Beuys was born in 1921 in Krefeld, a city in northwestern Germany near the Dutch border. He grew up as an only child and in 1940, volunteered to join the military to avoid the draft. He received training as a combat pilot and aircraft radio operator and was seriously wounded several times during his years of active duty. He was held in a British P.O.W. camp for several months at the end of the war and finally returned to Kleve in 1945.
Upon his return from the war, Beuys enrolled in the Dusseldorf Academy of Art where he studied sculpture and graduated in 1952. He produced thousands of drawings during the 1950s and in 1959, at the age of 40, was given a professorship at his alma mater. He was one of the founding members of the Green Party in 1979 and his public calls for reform of all kinds brought him international notoriety, but also cost him his job at the Art Academy.
A retrospective of his work was held in 1979 at the Guggenheim Museum, which helped to solidify his reputation in the art world. Beuys died in Dusseldorf in 1986.