100 Years of Joseph Beuys: 
The Artist and the City of documenta

He was born 100 years ago in the Lower Rhine region, and lived and taught in Düsseldorf. But in Kassel, the world-renowned artist Joseph Beuys found a very special artistic home: his work was showcased at documenta five times in a row between 1964 and 1982, and he always attracted attention here with his unusual art performances. You can still encounter traces of him today at many locations in the city of documenta. Kassel is celebrating Joseph's 100th birthday with a varied programme.

Artist with hat. Art with courage.
Joseph Beuys at documenta

Joseph Beuys was not one of those artists who lets their work speak for itself. On the contrary – Beuys was there! He wanted to speak to the people himself, explain his concept of art to them, engage in discussion with them, and stimulate social change.

Here in Kassel, documenta visitors were able to experience this for themselves first-hand on multiple occasions: at documenta 5 (1972), the artist with the unmistakable hat was available in his “Office for Direct Democracy Through Referendum” for 100 days. There he spoke with the residents of Kassel and with people from all over the world. One humorous highlight of the exhibition was a “Boxing Match for Direct Democracy,” for which Beuys climbed into the ring with an art student.

Five years later, in the Fridericianum, he then set up a discussion forum of the “Free International University,” which he also founded. Beuys could also be approached here on a daily basis. At the same time, he presented his “Honey Pump at the Workplace” installation, which pumped fresh honey through several rooms of the museum – a symbol for collective creative power, which also plays a key role in the concept of documenta fifteen.

For Beuys, all these activities, like many of his other works, were the expression of an expanded definition of art, with his idea of “social sculpture” forming its core. Beuys was convinced that every person is an artist and can change society through creative action. He wanted to initiate and help shape this process through his own creative work. Probably the most spectacular example of social sculpture was Beuys’ “7000 Oaks” project, which still shapes the urban landscape of Kassel today.

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“7000 Oaks”: Vibrant greenery and a unique work of art

“City Forestation Instead of City Administration”: under this motto, Joseph Beuys created a globally unique piece of art for documenta 7 in 1982, which can be seen in many locations throughout Kassel. He planted the first seedling of his “7000 Oaks” in front of the Fridericianum. Many more were to follow, which have since grown into stately trees. You can identify these, by the way, by a black basalt stone next to each tree. The stones represent a crystalline form of structure and stability, while the oak, as a living organism, symbolizes constant change and growth. Similar contrasting pairs can also be found in many of the artist’s works. The fact that “7000 Oaks” led to numerous debates in Kassel, especially in the beginning, was for Beuys an inseparable feature of the artwork. For it was only through this debate that the art became a social sculpture as he intended, which continues to have an impact to this day. In 1987, ownership of “7000 Oaks” was passed on to the City of Kassel as a gift.

Beuys to go: Set off on the trail of Beuys’ oaks

Coinciding with Joseph Beuys’ 100th birthday, the cdw Foundation of Kassel has published a new walking guide titled Beuys to go, which you can use to set off on exciting tours that explore the “7000 Oaks.” Tours are also possible with free audio guides provided by the foundation. These can be downloaded free of charge and can also be found by izi-Travel, komoot or outdooractive. On seven different routes, you can experience the many facets of the green work of art, while getting to know the city of documenta at the same time.

Sleds, drawings and more: 
Beuys in the Neue Galerie

If you want to experience other works by Joseph Beuys in Kassel besides the “7000 Oaks,” you should definitely visit the Neue Galerie: in 1976, the artist single-handedly designed a room here on the ground floor. In it, you find “The Pack,” one of his most important installations. It consists of an old VW bus and 24 sleds, each equipped with, among other things, a felt blanket and a small portion of fat – probably the best-known materials that Beuys worked with. Also on display are 29 drawings from his early work, which provide clues to many of his later ideas. Finally, on the opposite wall, you find four display cases with smaller art pieces.


By the way, Joseph Beuys is not the only famous artist whose works can be admired in the Neue Galerie: works from Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter and many others are also on exhibit in the Kassel collection of modern art. In addition, the presentation “about:documenta” on the top floor invites you on an exciting journey through the history of the renowned exhibition series.

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