Joseph Beuys

Joseph Beuys at the National Gallery of Canada is a rare opportunity for audiences to experience works by one of the 20th century’s most influential artists. Beuys is renowned for introducing a new theory of sculpture, and an expanded concept of art, in the years following the Second World War.

Spanning four decades of the late German artist’s enigmatic practice, this special exhibition brings together seventeen major sculptures. On public view for the first time in North America, the works are from two important private collections, including that of Céline and Heiner Bastian, the latter of whom was Beuys’ former assistant and long-time friend.

Tracing the development of Beuys’ sculptural oeuvre, the exhibition also highlights the artist’s unique use of materials and the themes that fuelled his art — from animal life to his own personal narrative. Discover why Beuys continues to fascinate in this unprecedented presentation at the Gallery.


Tuesday, December 1, 2015 Sunday, November 26, 2017


National Gallery of Canada
Contemporary Galleries
380 Sussex Drive
Ottawa, ON K1N 9N4

About the Artist

As an artist, teacher and political leader, Joseph Beuys (1921–1986) and his work are widely recognized as having influenced everything from photography and sculpture to performance and environmental art.

During the Second World War, Beuys served in the German Luftwaffe as a bomber pilot. He was shot down over the Crimea in the winter of 1943–1944, and — by his own account — was discovered in deep snow by a group of nomadic Tatars. According to Beuys, they brought him back to their tent, where they treated his wounds with animal fat and wrapped him in heavy felt to keep him warm. Beuys would go on to use felt, fat and wax often in his sculptural work, describing them as being of universal relevance in the human struggle for survival.

Following the war, Beuys studied sculpture at the Dusseldorf Academy, developing a complex symbology that often featured animals such as swans, sheep, bees and hares. His first solo exhibition was in 1961, the year he also became a professor of sculpture at the Dusseldorf Academy. In 1962, he began participating in the Fluxus movement, and gave the first of his action-performances in 1963. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he founded two student-oriented political parties, and was later fired from his teaching position at the Academy.

In addition to producing single works, Beuys also produced 557 multiples — small- and large-scale works that were both portable and affordable. Ranging from Felt Suit (1970), which is exactly what it sounds like, to Capri Battery (1985), a yellow lightbulb plugged into a lemon, the multiples were intended to reflect individual aspects of Beuys’ practice. Beuys was also known for producing his own “curated” vitrines. These museum-style showcases were filled with objects Beuys considered socially significant. 

As one of the most cutting-edge of Germany’s post-war artists, Beuys would have a lasting influence on artists around the world, including Marina Abramovic, Matthew Barney and Anselm Kiefer, among others. This was no less true for young Canadian artists, particularly following an artist talk in 1976 at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD). During the talk, Beuys produced a blackboard drawing, which he donated to the College. The work was later sold to the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the proceeds were used to establish the Joseph Beuys Memorial Scholarship at NSCAD.

His impact on contemporary art has remained considerable, with Canadian artists as diverse as General Idea, Betty Goodwin, Arnaud Maggs, Clive Robertson and Mary Anne Barkhouse having created works inspired by Beuys.

Following his time in Canada in the 1970s, Beuys often expressed a hope that there would be an exhibition of his work in this country. Although it wouldn’t happen during his lifetime, nearly thirty years after his death Beuys finally has an exhibition at Canada’s premier arts institution.


Creation — whether it be a painting, sculpture, symphony or novel — involves not merely talent, intuition, powers of imagination and application, but also the ability to shape material that could be expanded to other socially relevant spheres.

• Joseph Beuys, 1972

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