Appointed Professor of Sculpture at the Düsseldorf Art Academy in 1961 and dismissed in 1972 after coming into conflict with the academy authorities and their teaching policy, Joseph Beuys (1921-86) is today considered to be among the most significant – and also the most controversial – teachers of art since 1945. Whilst his unconventional teaching methods, his joint actions with his students, and his ‘Ringgespräche’ (discussions with the students about their work and on philosophical as well as general problems) irritated and annoyed many of his students, they realised at the same time that they were being given a special opportunity to learn. The success of his teaching methods was reflected, on the one hand, in the large number of his students – in the winter semester of 1971/72, for example, as many as 233 attended his class – and, on the other hand, in the many well-known artists who had been taught by him, such as Lothar Baumgarten, Felix Droese, Jörg Immendorff, Imi Knoebel, Ulrike Rosenbach, Katharina Sieverding, Palermo and Reiner Ruthenbeck.
Contrary to frequent accusations that Beuys merely taught his students to imitate their teacher, the very diversity of the artistic approaches of his former students shows that Beuys did in fact succeed in helping his students to develop their own individual artistic identities, quite independently of his own work as an artist. Indeed, Beuys’s students knew little about their teacher as an artist, not only on account of his negligible participation in exhibitions until the middle of the Sixties but also because he himself deliberately kept a low profile as regards his own artistic work. Most of Beuys’s students at the start of their studies regarded him more as a teacher than as an artist. Although Beuys offered them the opportunity of learning from him ‘everything they wanted to learn’ within the scope of their own individual abilities, he never on any account attempted to restrict them to his own particular concept of art: ‘And I never in any way attempted to force my own idea of art onto people. On the contrary, I always sought those possibilities which are inside every individual one of us.’
I can best visualise the processes of learning and understanding which the students went through in Beuys’s class by describing the content of Beuys’s curriculum and his methodical approach to teaching during the period from the commencement of his teaching appointment until his dismissal in 1972. I will follow this by showing examples from the works of Imi Knoebel that present his artistic position, which is purist. He wants to free the artefact from all figurative and semantic references, a position that is reinforced by a confrontation with Beuys’s mythical and magical world.