Joseph Beuys

Books: New 'comprehensive biography' fails to go beyond the public face of Joseph Beuys

Heiner Stachelhaus' book on the German artist leaves a lot to be desired

The integration of life and art was so central to Joseph Beuys’s aesthetic philosophy that any book that attempted to separate Beuys’s own myth-making from historical reality would obviously make fascinating reading. Unfortunately, Joseph Beuys by the arts journalist Heiner Stachelhaus, despite claiming to be the first “comprehensive biography” published in English (it was first published in German in 1987) is not that book. It is essentially compiled from the author’s own conversations with Beuys, Beuys’s wife Eva, and a few of his colleagues and friends. There are lively accounts of the world-famous public figure—of his performances, of his activity as a teacher and the events which lead to his expulsion from the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, and of the political activist—but we learn next to nothing that is new about the private or the early Beuys.

This is pretty much Beuys by Beuys—so his Hitler Youth and Stuka Pilot past remain as obfuscated as ever; no serious attempt is made to show how his art developed, and very little new is said about the cultural context out of which he emerged; we hear nothing about his relationship with dealers and how some of the most un-user-friendly artworks ever made came to be some of the most valuable and sought-after; moreover, the twenty black-and-white illustrations are wholly inadequate, and make this book, at £17.95, vastly overpriced.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The public face of Joseph Beuys'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 15 February 1992