The Beuys Universe: Art - Worldview - documenta. Series V

Joseph Beuys and the documenta

documenta III 28 June – 6 October, 1964

Author: Prof. Dr. Klaus Siebenhaar


documenta III 


Arnold Bode, 1963/64

© documenta Archiv

The documenta III 1964 marked both the climax and a turning point in the history of world art exhibition. Arnold Bode and his spiritual rector Werner Haftmann celebrated a festival of 20th century masters for the last time, while the new stars of contemporary pop and conceptual art were already pushing their way to the fore. This was the documenta of the transition from modern to contemporary art, with some spectacular highlights, especially in sections "Aspects 1964" and "Light and Movement". The real highlight was the special show "Hand Drawings", also impressively staged in curatorial terms, which presented masterpieces from over 80 years, where Beuys's drawings were also shown. His small sculptures were displayed separately in "Aspects 1964". 


Axle, Robert Rauschenberg, documenta III

 © Robert Rauschenberg/VG Bild-Kunst Photo: Günther Becker

The documenta III was Joseph Beuys's first major international appearance. For Beuys, it represented a starting point in the development of his "expanded concept of art" and his inherent theory of sculpture. His three drawings and four small sculptures selected for the exhibition represented his cosmos of ideas, his repertoire of concepts and his specific material aesthetics. The works of art, all of which dated from the 1950s, were not to be understood retrospectively, but on the contrary: they testified to a state of development of Beuys's understanding of art, they stood for the unity of art and life (= biography), and they provided answers to the question "What is art?". Art is life and universal productive force in the polar tension between birth and death, becoming and passing away, and warm pole (= life, fluid movement, design, expansion) and cold pole (= death, crystalline stability, solidification). In these terms and dual thought processes so constitutive for Beuys, the drawings and sculptures were not a retrospective stock-taking effort, but a "programmatic generator" (Veit Loers) on the way into a new era. 


SåFG-SåUG, Joseph Beuys, 1953/58

Photography: Fritz Getlinger


The three drawings revealed Beuys’s diverse ideal-philosophical, and religious-mythological reference system: death, resurrection, vulnerability, metamorphosis, initiation, and spirituality, which can be found again in the mythological stag motif as well as in the Judith figure of Christian mythology. Corresponding to the drawings, the enigmatic, two-part bronze sculpture "Så FG-Så UG", codes for "sunrise - sunset", took up the "super-spatial sculptural principles" (Beuys) of “expansion and contraction", the "chaos and formation", beginning and end. It was Beuys's radical rejection of a naturalistic mode of representation, which he replaced with his "theory of sculpture" - based "on the transition from chaotic material to ordered form by means of sculptural movement" (Beuys). This statement contains his entire artistic (sculptural) credo. What has already intuitively suggested in the drawings took on concrete form in the sculptures. In the "Queen Bees I-III", modelled in wax and installed on wooden boards, the substantial transformations of bee wax and honey were illustrated from the "heat pole". The enigmatic character of "Queen Bees" was reinforced by the enclosed spoon and fork, associative devices that were meant to invite visitors to eat, as Beuys emphasised in a television interview: The experience of eating could lead to a deeper understanding of his work. 

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Bienenkönigin I, Joseph Beuys, 1952

Photography: Fritz Getlinger, Private Collection

Influenced by Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophical writing "On the Life of Bees" and alchemical theories, Beuys was not only concerned with the "warm character" of bees or with artistic expressions of his lifelong scientific studies, but also with an intensive examination of the idea of a bee colony. For Beuys, bees and the “colony" they created remained the original model of a self-governing "social organism", which he later described as "direct democracy" at documenta 5.


Drei Bilder im Raum, Ernst Wilhelm Nay, 1964

© Archiv of documenta III, Photo: Günther Becker

Everything has been laid out, pre-conceived and artistically expressed at his first documenta appearance. His "work" on the concepts was in progress, which was to be followed by corresponding expansions and actions.


Klaus Siebenhaar

Dr.phil., Professor em. for Culture and Media Management and Prof. for German Literature at Freie Universität Berlin; Distinguished Professor for Arts Management at Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) Beijing.

After his PhD and beside his academic career as Assistant he worked as Dramaturg, Curator, Editor and Journalist for cultural institutions and publishing houses like Academy of Fine Arts Berlin, State Theatre of Kassel, Ullstein. In 1991 he became Professor and founder of the Institute of Culture and Media Management. From 1990 till 2001 Siebenhaar was member of the Directory of the Deutsches Theater and from 2001-2006 Director of Marketing and Development of the Jewish Museum Berlin.

In cooperation with Prof. Fan Di’an (NAMOC) and Prof.Yu Ding (CAFA), Prof. Siebenhaar established 2009 the Cultural Management Program KUMA for young leaders. Several big exhibitions like Chinese Public Art after the Documenta 13 in 2012 (together with Fan Di’an and Yu Ding), Käthe Kollwitz at the NAMOC 2015 or The Myth of Documenta at the CAFA Art Museum 2017 underline the deep connection to China.



Our great gratitude goes to the Dokumenta Archiv, VG Bild-Kunst Association and the "7000 Oaks Foundation" for the copy right authorizations;  also to Free University of Berlin and the General Consulate of Germany for the cooperation and support. Special thanks to Prof. Klaus Siebenhaar.


Dank an das Documenta Archiv Kassel, die VG Bild-Kunst und die "Stiftung 7000 Eichen" für die freundliche Genehmigung, sowie an die Freie Universität Berlin und das Deutsche Generalkonsulat in Guangzhou für die Kooperation und Unterstützung. Besonderer Dank an Prof. Klaus Siebenhaar.