Joseph Beuys, sculptor, teacher, performance artist, maverick politician and one of the most influential and controversial men of his generation in Europe, died of heart failure Thursday at his home in Dusseldorf, West Germany. He was 64 years old.
Mr. Beuys began to attract worldwide attention in 1961. He was a charismatic teacher, in the Academy of Arts in Dusseldorf and elsewhere, and one who consistently subverted the stiff traditional ways of academe. As a sculptor, he had a gift for the bizarre and unforgettable image, made with no less bizarre and unforgettable materials, that made him a favorite with European museum directors. To more than one generation of young people, he was indispensable both for the freedom and independence of his thought and for his readiness to spend unlimited amounts of time in open-ended discussion.
As early as 1960, he made a sculpture out of the metal tub in which he had been bathed as a child. Though enriched with sticking plaster, and with gauze soaked in fat, it was still self-evidently a tub - ''a kind of autobiographical key,'' Mr. Beuys said later, ''an object from the outer world, a solid material thing invested with energy of a spiritual nature.'' Attracted Extreme Responses
Later, and at a time when European life was still permeated by the memory of times when a quick and unwilling getaway was the fate of hundreds of thousands of people, Mr. Beuys epitomized that memory by producing a sculpture made up of a small-size toboggan on which were strapped the bare necessities of life on the run.
At every stage in his life, Mr. Beuys attracted extremes of admiration and contempt, with little in between in the way of objective assessment. As he grew older, he was preoccupied above all by what he called ''direct democracy.'' The essence of that democracy was that all citizens should make their views known by direct referendum, rather than through what he regarded as an outmoded political party system. He also envisaged, however impractically, a parliamentary system in which the voice of the unaligned voter would be heard and could have some effect.
It was, however, as a maker of large-scale and often disconcerting three-dimensional images that he may be longest remembered. His work can be seen to advantage in the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland, as well as in museums throughout Germany. Instruments of Expression
Joseph Beuys was born in Krefeld, now West Germany, on May 12, 1921. Raised in the nearby town of Kleve, a Celtic and Catholic community not far from the Dutch border, he joined the Luftwaffe in 1940 after graduation from secondary school and became a bomber pilot. In 1943, when his aircraft crashed in the Crimean mountains, he was saved by Tatars who wrapped him in layers of fat and felt to keep him from freezing to death. Thereafter, these two materials stayed with him as symbols of regeneration. Not only did he see them as predestined instruments of expression in his work, as bronze and marble had been to earlier sculptors, but they stood for warmth, comfort and consolation.
By the end of the war, Mr. Beuys had been wounded five times. Eventually he was taken prisoner by the British. He had a long, slow, checkered apprenticeship as an artist, but in 1961 he was appointed professor of sculpture at the Academy of Arts in Dusseldorf. An inspiring teacher and a sculptor who soon won an international reputation, he became notorious for the ritual performances of an enigmatic sort with which he sought to bind up the wounds of central Europe and release what he regarded as beneficent forces of feeling, understanding and orientation.
Whether in conventional art galleries or on the stump in a variety of makeshift locations, Mr. Beuys left an unforgettable impression, though not one that earned him universal approbation. In 1974, on his first visit to the United States, he did not mount a conventional exhibition, but spent a week in his dealer's gallery, fenced in with a live coyote. The performance in question, ''Coyote: I like America and America likes me,'' aroused widespread astonishment and was intended as a healing ritual that related to the American Indians' regard for the coyote. In the winter of 1979-80 he had a full-scale retrospective of his sculptures at the Guggenheim Museum.
He is survived by his wife, Eva Beuys, and by his two children, Wenzel and Jessica.