The 1950's and 1960's

 The Fifties and Early Sixties, “Beat” Counter-Culture


The “beat” generation emerges following such writers as Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Ashbery, Burroughs, Mailer, Miller, and Rexroth. Artists of this generation lived in a state of non-existence and revolt against conformity, mechanization and materialism and created their own “hip” vocabulary. They developed social statements against mass culture and a realization of human experience.

John Cage: After failing to produce the desired emotions in his listeners through musical art, Cage took a radical turn away from traditional musical conventions. He focused on opening up the listener’s ears to what existed in the environment. His audio productions were unpredetermined experiences, detached from artistic intention. Each element takes on it’s own meaning to be interpreted and felt by the listener. Cage stated, “Hearing sounds which are just sounds immediately sets the theorizing mind to theorizing, and the emotions of human beings are continually aroused by encounters with nature.” These experiences were influenced by the Dada and by Duchamp’s readymades.

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Cage developed the theory of “Total soundspace.” In this theory, music involves all sound. Sound has four essential features: Pitch, timbre, loudness and duration. Silence only has duration. In 1952 Cage created a piece entitled, 4 minutes 33 seconds (4'33") (There is also an iPhone app) where the performer remains silent for this duration of time. This allowed the silence to be shared with chance sounds of the environment. Pieces such as this by Cage inspired visual artists like Rauschenberg to produce a series of blank "White Paintings." These concepts embrace randomness.

Also embracing randomness inspired by the earlier Dada Cabaret Voltaire Cage and his contemporaries held "Event" in 1952. Included with Cage's musical scores were theatre pieces. These were considered the first "happenings." Theatre is re-imagined as a time and space filled with coexisting but unrelated events instead of narrative. Everyone did what they chose to do during certain assigned intervals of time. The observer’s experience was the central theme. “Everyone is in the best seat” as everyone is a part of the “event.”

Members of an association titled, Gutai Art Association in Japan also began staging art actions similar to Cage's "Event." After WWII, General Douglas MacArther began dismantling Japan's conservative empirical institutions in favor of Western-style democracy. The new freedom allowed artists such as Saburo Murakami and Kazo Shiraga to produce paintings that involved action and theatre while commenting directly on social traditions of Japan.

This concept of randomness, chance, appropriation, and questioning the preconceptions of the world and viewer's world views is what characterizes much of the artwork coming from this decade. These concepts run counter to the concepts of modernism as modernism is based on formal design concepts. Artworks created with these new intentions are thus described as post-modern as each modern definition is questioned and turned on its head in search of a wider spectrum of meaning. Artists working under these principles thumb their nose at critics such as Greenberg, though utilize formal elements established in art to begin their framework.

Robert Rauschenberg

Rauschenberg is an artist who continually reinvented himself. Stemming from the existentialist traditions of questioning one's place in the world, his artwork continually comments on the influences surrounding him. Rauschenberg studied art at Black Mountain College where he was influenced by John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Josef Albers. Albers was quoted as saying that he "had nothing to teach" Rauschenberg (Fineberg 178). This education was likely the influence for Rauschenberg's early White Paintings that demonstrated a sensitivity to concepts of color and Cage's theories.

Early in his career he became known for his "combine" paintings which were an alternative label to what most consider "assemblage" or the assembly of multiple media. Rauschenberg's "combines" combine sculpture with painting, the three-dimensional with the two-dimensional. His work attempts to de-construct and then reconstruct images, providing narrative and meaning that is all present in the visual result.

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Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955

Bed is one of Rauschenberg's first combine paintings. The painting includes may materials that were found in the environment around him including even toothpaste. The attack of materials on the surface is extremely personal and alludes to the popular abstract expressionists of the time, but includes more of a post-modern development of appropriation.

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Robert Rauschenberg, Canyon, 1959 and Odalisk 1955

Rauschenberg's combine paintings lasted throughout the 1950s. The objects were found in the trash, junk shops, and the mass of kitch that could be readily obtained in the streets of New York. Though these objects were found, they were found through lived experience, gathered from the course of his natural activity forming personal associations without formal analysis as the surrealists tended to have with their predetermined compositions.

The combines were also sculptural as demonstrated in Odalisk. The name derives from a commentary on the traditional monument structure and the sexual imagery contained in the painted surface. By the time they were displayed at Leo Castelli's gallery, the Abstract Expressionists openly mocked Raushenberg's work and discredited it for its lack of aesthetic purpose.

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Robert Rauschenberg Skyway, 1964 and Booster, 1967

In 1962 Robert Rauschenberg was introduced to lithography and screen printing, processes being taken advantage of by Andy Warhol beginning in 1961. These print processes allowed Rauschenberg to repeat imagery and form more direct associations between the images that he encountered. The reproductive process also allowed for more direct appropriation and continued use of truly meaningful images. This print/painting process replaced the physical objects in the combines and lasted throughout the majority of Rauschenberg's Career.

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Robert Rauschenberg Pelican, 1963

Stemming from his experiences at Black Mountain College, Rauschenberg was also interested in performance and the happenings of the time. Pelican is an example of a performance that he conducted with sculpted costumes and choreographed on roller skates. For more information on Rauschenberg, check out his YouTube channel.

Junk Sculpture

Junk sculpture refers to a specialized type of assemblage that involved the welding of discarded metal into sculpture. The aesthetic is also considered a part of "urban realism."

David Smith, Zig V

David Smith, mentioned previously with the abstract expressionists, pioneered the movement in the early 1950’s based on previous works by Picasso and Gonzalez. His welded pieces from found scrap open the field for a junk yard aesthetic, though his work remains highly formal in their visual balances.

John Chamberlain, H.A.W.K. 1959

John Chamberlain’s works all developed out of crushed automobile parts. This appropriation allowed for more chance and commentary on the waste of luxury commercial products. Thus Chamberlain bridges the concept of the modern into the post-modern realm.

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Mark di Suvero, Che Faro Senza Eurydice (What Will I do Without Eurydice) 1959 and Mohican, 1967

Mark di Suvero also experimented with found materials but gravitated to industrial materials such as I beams which move to a more architectural scale. The main idea behind these objects moves back to the Duchampian theories of elevating found “non-art” materials to an idea of “high-art”


Allan Kaprow, Chicken 1962

In the works we have just seen, the entire world becomes a work of art. “Happenings” developed out of this idea where the art of theater melds with fine art and gallery shows into cultural “happenings” that involve the gestures of action painting and the melding of the urban junk aesthetic. Found objects become “found events.” Cage stresses the idea of individual experience:

The structure we should think about is that of each person in the audience…whose consciousness is structuring the experience differently from anybody else’s… So the less we structure the theatrical occasion and the more it is like unstructured daily life, the greater will be the stimulus to the structuring faculty of each person in the audience. If we have done nothing he then will have everything to do (Fineberg 191).

Happenings bombard the viewer with sensations and allow the viewer to make his or her own order of things. The actions often included the viewers which allowed for even more unpredictability and more of a simulation of real life.


Happenings were typically nonverbal, discontinuous, non-sequential, multifocused, and open ended. They were exciting for the period and made a great deal of artistic leaps and conceptual ideas. However, they did not produce saleable objects and could never be reproduced. By 1962, the whole phenomenon became too commercialized for the artists, so many developed their events on video or film, and veered away from these gallery displays.


Between 1962 and 1964, George Maciunas, Wolf Vostell, and Nam June Paik founded this group in Wiesbaden, West Germany which took off from the ideas of Cage. The fluxus movement was a Duchampian reaction against the expressionistic and symbolic aspects of happenings. They included minimalists such as George Brecht who created a work called “Chair” which consisted a white painted wicker rocker that encouraged interaction and viewer experience.

Fluxus was an undefined group. Many artists such as Joseph Beuys and Christo had vague connections with it. The two main talents were Nam June Paik (who made significant video and television art later in his career) and Joseph Beuys (who was greatly influenced by their theatrical orientation).

Walk-in Paintings

George Segal, Subway 1968

In 1958, George Segal begins making life-sized figures out of wire, plaster and burlap in a naturalistic way that looked as if they were pulled from paintings. Segal entered these figures into naturalistic situations which the viewer could literally walk into. These "Walk-in Paintings," enhanced reality of the painted experience. Other artists experimenting with this installation "painting" technique were Red Grooms,Marisol, and Claes Oldenburg.

Jim Dine, Five Feet of Colorful Tools 1962

Combining the interaction of walk-in atmospheres and junk aesthetic, Jim Dine began accumulating items (mostly tools) which he incorporated into his paintings in 1959. Many times these objects become the biographical subject of his paintings. Dine's work demonstrates a strong urge for total experience that referred both to their works of art as well as the feature of the happenings in New York.

Claes Oldenburg

Chaes Oldenburg was interested in the power of his imagination to alter the shape and meaning of real things. He edefined the found object in his own image stating, "What I see is not the thing itself but – myself – in its form."


Claes Oldenburg, "Empire" ("Papa") Ray Gun 1959

The Ray Gun became a prevalent icon for his work. Ondenburg states that if form in nature analyzes down to geometry, content (or intent) analyzes down to erotic form (Fineberg 197). The ray gun is personified as Oldenberg’s alter ego.

Claes Oldenburg, Pie A La Mode 1962

In 1961, Oldenburg rented a store front at 107 East Second Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In it he created visually tactile, and optimistically humorous sculptures of everyday objects. The manipulation of form took precedence over any significance of the subject. He stated, "I wanted to see if I could make significant form out of a pair of ladys pantys." He continues to describe the experience:

I have made these things: a wrist watch, a piece of pie, hats, caps, pants, skirts, flags, 7 up, shoe-shine, etc., all violent and simple in form and color, just as they are. In showing them together; I have wanted to imitate my act of perceiving them, which is why they are shown as fragments (of the field of seeing), in different scale to one another; in a form surrounding me (and the spectator), and in accumulation rather than in some imposed design (Fineberg 198).


People loved these works, but he sold very little. After two months, Oldenburg closed The Store and Richard Bellamy (Green Gallery) gives Oldenberg a show for fall of 1962. Oldenburg thus creates his Ray Gun Theater which he uses his actors as objects in his store front.

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Claes Oldenburg, Floor Cake 1962

The Green Gallery show scheduled for September 1962. Oldenburg was faced with a challenge to fill a much bigger space than he had previously with The Store. Previously, his largest object was 3 feet square. His inspiration came from a car showroom and how the cars filled the space. He thus enlarged his objects to the size of cars and made everyday objects out of canvas, and vinyl stuffed with foam, cardboard and other material. Oldenburg moved to California the next year to get away from the mental craziness of NYC, continuing his soft sculptures and doing very engineered diagrams of these objects with thorough notes as to his specifications and ideas.

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Claes Oldenburg, Dormyer Mixer 1965 and "Ghost" Dormyer Mixers 1965

Being soft and flesh-like, these sculptures took on a human essence to them that resembled the sexuality of the Ray Gun. Oldenburg’s notebooks reiterate this fact through free association of his objects to lifelike forms. He was obsessed with Freudian psychology which emphasizes the fact that humans unconsciously imbue inanimate objects with sexual significance. He states, "Basically, collectors want nudes, so I have supplied for them nude cars, nude telephones, nude electric plugs, nude switches, nude fans…The erotic or the sexual is the root of art (Fineberg 200)."

Claes Oldenburg, Proposed Colossal Monument for Central Park North, New York City: Teddy Bear 1965

In 1965, Oldenburg begins designing proposals for monumental sculptures. About this transition Oldenburg describes,

One day I combined landscapes and objects, only I didn’t change the scale. I had a drawing of a vacuum cleaner and another of Manhattan – and I just superimposed them. The result was automatically a “giant vacuum cleaner” because the city held its scale – it didn’t become a miniature city. Somehow it worked (Fineberg 202).


In 1964, Christo was Oldenberg’s neighbor and had been thinking up such monumental ideas for his sculpture as well, creating proposals for sites before having permission of funding to create such monumental works of art. The proposal ideas that Oldenberg would come up with were based on a spirit of the proposed location.

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Claes Oldenburg, Geometric Mouse, Scale A, 5/6 1969 and System of Iconography 1969

Geometric Mouse is 12’ high created in 1969 based on a mask that he had created for a previous performance in 1965. Oldenburg developed many drawings of this concept. The piece is formalist, but with many layers of complexity and symbolism.

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Claes Oldenburg, Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks 1969

In May of 1969, Oldenburg develops his first truly monumental sculpture after being approached by the graduate students from the School of Architecture at Yale. The 24’ tall Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks was delivered to the Beinecke Plaza in front of the Yale president’s office during a student demonstration. The unsolicited delivery took on a feeling of a happening in it’s randomness, construction, and delivery. The tip of the lipstick in the sculpture would blow up like a balloon and deflate, but later had to be replaced because of vandalism by a solid steel tip.

Claes Oldenburg, Clothespin 1976

After marrying Coojse Van Bruggen (a Dutch museum curator) he began creating many larger monumental sculptures while collaborating with architects and his wife. Clothespin is in Philadelphia’s city center. Oldenberg continued to work in this manner into the nineties where he would continue to recreate these ordinary objects in monumental sizes.

Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns, Target with Plaster Casts 1955

The author, Marshall McLuhan became a celebrity in 1964 and asserted that “The medium is the message.” This article stressed that the meaning is linked directly to the structure of advertising more than the subject of that advertisement. In Painting Jasper Johns stresses the structure of the art object in much the same way, focusing on how it means what it means.

The targets stress this point in the fact that they are objects created in an artistic way. The medium is the message, and the target brings the viewer to such a realization. In Target with plaster casts, Johns also brings a sense of human relationship to this symbol of the target through box lids which open to view these casts. The newspaper clippings are also not meant to be read literally. They are a material that was meant to add to the complexity of the piece. A sense of information overload which adds to the texture and quality of the action of the piece as Johns includes his everyday world.

Jasper Johns, Flag 1954-55

The Flags are based on a formally flat scheme rather than a unique physical object. The paintings become objects in themselves rather than depictions of objects. The paint handling becomes the subject, although the imagery ties into mass production and popular consumerism.

Johns, unlike many of the modern artists, did not intend to create paintings that had transcending views of nature or seeing. He enjoyed the object for the object, and thus questioned the meaning of that object and its perception by the viewer. His earlier work from 1954 shows an interest in assemblage or the “junk-art” aesthetic that was much like the time, but when someone had pointed this out to him, Johns destroyed everything and started new. Throughout most of the beginning of his career, he attempted to remove any indication of what others had done from his work as he wanted his work to be a “negation of impulses. To find out what he was and how it was different from other artists.”

Johns couldn’t find a way to express his feelings visually, so he worked in a way that he could say that it wasn’t him, but the object. As Johns and Rauschenberg had a close friendship, they both took objects in a very similar controlled manner, looking at objects individually and digesting their meanings, then using them as images. In 1957, Leo Castelli opens his gallery with a group exhibition that included Johns and Rauschenberg.

Jasper Johns, Thermometer 1959

By 1959: Johns became more expressionistic in his paintings and the object no longer determined the compositions but became a part of them. They worked in a more all over style like expressionist painting. His work pokes fun at the machismo of abstract expressionism with the check of temperature with a phallic-like bulb of a thermometer.

Jasper Johns, False Start 1959

In False Start, Johns uses oil in some cases instead of encaustic-over-newspaper to create a more gestural style creating patches of primary colors while providing the names to the colors on the painting. The painting is never an accident, but a highly thought out and controlled approach. If there is a drip, he mentions that he intended to have the paint drip or he would have painted it out. The naming of the colors is a highly thought out conceptual approach to this expressionistic piece that adds a whole different level of interpretation than simply an emotional canvas.

Jasper Johns, Painted Bronze 1960

In 1958, Johns discovers Duchamp’s work and meets Duchamp personally. And Johns and Rauschenberg had already been influenced by the idea behind Duchamp’s readymades which meant that every object could be art, it was all about context. Painted Bronze evokes much the same response as Duchamp’s readymade objects. The sculpture is a tromp l’oeil that evokes the idea of the readymade, but is non-the-less hand crafted. There is a thumbprint on the base to emphasize this fact, but this print also apparently reveals an emotional intimacy that enters into Johns’s work that deals with his personal life directed into his art. Johns states,

I was doing at that time sculptures of small objects – flashlights and light bulbs. Then I heard a story about Willem de Kooning. He was annoyed with my dealer, Leo Castelli, who for some reason, and said something like, “That son-of-a-bitch; you could give him two beer cans and he could sell them.” I heard this and thought, “What a sculpture – two beer cans.” It seemed to me to fit in perfectly with what I was doing, so I did them and Leo sold them (Fineberg 213).


At this point, Johns also became more involved with performance art in the 1960’s and his paintings took on a very interactive quality like Target with Plaster Casts.

Jasper Johns, Fool's House 1962

Johns also contrasted what we know with what we see by confronting images with their names and titling the piece directly on the painting as demonstrated with False Start. In 1961, Johns read the writings of philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Of particular interest was the relation of thought and language to the world of things. Wittgenstein states in his Philisophical Investigations:

You really get such a queer connexion, when the philosopher tries to bring out the relation between name and thing… For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday. And here we may indeed fancy naming to be some remarkable act of mind, as it were a baptism of an object (Fineberg 214).

In The Blue and Brown Books Wittgenstein further states, "The use of the word in practice is its meaning. Imagine it were the usual thing that the objects around us carried labels with words (Fineberg 214).


In 1972, Johns transitions into untitled works that deal with a hatched pattern that was inspired by a pattern he had seen for an instant on a passing car. Most of these paintings are like maps of repeating and non-repeating patterns that never lead into any deeper subject matter unlike Dubbufet’s similar stylistic work. By 1978, John’s gives up his trying to hide his emotions and personality in his work and begins depicting charged and personal subject matter and symbols.

John’s whole career is built around borrowed images which creates a universality of meaning. Johns states,

One has to work with everything and accept the kind of statement which results as unavoidable… one wants from painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying, not what you set out to say… it should match what one is… (Fineberg 221)

Video: Jasper Johns, Take an Object (30 min.)

Yves Klein

Between 1958-62, Klein infused theatricality and physical expressionism with mysticism. He sought a flash of spiritual insight for his viewers, in which he was the medium of revelation: intended to evoke an intuition into cosmic order. Klein became interested in 1948 in a Christian sect, the Rosicrucianists: The world was approaching the end of the Age of Matter, when Spirit lies captive in solid bodies.

Klein moved to Paris in 1955 where he claimed himself an “initiate” seeking a new “Age of Space” where the spirit would exist as a free form, objects would levitate, and personalities would travel liberated from the body.

Yves Klein, Blue Monochrome 1959

Blue symbolized this “Age of Space” and Klein pronounced himself the “Messenger of the Blue Void” where he aspired to enter into the world of color and exist as a color, and that line and form signaled separateness and limitation while color embodied spirit. Klein stated,

I espouse the cause of Pure Color, which has been invaded and occupied guilefully by the cowardly line and its manifestation, drawing in art. I will defend color, and I will deliver it, and I will lead it to final triumph (Fineberg 222).

"Yves the Monochrome” he called himself. Yves was talented at creating spectacle and was always able to produce crowds through his theatrical nature.


Le Vide, 1958, was an exhibition of pure immateriality. As an “Exhibition” Klein cleaned out and whitewashed the Galerie Iris Clert, “impregnating” the empty space with his spirituality. He waited for the streets to get crowded with people waiting to get into his show and then appeared in formal dress and began guiding small groups of visitors into the gallery getting mixed reactions. Glasses of blue drink were offered to waiting visitors, and the liquid caused their urine to be blue for a week.

Yves Klein, Performance: Anthropometries de l'epoque blue March 9, 1960

About a month later in June of 1958, Klein performed his first “living brush” painting in which a nude model applied blue paint to her torso and then pressed the paint on to the canvas on the floor or wall directed by the Artist. Klein states,

I had rejected the brush long before. It was to psychological. I painted with the roller, more anonymous, hoping to create a “distance” between me and my canvases, which should be t least intellectual and unvarying. Now, like a miracle, the brush returned, but this time alive. At my direction, the flesh itself applied the color to the surface, and with perfect exactness. I could continue to maintain a precise distance from my creation and still dominate its execution. In this way I stayed clean. I no longer dirtied myself with color, not even the tips of my fingers. The work finished itself there in front of me with the complete collaboration of the model. And I could salute its birth into the tangible world in a fitting manner, in evening dress. It was at this time that I noticed the “mark of the body” after each session. They disappeared again at once, since the whole effect had to be monochrome… evidence of hope for the permanence (though immaterial) of the flesh (Fineberg 224-225).

Klein entitled these paintings, “Anthropometries.” They were created again in a very theatrical manner with a band and his orchestrated direction as he leads the band as well as the models on the canvases.


When Klein decided to seek a new dealer for his works, he didn’t tell Iris Clert (who had been his dealer) and just went in and took his work from the walls. He told the assistant that his paintings were now invisible and that prospective purchasers should simply write her a check. The very first person who she told this agreed to it. From this Klein devised his Ritual for the Relinquishing of Immaterial Zones of Pictorial Sensibility.

In November 18, 1959 a buyer met the artist on the quai of the Seine, delivered a prescribed quantity of pure gold in exchange for an “immaterial zone of pictorial sensibility” and received a receipt which, following the terms of the agreement, the buyer burned. The artist then threw half the gold into the river and the entire transaction was recorded through photographs.

In 1959, Belgian artist Pol Bury published a volume of Klein’s writings and visions which intensified Klein’s desire to live up to his proclamations. He thus began documenting his levitations.

Yves Klein, Leap into the Void 1960

By 1962, he was talked about in very harsh ways which lead eventually to his demise when, June 6, 1962, while defending his views, had a heart attack at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris.

Noveaux Realistes

Noveaux Realistes Manifesto, October 27, 1960

The Noveaux Realistes movement was much like the junk art aesthetic in New York. Jean Tinguely was probably most notable of the artists of this group who’s manifesto was signed October, 27, 1960 in Yves Klein’s apartment.



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Jean Tinguely, Homage to New York 1960

Tinguely's Homage to New York, is a sculpture that took itself apart was constructed twice. The first time for this exhibition, the second time at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it was a disaster as things came apart, the fire department came in and had to take care of the mess. Tinguely however found this to be a successful piece because of it. Duchamp announced around this time, "Ill tell you what’s going to happen, the public will keep on buying more and more art, and husbands will start bringing home little paintings to their wives on the way home from work, and we’re all going to drown in a sea of mediocrity (Fineberg 231)." Maybe Tinguely and a few others sense this and are trying to destroy art before it is too late.

Joseph Beuys

Joseph Beuys was the first artist to emerge in postwar Germany and achieve international celebrity based on the exploration of his German identity. There is a strong closeness with nature that is evident in German Culture and this comes out in his work. His work often refers to a particular event in his life, a reawakening: The story is of a plane crash in 1943 when he was part of Hitler’s army. He crashed during a snowstorm over Crimea (between Russian and German fronts). He was left for dead, but a group of nomadic Tartars rescued him, covered him in layers of animal fat and felt to raise his freezing body temperature and gave him a new life.

Animals take on a symbolism of a direct connection with the beyond. He believed that modern science and technology had missed out on some mystical route in nature that he was trying to express.

Joseph Bueys, Fat Chair

Fat Chair demonstrates metaphors for his process of redemption. The chair embodies human anatomy and order, the fat signifies chaos and transformation as it changes with temperature. Bueys states that “everything is in a state of change and the chaos can have a healing character.”

Joseph Bueys, I like America and America Likes Me 1964

He did a series of action pieces that deal with him in the position of a “Shaman.” The action goes beyond metaphor into real experience, seeking to evoke transformative insights that prepare the individual for genuine spiritual evolution. His work was much like poetry in which the objects and materials become metaphors for some other thought and he strings them together to tell his transcendental story.

Bueys later shifts from actions to lectures and worked to an idea of “Social Sculpture” in which his vision of art would dominate society. He died in January 1986 at the age of 64.

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Joseph Beuys, Transformer

Works Cited

Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940, Strategies of Being. Second Edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. Print. 2000. 
Sayer, Henry M. A World of Art. Seventh Edition. New York: Prentice Hall. Print. 2013.

Further Reading and Viewing

Harris and Zucker. SmArtHistory.org. KhanAcademy. Web. 2014.

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