Joseph Beuys, Das Kapital Raum, Venice Biennial, 1980, photo by Pieter Heijnen

Shaman, artist, politician - Remembering Joseph Beuys

Issue no1
Feb - Mrt 2023

Today, May 12th, is the 100th birthday of Joseph Beuys. In Germany, they are celebrating this “Beuys Year", including many exhibitions, especially in museums just over the border from The Netherlands, where he lived and worked. Beuys had an enormous influence, not only within the art world, but also outside of it. As an artist, he was one of the founders of the German political party "Die Grünen" (The Green party). A former student of Beuys', Pieter Heijnen shares his first hand experiences and understanding of the artistic work of this major artist, who is at risk of unjustly fading into the background.

"And once the tree grows tall, the planter will be long gone." He says this with a laugh, in April 1982 in the town of Kassel, as he and a team of collaborators dig holes in the earth to receive the trees for his large scale piece, 7000 Oaks. All over town, 7000 oak trees will be planted next to basalt columns, his contribution to documenta 7, curated by Rudi Fuchs.

"Imagine how many birds will flock to Kassel once these trees are here", he says. "The planting of these 7000 trees is all about sculpture. It is the absence of originality. Once the tree has established itself, it's just nature. A tree full of chirping birds with the wind blowing through! This is sculpture that reaches far into the future. It will be a hundred years before tree and column have the right proportion to each other."

Joseph Beuys, 7000 Eichen, documenta 7, Kassel, 1982, photo by Pieter Heijnen

Joseph Beuys, 7000 Eichen, documenta 7, Kassel, 1982

Joseph Beuys, 7000 Eichen, documenta 7, Kassel, 1982, photo by Pieter Heijnen

Here, Joseph Beuys (Krefeld 1921 - Düsseldorf 1986) expresses in commonplace language his longing for art to be so much more than simply a colorful object that hangs on the wall or sits on the floor.

Art is a living bird, which lands on a living branch, of a living tree; or poops on the stone next to it. And he knows how to promote his work in a very practical way too; as when he strikes a deal with the manager of the local Holiday Inn. On the nightstands of all the hotel rooms, guests find a certificate to sponsor a tree.

As an artist and as a shaman, he works tirelessly to enable us to feel the essence of how magically interconnected the world is. Everything he creates is an expression of that inspiration. Once the oak is sufficiently big and strong, it's roots will slowly topple the basalt column, producing an entirely new relationship between them. There is an obvious similarity here between the Old and New Testaments. In much of his work, either directly or indirectly, Beuys refers to the Christianity found in the Anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner.

In the 1930s he joins the Hitlerjugend and at the beginning of the Second World War Beuys volunteers for the Luftwaffe. He ends the war as an infanterist at the front of his hometown Cleve. Soon after his fighter-bomber crashes in 1943 in the Crimea, he is found by German reconnaissance. In 1964 however, in his self published artistic resume,
which is a declaration that for him there is no distinction between life and art, he transforms this accident into a miraculous rescue by nomads, who find him in the snow and keep him alive with fat and felt blankets. Experiences from the war and German guilt permeate his work.

As one of the first post-war western artists, Beuys is successful in communicating his all inclusive, holistic concept of art and bringing it to light. In doing so, he has even been known to prefer to communicate with dead animals rather than living people. In Wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt from 1965 (How to Explain your Work to a Dead Hare), Beuys, as an initiated guide whose head is covered with honey and gold leaf, speaks about his drawings in a monologue to a dead hare, as he holds it lovingly in his lap. Under the little stool where they sit lies a bone with a piece of copper wire, as if it's some kind of telephone that would connect you to an old, mysterious world. The public watches through a window, kept at bay. Modern art now has a Shaman in the house.

From the 1970's on until his death, it's impossible to imagine a major art manifestation anywhere in the world without the charismatic art and presence of Joseph Beuys. The public becomes familiar with his thousands of drawings, objects and installations. For me, an essential experience is when I hear his famous acoustic multiple Ja Ja Ja Ja Ja, Nee Nee Nee Nee Nee (1969), in which you hear him rhythmically repeat the words "ja" (yes) and "nee" (no). In spite of his slightly whiny voice, this is a surprisingly simple work of art with a very powerful message. Such an impressive way to express the concept of darkness and light.


When I ask myself now, in 2021, what the significance of Beuys and his work is for contemporary art, so much that had been pushed into the background comes back to mind. It is as if I have to adjust once again to the quiet warmth of his stacks of felt in the twilight of a basement. It is as if his dominant presence lies mysteriously dormant there, set aside, like potent seeds.

In his radical concept of art, everyone is an artist: not only the painter or sculptor, but also the parent, the nurse, the garbage collector. Whatever you do, if you do it with love and awareness, it is art. In this understanding of art, a society evolves wherein all people have the opportunity to feel good about the work they do and thus their life. For Beuys, there is no difference between art and politics either.

It is only natural that he becomes more and more involved in the political arena as an artist, aiming to reach as many participants as possible. With the founding of the Deutsche Stüdenten Partei (the German Student Party) in 1967, he proclaims, matter-of-factly, that most of the members are actually animals. Several years later, together with Johannes Stüttgen and Karl Fastabend, he opens, in an old shoe store in the center of Dusseldorf, the Organisation für Directe Demokratie durch Volksabstimmung (the Organisation for Direct Democratie via Referendum). He uses this political platform in 1972 at Documenta 5 to engage in a 100 day dialogue with the public. At the next Documenta in 1977, he presents the Free International University with a backdrop of his Hönigpumpe (honey pump) installation; symbolically representing a constant flow and exchange of ideas in society.

As one of the founders of the German political party, Die Grünen (the Green Party), he would like to run for the German Parliament. Even though Rosa Luxemburg's quote "Freedom is always the freedom of the ones who think differently" hangs prominently on the wall of his studio, when it comes down to it, the party's top decides not to take the risk. After all, what are they supposed to do with such a controversial and radical artist in parliament? For Beuys, a huge disappointment.

As one of the founders of the German political party, Die Grünen (the Green Party), he would like to run for the German Parliament. Even though Rosa Luxemburg's quote "Freedom is always the freedom of the ones who think differently" hangs prominently on the wall of his studio, when it comes down to it, the party's top decides not to take the risk

Joseph Beuys, atelier Düsseldorf, 1980, photo by Pieter Heijnen

As we celebrate the one hundredth year of his birth, I think back to the autumn of 1969 when I first walk through the long hall into his class room at the Academy in Düsseldorf. It smells like fresh clay and a quilted cross with grips to hang on leans against the wall. It is pretty cool in there. As usual, Beuys arrives at school later in the day in his old, cobbled together Bentley. He spends a lot of time under the hood of that beast.

When I show him my portfolio, with little models for sculptures, he says, without skipping a beat, how nice this work would look on top of a piano. An almost deadly start, but I decide to stay a while longer. Long enough to realize that I will learn something here that will influence the direction of my life.

One summer evening he addresses a small group of students in front of the entrance to the stately academy building. He urges us to realize that the future of art lies outside the institution and in the open society. He holds his multiple Intuition (Intuition), 1968, up in the air. It is a little, modest, shallow pine box with two horizontal pencil lines drawn inside indicating the golden mean. He says that intuition is a higher form of thinking.

Joseph Beuys, Das Kapital Raum, Biënnale van Venetië, 1980, photo by Pieter Heijnen

Joseph Beuys, Das Kapital Raum, Venice Biennial, 1980, photo by Pieter Heijnen


After his dismissal from the Academy, Beuys ventures out into the whole wide world. He becomes famous as the man with the cane, fishing vest and his perpetual hat. Pressing forward, like a German infanterist, always headed to new projects.

I see him, in April 1980, invited by Wim Beeren to appear at the museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, in a public dialogue with experts from Rotterdam. In a packed gallery, he tirelessly explains his Plastische Theorie (theory of plastic arts): sculpture conceived of as an organic process, moving and constantly changing. On blackboards placed for his convenience, he draws the human figure with chalk. While he continues to elaborate, he creates lines representing streams of energy that move continuously from heart to feet and head. The constantly moving feet are warm and unformed while the thinking head becomes fixed in settled forms. Chalk in hand, he points to the drawing of the heart as he turns to the public and you hear him say in his resolute voice that the source of all love is right there.

Beuys does not erase his delicate drawings. As soon as he's done with one, museum staff use fixative to preserve it, it is taken way and a new blackboard is placed in front of him for new figurations. Those blackboards are now part of his large installation Grond (Ground), 1980-81: consisting of copper plates mounted in open wooden crates that look like big batteries. Periodically you hear his listless voice coming from a speaker Und jetzt brechen wir den Scheiss hier ab (And now, let's cut this bullshit).

Beuys is uniquely able to invoke the complementary forces of birth, death and reincarnation with humble materials, such as in the installation Zeige deine Wünde (Show your wound), 1974-75. As I witness the presentation of this major work on a wintry day at the Lenbachhaus in Munich, I experience the deep mistrust and defiance his work provokes. While inside, at the head of a long table, Beuys raises his glass with a Prost Herr Marx (cheers, Mr. Marx), toasting the collector who will donate this piece to the museum, I hear and see a charged crowd screaming "Beuys raus, Beuys raus" (Beuys out, Beuys out) outside in the snow. His art has touched a raw nerve here.

Entartete Kunst (degenerate art). Under a thin, shiny surface, the memory of pitch black nazi times is palpable. Not only there and then, but now, everywhere, right in your face, inescapable and in broad daylight. Beuys' Germany is complicated.

He celebrates his 59th birthday in a nice, new house, where, in the hall next to the new beautiful bathroom, his larger than life portrait leans against the wall. Andy Warhol made it. There is a rumor they will collaborate on something. In the middle of the festivities, a taxi stops at the door. The artist, A.R. Penck steps out. Straight from his mother's house in Dresden, thrown out of the country; expatriated. Joseph Beuys and Nam June Paik walk towards him with open arms.

With his retrospective show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in the winter of 1979-80, Beuys is introduced to a wider, American public. He makes a profound impression. His large sculpture Tallow (fat), 1977, is made of five big blocks of solid animal fat (besides copper and felt, fat is a staple of Beuys' artistic vocabulary). It's temperature is painstakingly monitored as the form of the sculpture would literally change if the piece would get too warm and the fat would melt.

In the international art center of the world at the time, Beuys seems to turn the prevailing, comfortable formalism of the latter years of modernism upside down with simple thermometers. Suddenly, modernism and its American legacy have to deal with the holistic, contemporary art of Joseph Beuys, that emerges from personal mythologies born from a dark, complex daily life. Expansive artistic declarations juxtaposed to the impersonal emptiness in the boxes by Donald Judd.

Joseph Beuys, Das Kapital Raum, German Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 1980, photo by Pieter Heijnen

Joseph Beuys, Das Kapital Raum, Venice Biennial, 1980, photo by Pieter Heijnen

Leading critics oppose him and Beuys gradually falls victim to a malicious cancel culture. Since in Beuys' work, what you see is far from everything there, these critics find no room for his work in the canon of modernism.

And yet, I see a lot of kinship to a social commitment in contemporary art. Perhaps, some day, one will be able to not only purchase Picasso ceramics in museum shops, but also Beuys thermometers.

In a dream, I sit at the kitchen table of a little farm house that was built on an ancient riverbed, and all of a sudden Joseph Beuys steps out of the wall for a short visit. The house is surrounded by many trees, planted by birds, squirrels and the wind. I feel very much at home.

After his death it has become increasingly quiet. Much of the mystery and magic that animated his work has faded into the background. What remains are the drawings, the objects, the concepts.

Alas, the shaman is dead.


Everyone is an Artist: Cosmopolitan Exercises with Joseph Beuys - K20, Dusseldorf - 27.3 through 15.8.2021

Matare + Beuys + Immendorff - Akademie-Galerie, Dusseldorf - 27.3 through 20.6.2021

The Catalyst - Museum Morsbroich, Leverkusen - 28.3. through 8.8.2021

Joseph Beuys, Perpetual Motion - Skulpturenpark Waldfrieden, Wuppertal - 28.3 through 20.6.2021

Pieter Heijnen
is an artist

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 1 — 2023