Joseph Beuys is arguably the most important and most controversial German artist of the late twentieth century, not least because his persona is interwoven with Germany’s fascist past. This book illuminates two defining threads in Beuys’s life and art: the centrality of trauma, and his sustained investigation of the very notion of art itself.
In addition to the materials of fat and felt that Beuys used widely in his oeuvre, numerous Beuys artworks are autobiographical in content. His self-woven legend of rescue and redemption still strikes many as a highly inappropriate fantasy, or even an outright lie, located as it is in the harrowing context of the Second World War as it was lived by a German soldier or ‘Nazi’. Nevertheless, Beuys’s self-mythology confronted the post-traumatic, foregrounding his struggle for psychic recovery. Perhaps most importantly, this led to his major efforts to expand Western art, freeing artists after him to work in a thoroughly interdisciplinary way and to
embrace anthropological conclusions about art and culture. Beuys’s lived experience determined a consistent commitment to peaceful change and positive transformation not only through his work, but in the discussions and institutions he initiated. His notion of activism-as-art has not only become a widespread practice, but is predominant in contemporary art of the twenty-first century.
Exploring Beuys’s expansive conception of art and following him into the realms of science, politics and spirituality, this book, in contrast to many other accounts of Beuys’s life, attributes extraordinary importance to his own myth-making as a positive force in the post-war confrontation of Germany’s past.
‘Claudia Mesch’s expertly researched new book on Beuys avoids repeating the “eternal” reception history of the rich works of a great artist. Instead she presents new and hitherto unimagined connections which make her book a true enrichment of the Beuys literature. It is furthermore written in an accessible and concise style, whose lines the reader can follow with excitement and pleasure.’ – Eugen Blume, Director, Hamburger Bahnhof Museum for Contemporary Art, Berlin
‘A multi-faceted study of the historical and intellectual framework surrounding the practice and thinking of Beuys, a figure whose persona and person are entwined. Claudia Mesch lends her broad knowledge of cultural thought to portray the intricacies and complexities of Beuys’s modus operandi in relation to a wide range of artists, writers, and theorists. While pitting fact and fiction, she presents in-depth description and analysis of the artist’s influential production and political involvements. She thereby illuminates the “life/work” of an artist that cannot be separated from the traumatic context of the German postwar experience.’ – Anne Rorimer, author of New Art in the 60s and 70s: Redefining Reality
Claudia Mesch is Professor of Art History at Arizona State University. Her books include Modern Art at the Berlin Wall (2009) and Art and Politics: A Small History of Art for Social Change since 1945 (2013). She is a founding editor of the Journal of Surrealism and the Americas and lives in Phoenix, Arizona.