Joseph Beuys, 64, a German painter, sculptor and creator of happenings, who combined passionate vision with bizarre idiosyncrasy and a gift for personal mythmaking to become one of the most influential figures in the postwar European art world, died yesterday in Duesseldorf, West Germany.
Mr. Beuys (pronounced "Boys") died of heart failure after a long illness.
A politicized, highly controversial figure even in a milieu in which the unorthodox is commonplace, Mr. Beuys stirred debate with so-called "action" works such as one that saw him spend a week in 1979 fenced in a New York art gallery with a live coyote.
From beneath the cover of a felt blanket Mr. Beuys sought at intervals to befriend and belabor the animal alternately.
The performance was seen as a ritualistic exorcism of the hostility between white Americans and native Americans, to whom the coyote is divine.
Although "Coyote: I like America and America likes me" was but a single work, it seemed in many ways representative of the former World War II Luftwaffe pilot turned esthetic theorist whose output in- cluded more than 15,000 sketches and about 30,000 collages, sculptures and works in other media.
One of the cornerstones of his esthetic was the idea of "social sculpture," the belief that the reshaping of society through new and original ideas should be considered as art, just as much as painting and sculpture are art.
Viewing himself as a prophetic figure summoned to such tasks as the healing of his nation's psychic wounds, and the unveiling of layers of consciousness beyond the rational, Mr. Beuys seemed very much the mystic. But he managed to reach broad audiences and achieve wide popularity and recognition.
In such aspects of his work as the gritty plainness of the objects that comprised his sculptures and collages, art critics recognized haunting visions of history's tragedy.
One of Mr. Beuys' best known works, a grand piano fashioned from felt, sold for $4,000 in 1967 and is now valued at about 30 times as much. Not without its contretemps, however, his career included fistfights and an incident in which one of his works was mistakenly used as a beer cooler.
In his life as in his art, symbol blended with substance. Much of his work was done in felt, which to him meant healing. He was never without a felt fedora. It covered scars he sustained in a plane crash on the Russian front.
Discovered by Tartars amid Crimean snows, he was wrapped in fur and felt to keep him warm and alive.
He was born May 12, 1921, in Krefeld, where his mother was on a visit, and he grew up nearby in Kleve, near the Dutch border. He began studying art after the war, gave his first show in 1952, and in 1961 began a stormy teaching career.
A believer in participatory democracy, he was credited with being a founder of the antiestablishment Greens party in the 1970s.
Survivors include his wife Eva and two children.