Joseph Beuys An Artist's Enduring Legacy

Thirty years after his death, art critics continue working to demystify the work of Joseph Beuys. One of Germany's most influential postwar artists, echoes of his work reverberate through the art world today.
Joseph Beuys during a performance art piece in Rome.

Joseph Beuys is considered by many experts to be Germany's most influential postwar artist. But 30 years after his death in 1986, what remains of his charismatic presence in the art world?

Some might argue that the echoes of his work are fading, though Rita McBride begs to differ. The director of Düsseldorf's famous Arts Academy, where Beuys was both a student a professor, is convinced that the artist's presence resurfaces constantly. Many of Mr. Beuys' former students, for example, have now returned to teach at the Academy.

Mr. Beuys – a multi-media graphic artist, performance artist, installation artist and sculptor – continues to challenge those who study him. In his new documentary "The Great Enigma of Contemporary Art," director Andres Veiel tries to demystify the artist. Mr. Veiel is also currently in the process of filming "Joseph Beuys – We Are the Revolution."

These works and others indicate that there is still much to discuss about the artist's controversial legacy. Mr. Beuys was a member of the Hitler Youth as a boy, and some of his work has been seen as an attempt to process his experience of the Nazi era. Just two years ago, a newly released biography renewed discussion of whether Beuys was as an "eternal boy of the Hitler Youth.”

But in the modern era of selfies, Mr. Beuys’ statement that "everyone is an artist" rings more true than ever. This may be part of why his memory is kept alive.

He was the first postwar German artist honored with a retrospective at the Guggenheim. In 1993, the New York Museum of Modern Art exhibited his work too. Meanwhile, Chinese concept artist Ai Weiwei embodies Mr. Beuys' philosophy by relentlessly combining art, politics and his private life.

Mr. Beuys’ drawings of archaic figures and enigmatic characters have also made him a leading figure in 20th century drawing, not to mention his sculptures, which remain in high demand. And his enduring popularity is still evident on the art market. When the Austrian gallerist Thaddeus Ropac opened his second gallery in Paris in 2012, he featured Mr. Beuys’ works at both locations, including works usually only seen in museums, such as "Lightning with Stag in its Glare," casts of the "Tram Stop," and the "Palazzo Regale" installation.

And while some modern artists may not even realize they are being inspired by avant-garde concepts that he introduced, there is institutional evidence of his historic importance. Most notably in the planned “Museum der Moderne” in Berlin. The new modern art museum will be built around Mr. Beuys’ installation, “Das Kapital.” Collector Erich Marx, who has made the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin a Mecca of Beuysian art, recently acquired the expansive work for the Museum der Moderne, which will be installed not far from Berlin’s New National Gallery.

The work includes a grand piano, 50 chalkboards covered in notes from various panel discussions, a film projector and tape recorders, and a tour d'horizon of Joseph Beuys’ topics from the 1970s, such as the environment, education, and new forms of enterprise.

Unfortunately, Mr. Beuys’ works have become largely unaffordable. Drawings cost up to €480,000, rare multiples are valued at €400,000, and installations are all priced in the multi-digit millions. Berlin can consider itself lucky that a private collector takes pleasure in buying Mr. Beuys’ works and generously makes them available to the public.


This article originally appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]