Performance Art began with Marcel Duchamp when he used his body as a work of art and had a star he had shaved on the back of his head. That tradition was continued in Europe by a number of Performance artists, perhaps the most important and influential in the 1960's, 1970's and 1980's was an unusual man by the name of Joseph Beuys.
Beuys was born in the small town of Cleves, Germany in 1921 and died at the height of his career in 1986. What makes his work so important, and often so difficult, is that he saw himself not only as an artist, but as an educator, a politician, a humanist, and perhaps most importantly as a social reformer. He believed that everyone was an artist and that life itself could be considered a work of art.
Growing up in Cleves, which is close to the Dutch border and a region with a strangely haunting landscape, Joseph, an only child of an indifferent owner of a feed store, spent much of his time playing by himself, engrossed in a fantasy world of his own making. Much of this fantasy was based on his reading of German myths and folk beliefs, which were particularly powerful in this region. In addition, as a child he was extremely interested in science and hoped to become a doctor.
At the age of 19 in 1940, he was drafted into the German Air Force and first served as a radio operator and later as a dive-bomber pilot In World War II. He was wounded five times on missions during the war, and in an experience that was to influence him for the rest of his life; in 1943 he was shot down by Russian antiaircraft fire in the barren wilderness of Crimea. As the plane crashed Bueys was thrown clear of the wreckage into the snow. Badly injured and barely conscious, he was rescued by a band of nomads who cared for him for twelve days before the Germans rescued him. The nomads covered his body with animal fat and wrapped him in felt to protect him from the cold. This kind treatment by these primitive people, in addition to saving his life, influenced him to use animals, animal fat and felt as artistic media throughout his artistic career.
After the war, he studied art at The Dusseldorf Academy of Art. Deeply disturbed by his experiences in the war, Beuys often suffered from long periods of severe depression, and after graduation lived a solitary life for almost 10 years, studying the lives of animals in the forest and making sculpture.
In 1961, he was appointed as a professor of sculpture at the Dusseldorf Academy and he began to develop performance works, which he called "actions." By 1967, Beuys had become a very popular and influential professor who was very much involved in the political causes of his students. His views were so radical that he was dismissed from the institution and at that point formed his own university called the "Free International University." During this period he often wore a felt fedora as a personal trademark, engaged in a wide range of political activity that actually formed the basis for the "Green" party in Germany, produced sculpture and performances.
One of his most powerful performances occurred in 1965 and was called "How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare." During this performance, which lasted three hours, he sat in a display window of a museum with a dead hare in his lap. His face had been covered with honey and gold leaf. He spent the time explaining contemporary art to this dead rabbit. Needless to say this action questioned the ability of anyone, including an artist, explaining art to anyone, let alone a dead animal.
In the performance, "I Like America and America Likes Me," at the Rene Block Gallery in New York, in 1974, Beuys arrived from Germany at Kennedy Airport, where he was wrapped in gray felt and taken by ambulance to Manhattan. In the gallery the artist lived for three days and nights with a live American coyote, fifty copies of the "Wall Street Journal," and a number of felt blankets. The end result of this event was that the two developed a respect for each other's territory even though they did not develop a close relationship. This performance is open to a number of equally valid interpretations involving the relationship between Europe and America, the treatment of Native Americans by the European settlers and probably has references to the Vietnam War. While that war was raging, Beuys refused to show his work in American museums.
Beuys' artistic and political activity continued until his death from heart failure at the age of 65. He was survived by his wife Eva and two children. Most of the art world was surprised to discover that he had a family. This most public of artists had in fact kept his private life a secret from most people. One can't help but wonder which life, the public or the private, Beuys had in mind when he declared that life could be art.