PRINT December 1969

An Interview with Joseph Beuys

JOSEPH BEUYS STANDS ALMOST ALONE in post-war German art as a sculptor of major importance. Born in Kleve in 1921, he first became known in the late 1950s as the leading advocate of Fluxus “action art”—performance pieces whose American counterpart is the early Happenings of Kaprow, Oldenburg, Paik and Whitman. In 1961, Beuys moved from Kleve to Düsseldorf where he became Professor of Sculpture at the Art Academy. Notorious for not wanting to exhibit his work, until recently the only place to see his sculpture (besides the semi-private Beuys museum in Kranenburg directed by Hans and Franz Josef van der Grinten) was at the Alfred Schmela Gallery, Düsseldorf, where he has had occasional one-man exhibitions. His work gained greater notice when the noted German collector, Karl Ströher, bought (and then exhibited) the three-hundred-work Beuys retrospective organized by Jan Leering at the Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven, Holland. The “official” Beuys biography indicates the scope of this extraordinarily prolific artist’s work:

1921 Exhibition of a wound patched with tape, Kleve.

1922 Exhibition of dairy cows near Kleve.

1923 Exhibition of a mustache cup (contents: coffee with egg).

1924 Exhibition of heathen children, Kleve.

1925 Documentation: “Beuys as Exhibitor,” Kleve.

1926 Exhibition of a stag guide, Kleve.

1927 Exhibition of radiation, Kleve.

1928 Exhibition of a trench, Kleve.

Exhibition to elucidate the difference between loamy sand and sandy loam, Kleve.

1929 Exhibition at the grave of Genghis Kahn.

1930 Exhibition of heather and herbs, Donsbrüggen.

1931 Retrospective exhibition, Kleve.

Retrospection exhibition, Kleve.

1933 Underground exhibition (digging parallel to the ground), Kleve.

1940 Exhibition of an arsenal (together with Heinz Sielmann, Hermann Ulrich Asemissen and Eduard Spanger), Posen.

Exhibition of an airport, Erfurt North.

1942 Exhibition of my friends, Sebastopol.

Exhibition while a JU 87 is intercepted, Sebastopol.

1943 Interim exhibition (with Fritz Rolf Rothenburg and Heinz Sielmann), Oranienburg.

1945 Exhibition of cold, Kleve.

1946 Warm exhibition, Kleve.

“Profile of the Successor,” Union of Artists, Kleve.

1947 “Profile of the Successor,” Union of Artists, Kleve.

Exhibition for people hard of hearing, Kleve.

1948 “Profile of the Successor,” Union of Artists, Kleve.

Exhibition in the Pillen house of beds; Exhibition “Kullhaus,” Krefeld (with A. R. Lynen).

1949 Exhibition three times in a row, Heerdt: “Profile of the Successor,” Union of Artists, Kleve.

1950 Reading of Finnegan’s Wake, House Wylermeer, Kranenburg; “Giocondologie,” House van der Grinten, Kranenburg; “Profile of the Successor,” Union of Artists, Kleve.

1951 “Collection van der Grinten,” Kranenburg.

1952 Exhibition “Steel and Pig’s Foot” (19th prize) (additionally, a light ballet by Piene), Düsseldorf; “Crucifixes,” Wuppertal Museum of Art, Wuppertal; Exhibition in honor of the Amsterdam-Rhein-Canal, Amsterdam; “Beuys’ Sculpture,” Nijmegen Museum of Art.

1953 “Collection van der Grinten,” Kranenburg.

1955 “Profile of the Successor,” Union of Artists, Kleve.


1957 Beuys works in the fields.


1960 Beuys recovers from working in the fields.

1961 Beuys receives a call to become Professor of Sculpture at the Düsseldorf Art Academy; Beuys adds two more chapters to Ulysses at James Joyce’s request.

1962 Beuys: The Earth Piano.

1963 Fluxus, Art Academy, Düsseldorf; Beuys exhibits Warm Fat during a warm July evening while Allan Kaprow lectures, Zwirner Gallery, Cologne; Fluxus exhibition, House van der Grinten, Kranenburg; “Documenta III,” Kassel.

1964 Beuys recommends that the Berlin Wall be heightened by 5 cm. (better proportions!); Beuys “Vehicle Art”; Beuys “The Art Pill,” Aachen; WHY? Felt works and Fat Corners, Copenhagen; Friendship with Bob Morris and Yvonne Rainer; Mouse tooth happening. Düsseldorf—New York; “The Chief,” Berlin; Beuys—The silence of Marcel Duchamp is overvalued; “Brown Rooms”; “Deer Hunt” (in the back room).

1965 “and in us . . . below us . . . underneath us,” Parnass Gallery, Wuppertal; “Western Man Project,” Gallery Schmela, Düsseldorf; “. . . any old rope . . .”; “How Pictures Are Explained to a Dead Hare,” Gallery Schmela, Düsseldorf.

1966 “and here is already the end of Beuys: Per Kirkeby ‘2.15’”; “Eurasia 32nd Set, 1963, Gallery Rene Block, Berlin; ”. . . with brown cross,“ Traekvogen, Eurasia, Copenhagen; ”Festival exhibition: The greatest contemporary composer is the contergan child“; ”Division of the Cross; adapted for felt piano and felt cello“; ”Manresa with Björn Nörgard,“ Gallery Schmela, Düsseldorf; ”Beuys the moved insulator“; ”The difference between static and moving heads," Gallery St. Stephan, Vienna.

1967 “Mainstream” (with Henning Christiansen), Darmstadt; “Darmstadt Fat Room,” Gallery Franz Dahlem, Darmstadt; “Eurasia Staff-82 minute fluxorum organum,” Vienna; Beuys founds the DSP (German Student Party), June 21, Düsseldorf; “Parallel Process I,” (With Johannes Cladders), Mönchengladbach; “Karl Ströher”; “The Earth Telephone”; “Static Head—Moving Head (Eurasia Staff),” Wide White Space Gallery, Antwerp; “Parallel Process II.”

1968 “The Great Generator,” Stedelijk von Abbe Museum, Eindhoven; “Parallel Process III”; “Documenta IV,” Kassel; “Parallel Process IV”; “Almende (Art Union),” Art Museum, Hamburg; “Beuys Exhibition,” Neue Pinakothek, Munich; “Fat Room (563x491x563),” Nürnberg; “Hot-Cold (Parallel Process V),” Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, and Braunschweig; “Felt TV II: The Leg of Rochus Kowallek not put in fat (JOM)!” Frankfurt; “Felt TV III: Parallel Process,” Düsseldorf; “Vacuum—Mass (Fat): Parallel Process— . . . Gulo borealis . . . for Bazon Brock,” Intermedia Gallery, Cologne; “Johannes Stüttgen Fluxus Zone West: Parallel Process,” Art Academy, Düsseldorf; “No Liver Allowed,” Intermedia Gallery, Cologne.

1969 “Set III,” Gallery Schmela, Düsseldorf.

1969 “Beuys pleads guilty in the case of the snow fall from February 15th to 20th.”

The following interview is the result of a long conversation with the artist in his Düsseldorf studio on August 28, 1969. The taped German-English discussion was translated by Marianne Landré and edited with the assistance of Liza Béar.

The author is preparing a book on Joseph Beuys which will be published by John Gibson Commissions, Inc., and Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., early next year.

Most of your catalog biographies state that you were born in Kleve, but you were actually born in Krefeld, weren’t you?

Yes, I was born in a hospital in Krefeld, but that was purely accidental. My mother was making a short visit to Krefeld and I was born in the middle of it. But at most I spent three days there. I have no relationship to Krefeld, or more precisely to the landscape, but I do have a relationship to Kleve. That is where my parents always lived and where I grew up.

How long did you live in Kleve?

Until 1961, when I was invited to be Professor at the Düsseldorf Art Academy.

Then you attended school in Kleve?

Yes, all my schooling . . .

Is there an art academy in Kleve?

No, I studied art in Düsseldorf. But I went to high school in Kleve until I became a soldier. At the end of 1947 I went to the Düsseldorf Art Academy and studied there until 1951. Then, after working for a while outside of Düsseldorf, I returned to Kleve.

You worked in a studio?

Yes, I rented a small loft in an old bakery and I worked under the roof.

Who did you study with at the Düsseldorf Art Academy?

Enseling and Mataré. Enseling was very academic, but Mataré was better. Mataré was very dogmatic but he raised issues that had to be considered. He thought that sculpture was basically ornamentation. This was a view to be contended with and of course we had great arguments. I had to reject his ideas but nevertheless it was necessary for me to confront them. That’s the way you learn as a student, and some of his ideas weren’t totally uninteresting.

That period must have been quite crazy. In 1951 much of Düsseldorf was still rubble and food was quite scarce. Was there any art then?

There was none at all.

What about Lehmbruck?

Oh, Lehmbruck. He was a decisive figure during the war and I was very enthusiastic about some of his work. I once saw some Lehmbrucks in Kleve just before the war and they gave me my first real feeling for sculpture. But this was the only sculpture I was aware of at the time. Don’t forget that I grew up in a small village during the Hitler period and I never saw any modern art.

What about medieval or Renaissance sculpture?

Yes of course. I saw photographs of these things. But I didn’t travel. I never got out of Kleve.

You must have traveled as a soldier.

Yes, I took part in the whole war, from 1941 until 1946. I was in Russia.

What did you see there?

Certainly not art! (laughs) What can I say? I was a fighter pilot. I cannot talk about the war. There were dead people lying around, everywhere.

Were you in Stalingrad?

No, I was more to the South, in Ukraine, the Caucasus, Black Sea . . .

And when the war ended?

During the last year of the war I was stranded on the Western front. There were no more planes, no more fuel. When peace was declared I became a British prisoner of war.

Did the war influence your decision to become an artist?

Yes. Before the war I was a student of biology and mathematics, but this simply didn’t satisfy me. You could say it was an emotional decision, but when you examine it a few years later you can begin to analyze it.

Could you tell me more about what you did in the early fifties?

When I set up my own studio in Heerdt, a suburb of Düsseldorf, I was very friendly with the poet Adam Rainer Lynen. And I worked in that room until 1961 when I went back to Kleve.

When did you become aware of Marcel Duchamp’s work?

In 1955, I think.

I feel the presence of Duchamp in one of your earliest pieces of sculpture, Untitled, of 1954. Do you see any influence?

No, I don’t think Duchamp influenced it at all. It was influenced by life. The open form is like a barracks window, or ones you can see in old industrial cellars.

So there’s an architectural reference. What is the cylinder in front of the open chamber?

It’s a steel gas container covered with plaster.

None of your works have bases?

Bases used to annoy me, even when I was in the Academy. They are only an auxiliary means to help things stand up. They are like an artificial lawn. Just after I finished my first figures, I removed them from their bases because they disturbed me so much. It was only later that I recognized the base as an important sculptural element, perhaps the most important element. There are some sculptures that consist of nothing but a base.

A work in which the base is irrelevant is your The Needles of a Christmas Tree, of 1962.

That’s true. This is a Christmas tree that stood around here for two years. Eventually it lost all its needles and they lie all around it.

You moved to the Drakeplatz studio in March 1961, so this was your first Christmas tree here. Did you always see it as a sculpture?

Yes, I saw its beauty. But it’s not only beautiful, it’s also ugly. You may say a Christmas tree with needles is beautiful and one without needles is ugly. No. I wanted to have it, and we did, for a long time, until the worms destroyed it.

Oh . . . .

Two years ago I created a political party for animals.

Do you have a lot of animals in the party?

It’s the largest party in the world.

And you are the leader?

I am the leader.

You’re crazy. (Laughter.)

And therefore I am a very mighty man. Mightier than Nixon. (More laughter.)

But he has all the insects.

I have all the insects.

They are not animals.

Insects are animals.

Where does the fat come in? To attract the flies into the party?

The fat is in the room, the party’s meeting room (laughter). To make things clearer, let me give you this statement concerning The Art Pill (1963): Vehicle Art:

The Chief of the Stags could plug anywhere into the environment, whether on the inside of a room with flat, curved or chaotic surfaces. Yes, even amorphous rooms gave him the energy to bake his cakes. He didn’t despair when at first he succeeded in producing only flat, unseemly pancakes which shriveled up in the pan. On the contrary, he was encouraged in his determination since he had not lost faith in the effectiveness of The Art Pill. Nevertheless, some salutory by-products resulted from his activity, namely art to be rubbed in, art taking the form of a salve, art in the form of a sausage, art to he cut into slices.

I assume, then, that you are the Chief of the animals and that this can be seen in your work, The Chief, of 1963–4, which you performed rolled up in a felt rug with a dead hare at each end and fat works in the corners of the room.

Yes, I speak for the hares that cannot speak for themselves.

Which you do literally by making noises which are amplified in the room and in the street.

The human responsibility to all living things . . .

I remember that you met Bob Morris in Düsseldorf before his Schmela Gallery show in the fall of 1964.

Morris visited me. I showed him all my works. I wanted to do The Chief with him. We arranged to do the work simultaneously. We wanted to start at the same second and then work for nine hours, me in Berlin, he in New York.

Did you do it?

Yes, I did it in Berlin, but he didn’t do it.

Why not?

I don’t know, but he didn’t do it. He left Düsseldorf after his show. I wrote everything down for him. I drew a sketch with the dimensions, gave him all the instructions with regard to space and all the elements involved.

There seems to be some similarity in sensibility between The Chief and some of Morris’ theatrical works, but I can understand why he might not have wanted to do it. (At this point Beuys drew my attention to some photos of his Fettecke, or fat pieces.) There must be a lot of action in these works for you. (Beuys called these works “aktione.”) You did some Fetteckes as part of The Chief, didn’t you?

Yes. (Points to the photo of The Chief, 1964.) Here is one. It is a transmitter, and I am also a transmitter. Both are sculptural elements. That is a very important concept for me. If I produce something, I transmit a message to someone else. The origin of the flow of information comes not from matter, but from the ‘I,’ from an idea. Here is the borderline between physics and metaphysics: this is what interests me about this theory of sculpture. Take a hare running from one corner of a room to another. I think this hare can achieve more for the political development of the world than a human being. By that I mean that some of the elementary strength of animals should be added to the positivist thinking which is prevalent today. I would like to elevate the status of animals to that of humans.

Your Iron Coffer containing 100 Kilos of Fat and 100 Dismantled Air Pumps, 1968, is a part of the Fettecke series.

It is the final stage of the action. One that incorporates a very complex array of concepts. The iron coffer in the form of one half of a cross stands in the center of a cellar. It is a piece of sculpture which contains both fat and air pumps. The fat embodies mass, the positive principle, and the air pumps represent a vacuum, a negative principle. All the air pumps are broken. A letter is nailed outside the box indicating its contents: 100 kilos of fat, 100 air pumps. (Then Beuys pointed abruptly to another photograph.) Set III is composed of nine equal elements made of layers of felt topped by a rectangular plate of copper of the same size. They have a relationship to the room which is hard to define. They fill the space, but I am not interested in the physical aspect of filling. I want the work to become an energy center, like an atomic station. It’s the same principle again: transmitter and receiver. The receiver is the same as the transmitter, only in felt. It is a totalization. The spectator becomes the program. The spectator, represented by the felt, equals the program. An identification of transmitter and receiver. Actually two elements, fat and felt, are closely related. Both have a homogeneous character in that they have no inner structure. Felt is a material pressed together, an amorphous material, with an uneven structure. The same is true of the nature of fat, and that interested me. But there is also the element of the filter—and I worked with gauze filters before I worked with fat—and there is an element of isolation in it.

There also is a Minimal element in your work, especially Set III and Felt Corner, 1963.

Yes, the idea of minimal is expressed in these works, but they are not Minimal art. It’s different. It overlaps. It’s minimal, but in the sense of something very reduced. But there is no direct connection in my work to Minimal art.

Has your teaching at the Düsseldorf Art Academy for the last eight years been an important function for you?

It’s my most important function. To be a teacher is my greatest work of art. The rest is the waste product, a demonstration. If you want to explain yourself you must present something tangible. But after a while this has only the function of a historic document. Objects aren’t very important for Me anymore. I want to get to the origin of matter, to the thought behind it. Thought, speech, communication—and not only in the socialist sense of the word—are all expressions of the free human being

Would you say then that your goal is to make man freer and stimulate him to think more freely?

Yes. I am aware that my art cannot be understood primarily by thinking. My art touches people who are in tune with my mode of thinking. But it is clear that people cannot understand my art by intellectual processes alone, because no- art can be experienced in this way. I say to experience, because this is not equivalent to thinking: it’s a great deal more complex; it involves being moved subconsciously. Either they say, “yes, I’m interested,” or they react angrily and destroy my work and curse it. In any event I feel I am successful, because people have been affected by my art. I touch people, and this is important. In our times, thinking has become so positivist that people only appreciate what can be controlled by reason, what can be used, what furthers your career. The need for questions that go beyond that has pretty much died out of our culture. Because most people think in materialistic terms they cannot understand my work. This is why I feel it’s necessary to present something more than mere objects. By doing that people may begin to understand man is not only a rational being.

What can a sculptor do in this situation?

Sculpture must always obstinately question the basic premises of the prevailing culture. This is the function of all art, which society is always trying to suppress. But it’s impossible to suppress it. Now, even politicians are becoming aware of that. Art—its new concepts, schools, even revolutionary groups—now has a strong vitality throughout the world. Slowly people are beginning to realize that the creative spirit cannot be subdued.

Then you see the artist as a provocateur?

Provocateur—that’s it exactly. To provoke means to evoke something. By making a sculpture with fat or a piece of clay I evoke something. I ignite a thought within me—a totally original, totally new thought that has never yet existed in history, even if I deal with a historical fact or with Leonardo or Rembrandt. I myself determine history—it is not history that determines me. Economic circumstances do not determine me, I determine them. Every man is a potential provocateur.

How does art improve life?

Art alone makes life possible—this is how radically I should like to formulate it. I would say that without art man is inconceivable in physiological terms. There is a certain materialist doctrine which claims that we can dispense with mind and with art because man is just a more or less highly developed mechanism governed by chemical processes. I would say man does not consist only of chemical processes, but also of metaphysical occurrences. The provocateur of the chemical processes is located outside the world. Man is only truly alive when he realizes he is a creative, artistic being. I demand an artistic involvement in all realms of life. At the moment art is taught as a special field which demands the production of documents in the form of art works. Whereas I advocate an esthetic involvement from science, from economics, from politics, from religion—every sphere of human activity. Even the act of peeling a potato can be a work of art if it is a conscious act.

Which artists do you feel close to?

John Cage. These concepts are not alien to him.

What about the new Italian sculptors like Mario Merz, or American sculptors like Richard Serra?

Yes, I feel close to them, because they are contemporaries. But not that close, because I have a feeling that these things have already been done. Perhaps the reason I love Cage and Nam June Paik more is because they are at the point of origin. Things have a certain reach. Beyond that everything is derivative. From that point of view most of the works at Bern (When Attitudes Become Form) were late works. I have been doing these things for a long time, and now I am questioning their value.

What do you think of the work of Mike Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Smithson, and Keith Sonnier?

I don’t know their work that well, but I spoke to Bruce Nauman at Bern.

Nauman’s work shares a similar sensibility.

Yes, but I find it hard to define because I don’t know Nauman’s inner intentions. I place great importance on inner intentions. I don’t know anything about Nauman’s thought processes, but I can say that his works look closer to my art than any other works do.

Then you don’t often come into contact with the works of other artists?

I rarely go to exhibitions, and I hardly ever read art journals. If I happen to see one, I look at it, but my interest is not so great that I follow these things daily. I am more interested in the development of thoughts . . . I am not at all interested in whether other people use elements of my work.

Do you feel the same about Morris?

Yes, but I was a bit surprised when Morris started working with felt. But I couldn’t say more. Last year Morris invited me to participate in an exhibition he was arranging. But I couldn’t do it.

The Castelli warehouse exhibition in New York?


Why didn’t you participate?

I didn’t think it was necessary.

Didn’t you have any work?

No, I didn’t have anything at the time that I could have given away. Karl Ströher had just bought all my works (about 300), but I guess I could have made something for it. I just didn’t feel like it. Later some people told me it was a good thing I didn’t participate, because the exhibition wasn’t really all that good.

That’s not true. It was one of the best shows of the year.

All right. Then it was a mistake that I didn’t send anything, but one cannot do everything.

I see you have a great reluctance to do exhibitions.

Yes, I was always extremely reluctant, because for me an exhibition is something that is already dead. It is something I only allow myself to be forced to do. I will only do an exhibition when there is absolutely no way out. . . .

That explains why you have only shown two or three times during your ten-year association with Alfred Schmela.

Yes, I keep on refusing to exhibit until someone like Schmela convinces me that it’s an absolute necessity.

Is this a reaction against materialism in general, or is it due to the fact that there are more demands on you today than there were in 1967?

Both. People are becoming more demanding. They are getting sharper. I was glad when Ströher took everything away. Things have to be some place, and I have never wanted to collect my own things. I like empty walls best.

You’ve been working for twenty years, and it’s only recently that people have begun to appreciate what you have accomplished.

This is a fairly recent development. For ten or fifteen years people mocked me and said “Beuys is crazy.”

Yes. I remember when I first visited Düsseldorf in 1957 no one except one or two artists defended you. Things have changed now. What do you think about your present situation within the context of art?

I think the crux of the matter is that my work is permeated with thoughts that do not originate in the official development of art but in scientific concepts. You know, to begin with I wanted to be a scientist. But I found that the theoretical structure of the natural sciences was too Positivist for me, so I tried to do something new for both science and art. I wanted to widen both areas. So as a sculptor I tried to broaden the concept of art. The logic of my art depends on the fact that I have had one idea which I have obstinately worked with. Actually it’s a problem of perception.


(After a long hesitation.) In the simplest terms, I am trying to reaffirm the concept of art and creativity in the face of Marxist doctrine. The Socialist movements in Europe which are now strongly supported by the young constantly provoke this question. They define man exclusively as a social being. I wasn’t surprised by this development, which led to the confused political conditions, not only in Germany but also in America. Man really is not free in many respects. He is dependent on his social circumstances, but he is free in his thinking, and here is the point of origin of sculpture. For me the formation of the thought is already sculpture. The thought is sculpture. Of course, language is sculpture. I move my larynx, I move my mouth and the sound is an elementary form of sculpture. Man hasn’t thought much until now about sculpture. We ask: “What is sculpture?” And reply: “Sculpture.” The fact that sculpture is a very complex creation has been neglected. What interests me is the fact that sculpture supplies a definition of man.

Isn’t this rather abstract?

My theory depends on the fact that every human being is an artist. I have to encounter him when he is free, when he is thinking. Of course, thinking is an abstract way of putting it. But these concepts—thinking, feeling, wanting—are concerned with sculpture. Thought is represented by form. Feeling by motion or rhythm. Will by chaotic force. This explains the underlying principle of my “Fettecke.” Fat in liquid form distributes itself chaotically in an undifferentiated fashion until it collects in a differentiated form in a corner. Then it goes from the chaotic principle to the form principle, from will to thinking. These are parallel concepts which correspond to the emotions, to what could be called soul.

Is it difficult to decide to execute a work now?

Humm . . . The question is if it is important to make sculpture now. I often question the necessity of doing it. The more I consider the problem, the more I think that there are only a few things that I need to make. I want to try to only do those that have some importance. I have no interest in production as such. I am neither interested in making works for commerce nor for the pure pleasure of seeing them. It is getting much harder to make things. But one is forced to translate thought into action and action into object. The physicist can think about the theory of atoms or about physical theory in general. But to advance his theories he has to build models, tangible systems. He too has to transfer his thought into action, and the action into an object. I am not a teacher who tells his students only to think. I say act; do something; I ask for a result. It may take different forms. It can have the form of sound, or someone can do a book, make a drawing or a sculpture, I don’t care. Although I am a Professor of Sculpture at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, I accept all forms of creativity.

How do you think future historians will judge your contribution to art?

I am not at all interested in being placed on a value scale—almost as good as Rembrandt, as good as Rubens or Goya. After I am dead I would like people to say, “Beuys understood the historical situation. He altered the course of events.” I hope in the right direction.