Joseph Beuys Learning Resource

Joseph Beuys, for the cover of Wirtschaftswoche [Business Week] 43/76 1976

Joseph Beuys was born in Krefeld, north-west of Düsseldorf in 1921. He spent most of his early life in or near the town of Cleves, close to the Dutch border, where he went to State Grammar School in 1931. He showed an early interest in drawing and music, as well as history, mythology, nature and science. During the Second World War, he served in the German Air Force, initially as a radio operator and then as a gunner in a bomber squadron. In 1944, his plane was shot down in Crimea; his recovery from this crash with the help of nomadic Tartar tribes people was a defining moment in his life as an artist. Beuys ended up as a British prisoner of war following Germany’s defeat in 1945.

After the war Beuys studied Monumental Sculpture at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art. From 1947 to 1953 he worked with German sculptor Ewald Mataré on a number of commissions, including churches, in the post-war rebuilding of Germany. During his studies Beuys developed a deep interest in the writings of the Irish novelist James Joyce and the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, both of whom continued to influence him throughout his life. In his Düsseldorf studio he also set up a laboratory, continuing the interest in science which had been with him since childhood.

In the 1950s, Beuys began to engage with the largely unexamined emotional and social legacy of the war in Germany, having realised how artists can play a part in ‘indicating the traumas of a time and initiating a healing process’ (quoted in Tisdall 1979, p.21).

In 1961, Beuys was appointed Professor of Monumental Sculpture at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art. It was during this period that he was first affiliated with the recently formed Fluxus Group, an international network of artists based in nearby Wuppertal. Like Beuys, they emphasised the importance of ‘flux’, movement, change and transformation in life and art, and embraced the use of a wide range of new materials, like sound, video, poetry and performance. In the performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare 1965 – Beuys preferred the term ‘Action’ – the artist, with his head covered in honey and gold leaf, walked around the confined spaces of the Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf, while talking to a dead hare and cradling the animal in his arms. Photographed, filmed and widely publicised, the work was a breakthrough for Beuys and instigated a growing fascination with him, by both the international art world and public alike. In 1967 he had his first major solo exhibition in the Städtisches Museum in Mönchengladbach, from which the collector Karl Ströher acquired nearly all the exhibited works, and continued to support the artist in this way for many years.

Joseph Beuys Clan, 1958

In 1970 Beuys made his first trip to Scotland and performed the four-hour Action Celtic (Kinloch Rannoch) Scottish Symphony as part of the Edinburgh Festival. He visited Scotland again in 1974 when he made the Three Pots Action and discussed his ideas about ‘social sculpture’ and art’s potential to transform individuals and society. During the 1960s and 1970s Beuys’s political engagement increased and he founded a number of associations and parties which aimed to promote creativity in all areas of life. He was expelled from the Düsseldorf Art Academy in 1972 and had his professorship revoked due to his insistence on free entry to his classes and disregard for the limit on numbers of students who could be admitted.

Beuys made his first trip to the USA in 1974 having previously refused to travel there during the Vietnam War. That year Beuys staged I Like America and America Likes Me, one of his most famous Actions. Beuys was wrapped in felt and taken by ambulance from New York airport to the René Block Gallery in Manhattan, where he spent three days living in the gallery with a coyote, never once setting foot on American soil. In 1979 Beuys had the only major retrospective held during his lifetime at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. For an audience accustomed to Pop Art and Minimalism, this hugely influential exhibition proposed radical new ways of making art and introduced a new understanding of post-war European art.

The Guggenheim retrospective established Beuys’s international reputation. From 1980-86, Beuys was represented by the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London, which held numerous exhibitions of his work. D'Offay ensured that many museums around the world acquired major sculpture by Beuys, including Stripes from the House of the Shaman 1980 (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra), and PLIGHT 1985 (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris).

Since his death in 1986, there have been numerous major exhibitions at art galleries and museums around the world, including Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (Madrid), Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), Tate Modern (London), National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne), Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (Düsseldorf), Hamburger Bahnhof (Berlin), and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Edinburgh).

Beuys is Here

An introduction to Joseph Beuys using archive footage from some of his iconic performances such as 'How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare', 1963, as well as audio of the artist discussing some of his influences, beliefs and motivations.

Science and Nature

Joseph Beuys, Table With Accumulator 1958-85

From an early age, Beuys developed a strong interest in the natural sciences, and in plants and animals. Prior to the escalation of the Second World War, he had considered a career in medicine. Both as a child and as an adult, Beuys set up laboratories where he could experiment with his ideas, which often involved a synthesis of individual sciences and their elevation to a higher purpose.

Beuys made use of scientific language and methods as well as references to the natural world in his drawings and sculptures. Many of his early artworks and commissions also reflect his Catholic upbringing in their use of Christian iconography. For Beuys, these two ways of viewing the world – the spiritual and the everyday – were complementary and could be explored in the same way. In the work Energy Field 1962, the title refers to Beuys’s interest in the generation, storage or transfer of energy, while at the same time suggesting the idea of spiritual healing from within. Beuys’s interest in transitions of state – hot to cold, liquid to solid, empty to full – is also apparent in works like the watercolour Crystal Measurement 1954, and sculpture Table With Accumulator 1958-1985.


Drawings of geological structures, natural phenomena and plant forms were among the first works Beuys exhibited after the war. He used pressed flowers and dried leaves in several early works, such as Acer Platanoides, 1945, the Latin name for the Norwegian maple tree. Beuys frequently used plant juices as pigment, blurring the distinction between the representation of the object and the object itself. He also used chemicals such as iron chloride. He said of his drawings, ‘It’s conceivable to me that science, the natural sciences, might have taken a completely different direction. These drawings we’re talking about would have been a part of the natural sciences if it had, rather than being classed as art, as they are now’ (quoted in Muller 2010, p.6).

Joseph Beuys, aus dem Leben der Bienen [From the Life of the Bees] 1954
Joseph Beuys, Crystal Measurement 1954

Beuys had a profound respect for animals, and his art often refers to those familiar to him from his childhood in the Lower Rhine region of Germany, including stags, hares, swans and bees. Perhaps influenced by the philosopher Rudolph Steiner’s 1923 lecture, which compared beehives to human society, Beuys was interested in the way bees work and live together in perfect social harmony, as well as their mechanical production of honey. The scientific apparatus in the drawing From the Life of Bees 1954, reappears in other works by Beuys from the mid-to-late 1950s, and looks forward to his sculpture Honey Pump 1977 that he presented in Documenta VI in Kassel.

The installation Lightning with Stag in its Glare 1958-85, is one of Beuys’s most visually arresting artworks and articulates his extensive thinking about the forces of nature, energy and transformation. The component sculptures of this work are based on objects from the installation Workshop that Beuys created for the exhibition Zeitgeist: International Art Exhibition, Berlin 1982 (October 1982 –January 1983) in the inner courtyard of the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin. After the exhibition, Beuys cast in bronze a 6m high section of the mound of earth in the centre of his ‘workshop’. This ‘Lightning’ is suspended from a heavy steel beam between two walls, so that it just touches the ground. Surrounding it are the ‘primordial beings’ formed from bronze casts of tools embedded in clay, next to a ‘goat’ that is represented by a hoe on a three-wheeled cart, ‘Boothia Felix’, a bronze cast of a flower pot named after the discoverer of magnetic north, Felix Booth, while the ‘stag’ itself is made from an ironing board cast in aluminium, suggesting illumination by a bolt of lightning, and capturing the idea of the moment of revelation.

Beuys’s interest in nature led him to embrace his role as a shaman, a spiritual leader who can communicate with the natural world and harness the powers of nature. It was a subject he returned to again and again, both in his daily life, and through his Actions, many of which focused on healing the emotional and social wounds of the Second World War.


Beuys was inspired by the Renaissance artist Leonardo Da Vinci and created drawings in response to his. Think about other artists interested in, and inspired by, science and the natural world and discuss what their different motives might have been.


Take a scientific approach to art and start a sketchbook. Draw and collect images, and artefacts, but make sure you document where you collected them from and where. Using a sketchbook is a good way to record how your thoughts and feelings have changed. Can you see any patterns in what you have drawn and written?

Artist Link

British artist Damien Hirst often challenges the boundaries between art and science. He is best known for the ‘Natural History’ works, which present animals in vitrines filled with formaldehyde.


Joseph Beuys, Felt Suit 1970

Beuys’s choice of materials for his artworks was eclectic: he used a huge array of non-traditional materials including fat, felt, beeswax, chocolate and household objects such as telephones and furniture. For Beuys, every object and material had a use and a purpose. He often gathered together objects he had used in Actions into groups, and then placed them in vitrines, where they acquired additional meaning, expanding what Beuys called his ‘constellations of ideas’.

In the early 1960s, Beuys began to make sculptures out of felt and fat. The origins of these materials go back to his experience in World War II when he was rescued by Tartar tribesmen after a plane crash in the Crimea and smeared with fat and wrapped in felt, in order to retain the warmth of his body.

Beuys was interested in the material properties of fat. Its flexibility and potential to change from solid to liquid form made it a potent symbol of transformation and spiritual transcendence. Fat plays an important role in many of Beuys’s works, such as Fat Chair 1964-85, where he has placed a thick layer of fat on the seat of a kitchen chair; in another version of this sculpture from 1963, the fat has been built up into a neat triangular wedge.

Like fat, felt was one of Beuys’s main signififers; indeed his felt hat became a symbol for the artist himself. Felt was important to Beuys because of its ability to absorb whatever it comes into contact with. In works such as Felt Suit 1970, one of Beuys’s most famous multiples, the material’s insulating qualities are integral to the work. As an insulator, felt acts a symbol of warmth, but it also appears as a muffler, as when Beuys wrapped a piano, television or loudspeaker in felt. In 1985 Beuys created the two-room environment PLIGHT for the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London. The walls of both rooms were coated in rolls of felt and one of the rooms housed a grand piano, a blackboard and a thermometer. The warm, muffled environment made visitors hear and perceive sound in an unusual way.

Joseph Beuys, Fettstuhl [Fat Chair] 1964-85

Other important materials for Beuys included various metals such as iron, which he associated with masculinity, copper, which he compared to femininity, and gold, which can be linked to magic and alchemy. He often made use of an ordinary house paint used in Germany to protect floors and woodwork. Beuys referred to this as ‘Braunkreuz’ (‘brown-cross’) and would sometimes mix it with hare’s blood to create a reddish-brown opaque substance that evoked rust, dirt, or even blood. The term ‘Braunkreuz’ is loaded with references to Christianity, war and the occult. It also reveals Beuys’s love of language and word play: the combination of two words to make a new one echoes the composition of a cross.


As well as representing heat and energy, materials like fat and felt are strongly associated with animals and people. Both because we have fat in our bodies, and also because felt is made of densely compacted animal hair. Can you think of any other materials that have hidden meanings?


Some of the materials you discussed might be everyday or easily accessible. Work in pairs to create your own artworks which might include leaves and plants or disused fabric or material.

Artist Link

Italian artist Mario Merz (1925-2003) experimented with different materials at the start of his career. In a similar approach to Beuys, works such as Lingotto, 1968, make use of natural materials like beeswax and wood.


Teaching was an essential element of Beuys’s work as an artist. He declared in an interview with the American art magazine Artforum in 1969, ‘To be a teacher is my greatest work of art' (quoted in Sharp 1969). In 1961 he was appointed Professor of Monumental Sculpture at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art where he became an inspirational and charismatic figure for an upcoming generation of German artists including  Blinky Palermo and Anselm Kiefer.

Joseph Beuys, The social organism - a work of art, Bochum, 2nd March 1974

Beuys’s non-traditional teaching and anti-bureaucratic philosophy incorporated group discussion and political activism. He removed all entry requirements while teaching at the Academy so that anyone could join his lectures. This resulted in very large classes; in the winter of 1971, he had as many as 233 students. These unconventional methods made for a stormy relationship with the authorities at the Academy, and he was sacked in 1972.

In 1971 Beuys began to develop the idea for an ‘open school’, which would foster creativity outside the confines of traditional academia. This began as the Freie Hochschule (Free School of Higher Education), and soon evolved into the Free International University (FIU). He outlined the principles of this new educational programme in a manifesto written with the German writer Heinrich Böll in 1972: ‘creativity is not limited to people practicing one of the traditional forms of art...each one of us has a creative potential... to recognise, explore and develop this is the task of the school’ (quoted in Tisdall 1979, p.278).  Offices of the Free International University were founded across Europe and continue to run to this day.

By the early 1970s Beuys was expounding his theories of sculpture, democracy and green politics at museums and art galleries around the world. These lectures were more closely connected to his Actions than to conventional academic talks. The blackboards that he illustrated with beautiful chalk drawings and writings are regarded as works of art in their own right, and important records of these events. The blackboard from his 1974 lecture in Bochum, Germany ‘The Social Organism – a Work of Art’, has circles and lines connecting animal, man and nature – a clear demonstration of Beuys’s belief that we are part of a larger natural system, which we have a duty to preserve.

Joseph Beuys, Three Pots for the Poorhouse - Action Object 1974

In 1972, Beuys gave a six-and-a- half-hour lecture at the Tate Gallery, London. During this he made three blackboards with words and drawings. Another blackboard was used the following day at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, and the four were brought together as a group in the Tate Collection (Four Blackboards 1972)

Blackboards also played an important role in Beuys’s Actions. In Three Pots for the Poorhouse – Action Object, 1974, made by Beuys in the dilapidated, former Edinburgh poorhouse in 1974, he used three new cooking pots to represent the human attributes of thinking, feeling and will. He walked slowly around the edges of one of the rooms offering up the pots to each of the walls. The pots were then put on the floor and connected to a pair of blackboards on which Beuys made drawings relating to the Action.


Beuys once famously said ‘To be a teacher is my greatest work of art.’ Discuss in groups why you think education was so important to his work, and why educational establishments were so surprised by the reforms he suggested.


Beuys used the blackboard as a device within his Actions to communicate and incorporate the importance of education and dialogue into his artistic practice. Work in a group to discuss what contemporary version of these Actions might look like and attempt to act it out.

Artist Link

British artist Phyllida Barlow (born 1944) is also known as an influential teacher, and has worked at Slade School of Art since 2009. She states ‘becoming a teacher was the ideal way of having freedom to be an artist' (quoted in Brown 2016).


Advertising an exhibition, this image shows Beuys during his action How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare

In 1962 Beuys was first introduced to performance art when he encountered Fluxus, an international network of artists who challenged accepted ideas about what art could be. Members of the group included Nam June Paik, John Cage, Yoko Ono and Emmett Williams. They emphasised the role of ‘flux’, movement and change in art, and considered the act of making art to be as – if not more – important than what was made. This ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude, use of new and unusual materials (especially sound and music), and a focus on ‘happenings’ was a fertile source of inspiration for Beuys. In 1963 Beuys invited a number of Fluxus artists to perform at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art. At the same event he also performed his first two public Actions, Composition for 2 Musicians, 1963 and Siberian Symphony, First Movement, 1963.

In 1965 Beuys carried out one of his most famous Actions, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, at the Schmela Gallery, Düsseldorf. With a cast-iron sole tied to his right foot, a felt sole tied to his left and his head covered in honey and gold leaf, he walked around the gallery talking to a dead hare which he held in his arms.

By 1986, the year of his death, Beuys had carried out 70 Actions around the world, as well as organising and contributing to interviews, seminars, lectures and discussions. He believed that his Actions could evoke a spiritual response in the audience, ultimately providing a healing process. In this way, Beuys took on the role of a modern-day shaman, enacting rituals and presenting a charismatic public persona. He was instantly recognisable from his shaman’s clothes: jeans, a felt hat, fishing vest, fur coat and walking stick all became an important part of his role as an artist.

One of Beuys’s most significant Actions, I Like America and America Likes Me, took place in May 1974. He was wrapped in felt at the New York airport and driven in an ambulance to René Block’s Manhattan gallery, and without ever touching American soil, he spent three days in an enclosure with a wild coyote. The ironic title reveals Beuys’s strong opposition to American military activity in Vietnam. The images Coyote I and Coyote II, 1980, show items the artist used during the Action, including felt blankets, a walking stick, gloves, a triangle, and newly printed copies of the Wall Street Journal. Beuys repeated the same series of movements with his eyes fixed on the coyote. At other times he would rest or gather the felt around him to suggest the figure of a shepherd with his crook. The coyote’s behaviour shifted throughout the three days, sometimes cautious and aggressive, sometimes detached and amiable. At the end of the Action, Beuys was again wrapped in felt, driven straight back to the airport and flown home. Although revered by Native Americans, the coyote represented the ‘outcast’ in modern American society. Beuys attempted to establish a relationship with this animal and thus heal a wound in American society that had lost its connection with the natural world and ignored the plight of those left behind by ‘big business’ and capitalism.


Beuys’s public image and signature costume of jeans, felt hat, and fishing vest became an important part of his art. Think about other artists or public figures that have a persona or ‘costume’. Discuss how the persona might be part of their performance and what it suggests.


Think about how Beuys documented his Actions and how this might affect your understanding of the work. Write a list of differences between the performance and the documentation of a work of art.

Artist Link

Joseph Beuys was a hugely influential pioneer of performance art, making a wide impact with his Actions from 1963 onwards. The British artist duo Gilbert & George (born 1943 and 1944) have been making highly original performance works from 1969.


Beuys’s involvement in politics was central to his work from the late 1960s, and came to the fore while he was teaching at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art. During this time he participated in student demonstrations and sit-ins and gave regular lectures on democracy. He founded or co-founded the German Student Party in 1967, the Organisation for Direct Democracy through Referendum in 1971 and the German Green Party [Die Grünen] in 1980; he even stood as a Green party Candidate for the European Parliament in 1979. As a passionate believer in democracy, Beuys criticised the West German Government for compromising its supposed democratic principles, and condemned the oppressive Communism of East Germany as represented by the Berlin Wall. He believed in using referenda to enable people to vote on central issues, rather than leaving it to the parties and politicians to decide on their behalfs.

Joseph Beuys, La Rivoluzione Siamo Noi 1972

Many of Beuys’s artworks used debate and the exchange of ideas as a way of stimulating democratic thought. He set up an Information Office in Documenta V in 1972, where he debated issues with gallery visitors for 100 days. Beuys believed that the creative impulse that shaped a work of art could also influence the world in which we live, and this conviction – that everyone could participate in this reshaping of society – led to his famous motto, ‘everyone is an artist (quoted in Tisdall 1974, p.48).

At this time he also formulated his theory of ‘social sculpture – society as artwork’ (quoted in Anderson et al. 2011, p.83), based on his conviction that everyone should be involved in some form of creativity. As expressed by the huge blackboard drawing Energy Plan for the Western Man 1972, Beuys called for a regeneration of thought throughout the world which would produce an alternative to both Eastern and Western forms of capitalism, and a free democratic socialism which would operate through the people, instead of a party system based on the forces of money and power. He said, ‘Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the death-line: to dismantle in order to build ‘A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART’ (quoted in Tisdall 1974, p.48).

In La Rivoluzione siamo Noi (We are the revolution) 1972, we see the life-sized figure of Beuys confidently striding towards the future, ready for political action. It is an invitation to join him in the cause of transforming society through artistic and social revolution.


Joseph Beuys believed in the use of referenda to vote on central issues rather than leaving it to the parties and politicians to decide. In groups discuss the pros and cons of people deciding on issues via referenda.


Consider the terms traditional sculpture and social sculpture. What forms might these types of sculpture take? Look at examples of contemporary and historical sculpture. How do they reflect or defy the categories of traditional and social sculpture.

Artist Link

In the work Che Fare? 1968 -73 (which translates as ‘What is to be Done?’) by the Italian artist Mario Merz (1925-2003) the words ‘Che Fare’ are taken from the title of a political pamphlet produced by Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and are widely regarded as advocating a political party to promote Marxism within the working classes.


From his childhood in the Lower Rhine valley, where his father sold animal feed, Beuys was aware of the cyclical patterns of life, death and rebirth. His own birth was premature and references to it appear early on in the catalogue of his work. His important rebirth as an artist came after a near-fatal plane crash towards the end of the Second World War. After the war, although he retained his scientific interests and ways of thinking, Beuys realised that, if he were to make a contribution to changing the world for the better, he would need to work on a deeper level than pure science, and enrolled in the Düsseldorf Academy of Arts.

In his role as shaman, Beuys believed that rebirth was not only possible but also necessary for post-war Germany, and that it was the duty of the artist to heal the wounds caused by the horrors of the Nazi period. Beuys made use of natural or found materials with the potential for growth, regrowth or transformation. Many of his sculptures emphasise the state of flux – or as Beuys put it, ‘evolutionary process’ (quoted in ‘Joseph Beuys: The Revolution is Us’ 1993) – and they continue to develop and change, having a life of their own once they have left his studio.

Beuys was always exploring the transformative potential of his environmental and sculptural works, just as he was drawn to the ways in which we, as a society, might look to the future and view the plight of the planet in the context of a turbulent century which was coming to an end. In the sculpture The End of the Twentieth Century 1983-5, Beuys made metaphorical ‘wounds’ by drilling holes into large basalt stones, which he then filled with felt and clay, before inserting funnel-shaped plugs. He said, ‘This is the end of the twentieth century. This is the old world, on which I press the stamp of a new world’ (quoted in Willisch and Heimberg 2007, p.7).

Joseph Beuys, 7000 Oak Trees 7000 Eichen 1982

In a previous ecological project, 7000 Oak Trees 1982, Beuys planned to plant 7000 oaks throughout the city of Kassel as part of Documenta VII. Each tree was paired with a basalt stone, 7000 of which were initially piled up in front of the Museum Fridericianum. Every time a tree was planted, a stone was removed and placed next to it. The project took many years to complete. Beuys said in 1982, ‘I think the tree is an element of regeneration which in itself is a concept of time. The oak is especially so because it is a slowly growing tree with a kind of really solid heartwood. It has always been a form of sculpture, a symbol for this planet’ (quoted in Mesch 2013, p.160)


As well as being symbolic of mortality and healing the theme of ‘regeneration’ has spiritual and religious connotations. Discuss in groups how these symbols might relate to Beuys’s broader practice.


Start your own planting project with the school or college as way of engaging people in a conversation about the local environment.

Artist Link

German artist Anselm Kiefer (born 1945) incorporates seeds, plants, ash, clay and resin into his paintings and sculptures that invoke the flux and instability inherent in nature


Willoughby Sharp, ‘An Interview with Joseph Beuys’, Artforum, December 1969.

Caroline Tisdall, ‘Lecture and Discussion with Joseph Beuys and Caroline Tisdall’, 1974.

Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1979.

Laszlo Glozer, ‘On Blinky Palermo: A Conversation with Joseph Beuys’, Arts Magazine, vol.64, 1990. First published in Laszlo Glozer at al, Palermo Werke 1963-1977, Winterthur/Munich 1984.

‘Joseph Beuys: The Revolution is Us’, exhibition, Tate Liverpool, 1993,, accessed 15 July 2016.

Susanne Willisch and Bruno Heimberg, Joseph Beuys: The End of the 20th Century, Munich 2007.

Maria Muller et al., Joseph Beuys: Parallel Processes, Düsseldorf 2010.

Jamie Anderson, Jörg Reckhenrich and Martin Kupp, The Fine Art of Success: How Learning Great Art Can Create Great Business, Chichester 2011.

Claudia Mesch, Art and Politics: A Small History of Art for Social Change Since 1945, London; New York 2013.

Mark Brown, ‘Phyllida Barlow: an artistic outsider who has finally come inside’, The Guardian, 28 April 2016,