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Museum: Background Information


Walker Art Center



Institution Walker Art Center
Joseph Beuys was born in Krefeld, Germany, in 1921, the only child in a middle-class Catholic family. As a boy he was interested in both art and science and wanted to become a doctor. In 1940 he volunteered for military service during World War II and trained as an aircraft radio operator and combat pilot. He was wounded several times over the course of his duty before he returned home in 1945. The war had a profound effect on Beuys, who enrolled at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art instead of pursuing a medical career. While at school, he studied sculpture, but also pursued other areas of interest, including philosophy, literature, and science.

Beuys had an unconventional approach to making art, choosing to work in many types of media, including sculpture, installations, and performances, which he sometimes called "actions." He believed in the power of art as the main factor governing human existence and behavior, and that both art and life must be pursued with absolute attention to social responsibility. "To me," Beuys said, "it's irrelevant whether a product comes from a painter, from a sculptor, or from a physicist." During the 1960s and 1970s, a time of increased political awareness, Beuys was heavily involved in political activism, which he considered an extension of his activities as an artist. In fact, Beuys first wore the Filzanzug (Felt Suit) in an action interpreted as a protest of the Vietnam War. It was performed in 1971 with another artist, Terry Fox, in a cellar of the Staatliche Kunstakademie (National Art Academy) in Düsseldorf, Germany. Fox burned the wood of a cross-shaped window frame and sped up the burning of a lit candle by exposing it to the heat of a naked lightbulb. Beuys cradled a dead mouse in his hand. Then Fox banged an iron pipe till it resounded violently. Beuys repeatedly spat the seeds of an exotic fruit into a silver bowl to create a delicate ringing sound.

Much of Beuys' art promoted the notion that every person is an artist and that an individual's creative activity helped a society thrive and grow in ways beneficial to all. Beuys pursued the idea that society itself is not an abstract entity but an art form--in constant flux--and capable of being "sculpted." His involvement in the fields of politics and education in order to create real change reflected his goal to sculpt society. Beuys worked with several groups that called for radical political reform. In 1979 he co-founded the Green Party, a grassroots alternative to traditional politics that stressed social and environmental issues.

Beuys/Logos a hyperessay by Julie Luckenbach

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Type: Commentary, online content
Source: Joseph Beuys, Filzanzug (Felt Suit) (1970), from the website Global Positioning: Exploring Contemporary World Art, 2003.
Rights: Copyright 2003 Walker Art Center
Added to Site: March 1, 2009