Fat, felt and a fall to Earth: the making and myths of Joseph Beuys

Olivia Laing, The Guardian, 30 January 2016, Visit external site
Sledges, resembling a pack of dogs, tumble from the back of a VW van in The Pack, a 1969 work by Joseph Beuys. Photograph: Dan Chung for the Guardian

Was Beuys’s art – moulded out of everyday objects from VW vans to sausages – utopian drivel or full of remarkable foresight? Thirty years after his death, it’s time to reassesses the reputation of a sculptor, teacher, activist and shaman

On 21 May 1974, a man arrived at John F Kennedy airport on a flight from Germany. He was dressed in a fedora and fishing vest, and had his hand over his eyes. At Immigration he was subject to the usual barrage of questions. “What is your profession?” “Sculptor.” “What kind of sculptor?” “Social sculptor.” Allowed at last to enter the US, he was approached by two men, who wrapped him from head to toe in felt, placed his swaddled body on a stretcher and lifted it into an ambulance. Lights flashing, siren wailing, he was driven to the René Block Gallery in Manhattan, where he was wheeled like a parcel through the doors.

Inside, the gallery had been transformed into a corral, a holding bay. Among the items it contained were a bale of straw, a felt blanket, a shepherd’s crook, a stack of 50 copies of the Wall Street Journal and a live coyote. For three days, the man and animal were penned together, while an audience observed their charged, ritualised interactions from behind a mesh fence – the coyote playing with a discarded glove; the man entwining himself in a blanket tent, the crook protruding above his head.

These are the bare bones of I Like America and America Likes Me, one of the most evocative and mysterious performances by the German artist Joseph Beuys, who died of heart failure while at work in his studio 30 years ago this month. A sculptor, teacher, political activist, pioneering environmentalist, self-styled shaman, alleged charlatan and proven liar, Beuys was among the greatest postwar artists; artists, that is, who grapple with the world that follows war.

His central interest was transformation, the alchemy of one thing turning into another. As a boy in Cleves, northwest Germany, he had dreamed of becoming a doctor, and though art soon superseded medicine, he continued to strive in all his varying mediums to propose magical strategies of healing, to translate sickness into health. “Yes,” he told an interviewer in 1979, “perhaps I have a mission ... to change the social order.” It was this gargantuan intention that unified his divergent activities, from lecture tours to sculpture.

Beuys’s drawings are formally exquisite, possessing the same impossible liveliness as the cave paintings in Lascaux. But much of his other work pushed the boundaries of what could be considered art, bringing unprecedented items into the gallery. Composed of humble, even abject materials, his sculptures and installations were designed to kindle raw emotional responses in the viewer (fury particularly pleased him). In The Shape of a Pocket, John Berger wrote: “In matters of seeing, Joseph Beuys was the great prophet of the second half of our century. Believing that everybody is potentially an artist, he took objects and arranged them in such a way that they beg the spectator to collaborate with them ... by listening to what their eyes tell them and remembering.”

Remembering is an oddly apposite word. Some of the things Beuys made resemble the ritual debris of a primitive culture: a block of fat, a kneecap, a queen bee cast from wax. Others look like post-apocalyptic wreckage: vast, industrial-scale steel girders and basalt columns scattered like ninepins; 24 sledges neatly packed with torches and blankets slewing from the opened doors of a battered VW van.

He built inscrutable machines from milk bottles and copper wire, made sculptures out of newspapers, sausages and old records. And then there were the interminable public lectures and baffling performances, such as 1965’s “How to explain pictures to a dead hare”, in which Beuys roamed a locked gallery, his head completely covered in honey and gold leaf, painstakingly explaining each painting to the dead hare he cradled to his chest. Frustrating and compelling, his weirdly beautiful body of work radiates meaning, even as it absolutely resists logical explanation.

The refusal to be understood in ordinary terms also extends to Beuys’s life. Any attempt to assemble the usual biographical data quickly runs into trouble. Accounts contradict each other; events are repeatedly minimised or transfigured into myth. He was born in 1921, the only child of bourgeois, strictly Catholic parents. He was 12 when the Nazi party took power, which is to say he came of age under its toxic tutelage. Later, he freely admitted he had been a member of the Hitler Youth, shortly before it became compulsory, but he also testified to small, mitigating acts of resistance, such as the time he rescued a copy of Systema Naturae by Carl Linnaeus from a Nazi book-burning rally in the courtyard of his school.

This story may have been fabular rather than actual. Like the novelist Günter Grass, his near-contemporary, Beuys was not always an entirely reliable witness to his own war record. The cardinal scene of his fantastical biography, the Beuysian Ur-myth, took place in 1944, when he was involved in a near-fatal plane crash. Knowing he would be drafted, he had volunteered for the Luftwaffe four years earlier, working first as a radio operator and then as a rear gunner stationed in the Crimea. On 16 March he was shot down in the mountains, where, he claimed, he was saved by Tartar tribesmen, who wrapped him in insulating layers of felt and fat to keep him from freezing to death.

This narrative, which was still repeated as fact in Beuys’s New York Times obituary, has by now been conclusively disproved. Beuys was in a plane crash, which killed his pilot and badly injured him, but there were no tribesmen, no fat nor felt. It’s not clear why he invented the Tartar rescue, particularly since in later life he was irritated by how frequently it was used as a Rosetta stone for decoding his idiosyncratic and remarkable artistic language. It may be that he was deliberately evading responsibility for his part in Germany’s programme of total war, though it’s also possible that he was, like many artists, simply engaging in an act of bombastic self‑creation.

All the same, by turning his injury into a fable, Beuys did make a clear statement of intent. War, fascism, nationhood, trauma and repair: these would be his subjects, but his approach would not be that of a historian or social scientist. What he was interested in was discovering and communicating in mythic terms how damage might be transfigured or transformed. Myth had been poisoned by the Nazis, and now he would undertake a grand project of reclamation and decontamination, conducted in a purely psychic realm.

This is not to say that he was unfamiliar with the realities of war. He recovered from the crash, fought on, was taken prisoner and held in a British internment camp after Germany’s surrender in 1945. After he got out, he studied art in Düsseldorf, learning his craft in a bombed-out college in the desolate ruins of the city. (Years later, visiting art colleges in the US, he commented on the abundance of resources and corresponding paucity of the students’ creativity, observing that he would supply them with nothing more than a knife and a potato.)

All through the 1950s he was dogged by serious depression. It was during this black period that he began to work with so-called “poor” materials such as fat and bandages – things, as the critic Alain Borer points out in The Essential Joseph Beuys (Thames & Hudson) “that hitherto had been unworthy of art”. Things began to shift for him emotionally when he came across the work of Rudolf Steiner, the influential Austrian who had invented at the beginning of the 20th century a form of esoteric philosophy called anthroposophy. Steiner believed in spiritual uplift and social transformation, particularly by encouraging the intrinsic creativity of every human being. From the 1950s on, these became the central tenets of Beuys’s work.

Though he liked to present himself as an outlier, a sui generis shaman, Beuys was clearly influenced by the currents of his times. In the 1960s he was briefly part of the Fluxus group of artists, and it was from this association that he began the performances he called actions. Later, he collaborated with Warhol, another self-created star with a knack for alchemising ordinary objects into art. But Warhol was far more ironic and playful than Beuys, whose earnest desire to improve the world pushed his art-making activities in the direction of education and politics.

Teaching in particular was central to his self-described mission. In 1961, he was appointed professor of monumental sculpture at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art. Controversially, he abolished entrance requirements and curriculums, focusing instead on individually directed study (the painter Blinky Palermo was among his students). In 1971, he began to protest against selective admission, declaring education a universal right and insisting rejected candidates could join his classes. The issue became so heated that in 1972 he occupied the university offices with a group of students. After a standoff, the police were called and he was escorted laughing from the building, a scene documented in a famous photograph entitled Democracy Is Funny. Shortly after, he was dismissed from his post.

The dismissal in no way dissipated his appetite for change. As critic Jan Verwoert once wryly observed: “In his life, Beuys dreamed up as many political and educational institutions as, say, Aleister Crowley inaugurated occult places of worship.” These include the German student party, the organisation for direct democracy by referendum and the free international university for creativity and international research. In 1980 he was also one of the 500 original founders of the German Green Party. Didactic and impassioned, Beuys refused to see art and politics as separate spheres. A lecture, complete with blackboards, could be an art performance; a slab of fat on a chair could inculcate democracy. That’s what he meant by social sculpture: that his canvas was the active world.

It’s this sort of prodigal hopefulness that led the art historian Benjamin Buchloh to accuse Beuys of “simple‑minded utopian drivel lacking elementary political and educational practicality”. It’s true that much of what he had to say about his own work is absurdly convoluted and self‑aggrandising. And yet the things he made retain their weird energy, their dogged hope in human capacity. You can change the world, that’s what Beuys believed, and furthermore you can change it for the better. Daft as the shaman-garb can seem, he was possessed of remarkable foresight. From free education to the environment, many of the apparently wacky ideas he championed have become increasingly central in the intervening years. As for his faith in the political capacities of art, it lives on in artists such as the Turner prizewinning collective Assemble, who build community housing in derelict areas.

The revolution is us: that’s what Beuys believed. Perhaps he remains so controversial and misunderstood because the scale of his hope for humanity is too vast, too lacking in irony to be comfortable. He thought we could touch each other; he genuinely believed that we could live better than we do. One of his last works was 7000 Oaks, an ambitious planting project in Kassel, Germany. Yes, he might have talked utopian drivel, but all the same, he conjured a whole forest out of nothing.

“I think nowadays,” he once told an interviewer, “there’s a deep misunderstanding amongst people that art should be understood through logical sentences.” His own theory was that it was an intimate collaboration, that a work of art was the result of work and artistry on the part of both the creator and the viewer. “The work of art enters into the person and the person internalises the work of art as well, it has to be possible that these two completely sink into each other ... Art enters into the person and the person enters into the work of art, no?”

The End of the Twentieth Century 1983-5 (foreground) and The Pack, 1969 (background), by Beuys. Photograph: Dan Chung for the Guardian

Joseph Beuys. Photograph: U Baumgarten via Getty Images

FOND VII/2 (1967-84), felt and copper. Photograph: Dan Chung for the Guardian