Read the full article >>
Joseph Beuys spent his entire life dying, his widow once said. In January 1986, his heart did in fact stop beating. Urns with his ashes were committed to the depths of the North Sea. Since then, he has been regularly resurrected -- as a myth, a heroic figure, a saint of contemporary art history and an innovator, even on the political scene. During the nearly 30 years since his death, he has become larger than life and, ultimately, sacrosanct: a German icon.
Beuys, born in 1921 in the western German town of Krefeld, is viewed by many as the only genuine avant-gardist of the postwar era because he was a provocateur, someone who irreversibly shattered the limits of what was customary. He created a new type of art with honey pumps and wedges of fat, made works out of rust, tree bark and clumps of earth, and created a world of images in brown and gray. What's more, he staged performances in which he conversed with hares or dissected their corpses with knives, events in which he smashed a piano to bits or rolled himself up in felt to become a living mummy. Beuys was the Düsseldorf professor of art who, in the wake of his many protests and subsequent summary dismissal, had to be escorted by police from the academy.
Everyone had an opinion on Beuys. It was thanks to him that people started talking about art in the 1970s -- although they were usually simply outraged. He planted 7,000 oak trees in the western German town of Kassel, which was one of several controversial art projects that divided the entire country, and he made use of every opportunity to intensify rejection of himself and his work. For example, Beuys maintained that the Berlin Wall was too low, writing that it would have better proportions with an extra five centimeters (two inches) in height. Today, that sounds funny.
At the time, people ridiculed him and his work, but the sound of their laughter inevitably also echoed their fears of nonconformity. Those who like him admired him for precisely this reason.
Uncovering the Man Behind the MythThe author of a new Beuys biography, Hans Peter Riegel, has set out to uncover the man behind the myth. In Riegel's view, Beuys was neither a deranged artist nor an innocent genius, but rather a fairly reactionary and dangerous figure.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
Read the rest of the article >>