Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) was born in Krefeld, Germany, where he received a Roman Catholic upbringing before coming of age on the brink of World War II. He served in the Luftwaffe as a Stuka pilot on the Eastern front, crashing several times, the last of which would spawn the mystification of being wrapped in felt and lard by Tartars in order to survive the harsh winter of the Crimea, which supposedly determined his choice of material later on in his career.
After the war was over he enrolled in Dusseldorf art academy. His artistic career started with drawings and collage, widened into objects and got him appointed professor in monumental sculpture in Dusseldorf, a field in which he had up to then only produced one work, in 1961. This stepping into public function came after a deep depression. He became involved with Fluxus, and started to make performances (or Aktionen), the residues of which would often yield art works known als Multiples. One of the most marked Aktionen of Beuys would be I like America and America likes me, in which he locked himself into a room in New York with a coyote, himself wrapped in felt. When he allowed many more students to enroll in his classes in Dusseldorf than officialy was allowed, often without the proper exams, he was expelled from his post as professor in 1972, which, in his own words, was the best advertising he would ever get. He took part in several of the Dokumenta exhibition. In the most notable one he built the Honeypump in the Workplace in his exhibition and had lectures and discussions for the duration of Dokumenta VI in 1977 in his Free International University.Later on he would exclusively produce environments, the production of which was an integral part of the work itself. One of his most simple, and in my opinion, delightful, works is from this period and is nothing more than a naked
lightbulb plugged into a lemon via a socket, accompanied by the text "change battery every 1000 hours".
In his career Beuys worked a lot with lard and felt, and was in fact never seen without his felt hat. All these materials had their own symbolism, felt as something that retains heat, and lard as something which can generate heat (by burning), but also as something that can be molten, behave plastically or chaotically. Also copper in its capacity of a conductor often occurs. By no means the associations with these materials are exhausted here, of course. A strong influence of anthroposophy (and also alchemy) can also be detected in his work, which may be hard to understand without some knowledge of the works of Steiner. His work is almost obsessed with how order (stones, metals, salt, roots) through metamorphosis (mercury) generates chaos (flowers, trees, sulfur, or life itself), which shares its energy out, like Beuys himself seemed to share out his own energy, even when after having been hospitalized in 1986 he resumed his touring schedule, not being able to stop working on spreading his social, spiritual and political vision until he died later that year.
His last participation in a Dokumenta exhibition involved 7000 large pieces of stone and 7000 oaks to be planted around Kassel, Germany. The last tree was planted by his son in 1987, and the trees are ever growing, showering their leaves in fall onto the unchanging rocks.