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Early Beuys – Delayed Legacy
A Dissertation and its Consequences



His work polarized many: Joseph Beuys was an artist whose radical insistence on the fusion of life and art was paralleled by the transformation of his own person into a work of art. Yet are the political and social visions of that time still relevant today? The effect his art had on everyday life is described here by Ariane Grigoteit, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Beuys’ watercolors at the very beginning of her association with Deutsche Bank.




Herman J. Abs, Joseph Beuys and Herbert Zapp visiting the Städel in Frankfurt, in the background on the left the museum's Direktor Klaus Gallwitz, 1982,
Photo Lutz Kleinhans

To write, twenty years after his death, about an artist whom one has never personally met, but who has radically influenced one’s life in many ways is an almost therapeutic experience. Beuys was an artist whose influence has penetrated the most heterogeneous realms of society, and to research into his art proved to be a key experience both personally and professionally.



3-Tonnen-Folie, 1973,
Deutsche Bank Collection

For "scholarly reasons," it was only possible to write a doctoral dissertation on Beuys’ work at Frankfurt’s Johann Wolfgang Goethe University after his death in 1986. At that time, Beuys was considered to be the artistic genius par excellence. He had broadened the definition of art as no other artist had before him. With his use of materials such as animal fat and felt and his concept of the "social sculpture," he had become the undisputed pioneer of post-war art, challenging people’s cherished values. His own experiences in the Second World War, in particular his spectacular survival after having been shot down over the Crimea in his dive-bomber, not only became the stuff of later legends, but also created the symbols of warmth and cold that were to pervade his works: melting fat, felt, bread, and honey standing for warmth and spiritual sustenance, in opposition to cold rationality, materialism, and death.

Iphigenie/Titus Andronicus, 1985,
Deutsche Bank Collection



In using images of electric currents, batteries, telephones, and electrical copper wire, Joseph Beuys’ genius for communication brought this opposition to life. A kind of self-styled conciliator and healer of souls, the artist attempted to transform a deeply divided generation into a democratic, creative entity that would strive as one to construct a modern paradise on earth – to rediscover a lost unity like that dreamed of by the early Romantic philosophers.



Erdtelephon, 1973,
Deutsche Bank Collection


His conviction that art possessed the power to achieve real social change, coupled with his concept for a holistic aesthetic and ethical reconstituting of society, drew the attention of Deutsche Bank very early on, which maintained contact to Beuys throughout his life. The artist was fascinated by the bank’s revolutionary collecting concept, which conversely would be unthinkable to this day without him: art not only for executive suites and as a form of capital investment, but a cultural investment that benefits bank staff, visitors, and the general public alike – art that is neither a PR instrument nor a corporate fig leaf, but a spiritual and emotional dividend and an opportunity to explore contemporary social themes.



Deklaration, 1969,
Deutsche Bank Collection


In the late seventies, it was a member of Deutsche Bank’s Board of Managing Directors who brought this revolutionary project to realization. Throughout all his working life, Herbert Zapp was driven by the conviction that his bank colleagues should become acquainted with the pleasures of contemporary art. He entertained contacts with gallery owners as well as many artists including Joseph Beuys, who used to refer to him affectionately as an "old capitalist.




Herman J. Abs, Joseph Beuys and Herbert Zapp
at the Städel-Museum, 1982,
Photo:Lutz Kleinhans

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