The work of the German artist Joseph Beuys transcends artistic genres and challenges the status quo to produce works that are both powerful and yet personal encompassing a world of myth, ideas, obsessions and hope. His prolific oeuvre spans decades, ranging from painting to performances, but it is perhaps his sculptural installations that provide the clearest manifestations of his unique brand of art making. These works, built on the mythological story of his wartime experiences, allowed him to enlarge and investigate his ideas of expanding art from a series of concepts based on autonomous genres such as painting or sculpture and develop into his unique expanded concept of art as something which allowed the total permeation of life by the creative act.
Beuys was the master at propagating legends and the one that became central to his work surrounded his activities in World War II. According to the story told by Beuys himself he volunteered to join Hitler's Luftwaffe at the age of 19 as a radio operator. In the winter of 1943, as the story goes, he was shot down over the Crimea. He was the only survivor and was discovered in deep snow by a group of nomadic Tatars. They took him into their care, treated his wounds by rubbing animal fat into them and wrapped him in felt blankets to keep him warm. As he regained consciousness, the smell of the fat and the texture of the felt became ingrained in his memory and became a central feature in some of his most important works.
Although a healthy degree of skepticism has surrounded the truthfulness of this story, it clearly demonstrates the symbolic importance of these materials to Beuys' career. Ja Ja Ja Ja Ja Nee Nee Nee Nee Nee (S.14) comprises of a reel-to-reel tape recorder secreted inside a pile of felt squares. These hidden recordings, monotonous and repetitive, recall the secret radios, diaries and even illicit guns that were concealed away during the war years and can be seen as an attempt by Beuys to contextualize his war-time experiences within the wider framework of conceptual art. The wooden sled, felt, flashlight and fat that comprises Beuys's Schlitten recalls one of his most important works, Das Rudel (The Pack), which is in the permanent collection of the Staatliche Museen Kassel, Neue Galerie. Created the same year as Das Rudel, Sled is a strongly biographical work which refers directly to Beuys' 'experiences', real or imagined, in the Crimea, each sledge being a survival kit made up of a roll of felt for warmth and protection, a lump of animal fat for energy and sustenance, and a torch for navigation and orientation. As well as being the basics needed for human survival, the works can also be seen as a fable of death and rebirth during which Beuys is purged off all the earthly and artistic vestiges before embarking on his own unique journey of creation.
Green Violin and Telephone T__________R are important examples from a series of works which formed a central part of Beuys' career. The green-painted violin, is based on an "Action Object" from the Fluxus concert performed by Beuys and the Danish composer and leading member of the Fluxus movement, Henning Christiansen in Germany in March 1969. Fluxus was a group of artists, composers and designers who blurred the lines between the differing artistic media to produce works which valued simplicity over complexity. Beuys devised Telephone T__________R to be symbolic of the fragile nature of human communication, with the tin cans representing a sender and receiver of information. More than other artists, Beuys saw these multiples as a way of propagating and disseminating his ideas. "If you have all of my multiples, then you have me entirely", he once said and from 1965 they became an intrinsic part of his practice. (J. Beuys quoted in P. Nesbit, 'In/Tuition: a university museum collects' in J. Schellmann (ed.), Joseph Beuys, The Multiples, 1997, p. 520). For the German sculptor multiples are the physical vehicle of his ideas; they mark his opposition to the uniqueness of easel painting and constraints of traditional sculpture, allowing the distribution of his work to an audience beyond the gallery or art museum. Sometimes Beuys's multiples are relics from a performance or action; in other cases they are elaborately planned objects with complex geneses in earlier works. The idea of mass is important: the object talks, travels the world, and stands in for the artist's presence.
Joseph Beuy's saw his role as an artist as one of reinvigorating the genre and re-asserting its relevance in people's lives. Speaking in 1970, he reinforced his view that art had become the property of the intellectual elite and that his purpose was to reclaim art for the people, "We have to create a new base for art because the base of the present art has become terribly restricted during the course of the political developments of the last 100 years. It has become the territory of a few intellecuals, far from the life of people" (J. Beuys quoted in J. Schellman and B. Klüser, 'Questions to Jospeh Beuys', Joseph Beuys: The Multiples, Cambridge, 1997, p.24).