we collaborated on Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera The Prophet (1849) at the Deutsche Oper, directed by Bohumil Herlischka, for which I designed around 600 costumes.
When Beuys heard about these productions, he began regularly visiting Otto’s studio at the Kunstakademie, and asked me to join the conversations he was hosting in Room 20. He told me that, if I wanted to learn and discuss the political and social dimensions of art, I should be attending his class – though I wasn’t immediately convinced that this was the right path for me.
On 3 June 1967, Otto and I were in the middle of a rehearsal for Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1791) at the Salzburg Festival, when the conductor became outraged that a door on set was creaking. I was so annoyed by the fuss that I left the rehearsal and went to a cafe. In a newspaper there, I read about Benno Ohnesorg, who had been killed by police in West Berlin during a student demonstration against the Shah of Iran. I will never forget reading this report and thinking: ‘Now I’m done with high culture. Now I’m going to Beuys.’ Twenty days after Ohnesorg’s murder, Beuys founded the German Student Party, and I enrolled in his class. I wanted to make something of my own instead of interpreting the work of others. I wanted to make art that contributed to social and political issues, and I knew only Beuys could teach me how.
While in Beuys’s class, I shared a studio with Jörg Immendorff, Imi Knoebel, Blinky Palermo and Chris Reinecke. However, the centre of our class – if not of the entire academy – was Room 20. It was there we discussed the separation of powers, the political implications of art and the concept of ‘social sculpture’. Beuys’s classroom was a space where art and politics were inextricably linked. What we were doing was unlike anything I had seen before: different from the minimalism that galleries like Konrad Fischer were bringing from New York to Düsseldorf at the time, and different from the practices of the guest lecturers Beuys invited to the academy, such as Nam June Paik, Yvonne Rainer, Seth Siegelaub and Robert Smithson.
Although I learned much about non-traditional artistic practices, I found myself more attracted to photography, as it was an important testimonial of the protests taking place at that time. Instead of working in isolation in a studio, I wanted to make work on the streets, and support the student protesters. Everything I know about photography, I learned from Beuys. This might come as a surprise, as he himself didn’t take pictures, but all of his performances were documented by the photographer Ute Klophaus.
Beuys had a unique vision for art schools. He believed everyone should be allowed to study and he refused to be bound by a numerus clausus or by traditional entry requirements, such as a portfolio. In an attempt to rid the academy of elitism, he invited everyone to join his class, against school policy. In July 1971, Beuys accepted 142 applicants who had originally been rejected by other professors. After occupying the academy’s offices with a group of applicants who had been refused admission, Beuys was dismissed from his post. The police even came to clear his classrooms, and the photographs I took of their raid were one of my first experiments with a camera. We refused to accept Beuys’s dismissal. Some of us responded with hunger strikes and petitions, while fellow artists and writers – including Heinrich Böll, David Hockney and Gerhard Richter – wrote open letters demanding his reinstatement. Beuys never again set foot in Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, but he always remained a teacher – for me and, hopefully, for many generations to come.