Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Joseph Beuys

Today is the 89th birthday of Joseph Beuys, born May 12, 1921 in Krefeld, Germany. Beuys worked as a sculptor, draftsman, performer, musician and teacher throughout his idiosyncratic career, but his most lasting influence has been as an art philosopher.

Beuys deliberately obscured his own biography. Born during the Third Reich, he was a member of the Hitler Youth as a child, and flew in the Luftwaffe as a young man. In 1944 Beuys’ plane was shot down in a remote region near the Crimean border. For the rest of his life Beuys claimed having been rescued from the crash by nomadic Tatar tribesmen who wrapped his broken body in animal fat and felt and nursed him back to health. Other accounts of the event differ, but it was an early example of Beuys unconventional relationship to facts and ideas.

After the war Beuys studied "Monumental Sculpture" at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts. He produced drawings and sculptures throughout the 1950's, and became professor of monumental sculpture at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1961. In 1964, as part of a festival of new art coinciding with the 20th anniversary of an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler, Beuys created his first performance, which was interrupted by a group of students attacking him and punching him in the face. A photograph of his bloody face was circulated in the media, and Beuys realized the power of performances to provoke reactions.

Beuys’ first solo exhibition opened in November 1965. The performance piece, titled "How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare" featured the artist with his face covered in honey and gold leaf, an iron slab attached to his boot, seen through the gallery window. He held a dead hare, into whose ear he mumbled muffled noises and explanations of the drawings that lined the walls.

He followed this act with a series of spectacular, ritualistic performances, including his first piece in the U.S., "I Like America and America Likes Me," in which Beuys flew to New York and was taken by ambulance to the René Block Gallery in Manhattan. He wrapped himself from head to foot in a huge blanket of felt, shared a room with a wild coyote for three days, then headed back to the airport in the ambulance. As he later explained, "I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote."

Beuys' commitment to political reform increased as he got older and better known, and he was involved in the founding of several activist groups including the Free International University, which emphasized the creative potential in all human beings and advocated cross-pollination of ideas across disciplines. In 1979 he was one of 500 founding members of the international Green Party, eventually serving as a Green Party candidate for the European Parliament.

While he courted debate, discussion, and teaching as part of his expanded definition of art, Beuys also continued to make objects, installations and performances into his old age. He lived the last years of his life at a hectic pace, participating in dozens of exhibitions and traveling widely on behalf of his political organizations.

Beuys died in Düsseldorf in 1986.

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