Joseph Beuys was born in 1921 in Krefeld, a city in northwestern Germany near the Dutch border. He grew up in the nearby towns of Kleve and Rindern, the only child in a middle class, strongly Catholic family. During his youth he pursued dual interests in the natural sciences and art, and he chose a career in medicine. In 1940 he joined the military, volunteering in order to avoid the draft. He was trained as an aircraft radio operator and combat pilot, and during his years of active duty he was seriously wounded numerous times. At the end of the war he was held in a British prisoner-of-war camp for several months, and returned to Kleve in 1945.
Coming to terms with his involvement in the war was a long process and figures, at least obliquely, in much of his artwork. Beuys often said that his interest in fat and felt as sculptural materials grew out of a wartime experience–a plane crash in the Crimea, after which he was rescued by nomadic Tartars who rubbed him with fat and wrapped him in felt to heal and warm his body. While the story appears to have little grounding in real events (Beuys himself downplayed its importance in a 1980 interview), its poetics are strong enough to have made the story one of the most enduring aspects of his mythic biography.
Joseph Beuys was a German-born artist active in Europe and the United States from the 1950s through the early 1980s, who came to be loosely associated with that era’s international, proto-Conceptual art movement, Fluxus. Beuys’s diverse body of work ranges from traditional media of drawing, painting, and sculpture, to process-oriented, or time-based “action” art, the performance of which suggested how art may exercise a healing effect (on both the artist and the audience) when it takes up psychological, social, and/or political subjects. Beuys is especially famous for works incorporating animal fat and felt, two common materials – one organic, the other fabricated, or industrial – that had profound personal meaning to the artist. They were also recurring motifs in works suggesting that art, common materials, and one’s “everyday life” were ultimately inseparable.
Beuys was a key participant in the 1960s Fluxus movement. At that time, many artists in Asia, Europe, and the United States became dissatisfied with a long tradition of “heroic,” or object-oriented painting and sculpture (much recently typified by Abstract Expressionism). Influenced in part by contemporary experiments in music, such artists found themselves turning away from the art world’s prevailing commercialism in favor of “found” and “everyday” items for creating ephemeral, time-based “happenings,” impermanent installation art, and/or other largely action-oriented events.
From roughly the 1950s through the early 1980s, Beuys demonstrated how art might originate in personal experience yet also address universal artistic, political, and/or social ideas (i.e. topical issues of the day). This is part of the meaning to be gleaned from his 1965 solo performance, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, in which materials of personal significance (one foot wrapped in felt, the cradling of a recently deceased animal) poetically suggest the healing potential of art for a humanity seeking self revitalization and a sense of renewed hope in the future (one should recall that Beuys came of age in the immediate postwar period, when many Germans were just coming to terms with many traumatic aspects of their recent past).
Beuys suggested, in both his teaching and in his mature “action” and sculptural artworks, that “art” might not ultimately constitute a specialized profession but, rather, a heightened humanitarian attitude, or way of conducting one’s life, in every realm of daily activity. In this regard, Beuys’s work signals a new era in which art has increasingly become engaged with social commentary and political activism.
Beuys frequently blurred the lines between art and life, and fact and fiction, by suggesting that what one believed to constitute “reality” mattered more in matters of human action, social/political behavior, and personal creativity than any definition of everyday reality based on traditional standards of “normalcy,” or social codes of so-called “proper” conduct.