As a child, Joseph Beuys took an interest in art and science and wanted to become a doctor. As an artist, he remained interested in science, but from a more metaphorical or spiritual point of view. For instance, he used certain materials in his work because of their physical properties and chemical reactions, which become associated with creative and spiritual processes. Copper, as a conductor of electricity and heat, serves as a transmitter and channel of the energy of the world. Animal fat, composed of glycerides of fatty acids, is essential for nourishment and fuel and to Beuys signified chaos and the potential for spiritual transcendence. In addition, gold is associated with alchemy and myth; iron--used to make tools and machinery--is "the strong metal"; zinc is an insulator. Felt is a fabric of wool, often mixed with fur, hair, cotton, or rayon fibers that have been worked together through pressure, heat, or chemical action. Felt absorbs anything that touches it (such as fat, dirt, dust, water, and sound). Beuys regards the felt suits as providing protection, insulation, and spiritual warmth.
The artist used drab materials such as gray felt for a purpose. In an interview from 1970, he emphasized that it has in part to do with afterimages,* which he associates with evoking a different "anti-image" of the world. Referring to the visual properties of complementary colors, Beuys explained that looking at the drab felt could create a brightly colored afterimage in one's mind: "It's a matter of evoking a lucid world, a clear, perhaps transcendental spiritual world through something which looks quite different, through an anti-image. One can only create afterimages or anti-images by not doing something which is already there by doing something which exists as an anti-image--always in an anti-image process."
* An afterimage is an image that stays with you even after you have stopped looking at the object. The back of your eye is lined with cells, called cones, that are sensitive to only certain colors of light. When you stare at a red object, your red-sensitive cells become tired and lose their sensitivity. At this point, if you shift your gaze to a white background, you see a blue-green image of the object you were staring at. (White light minus red light is blue-green light.) The same thing happens when you stare at a green object, but this time it's the green-sensitive sensors that get tired. White light minus green light is magenta light, so you see the afterimage as magenta.
Stare at the shape below for 30 seconds, then quickly look at a sheet of white paper.