What are multiples?

As the name itself suggests, ‘multiples’ are artworks of which many copies are produced. Each copy is typically identical, with none considered the original. Romanian-born Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri is credited with introducing the term to the art world in 1959, when he began a publishing initiative called Edition MAT (Multiplication d’Art Transformable).1 The purpose of this venture was to produce small, three-dimensional artworks in editions and sell these at lower prices than unique works.2 In this way, art would be made available to a larger audience and thus be rendered more accessible. While prints, books and sculptures have been replicated for centuries, Spoerri helped expand the horizons of editioned art to encompass modern art forms, such as sculptures using found or ‘readymade’ objects, and kinetic art, in which Edition MAT specialised. In doing so, he took a cue from the French artist Marcel Duchamp, who between 1935 and 1941 had produced small-scale copies of his own readymade sculptures and other works, issuing them together in a box entitled Boîte-en-valise.

Spoerri’s embrace of multiples was connected with a democratic impulse that would resonate throughout the 1960s. As the decade progressed, the art world would expand considerably, and so too would the market for multiples. By the end of the 1960s, young gallerists specialising in editioned works, along with dedicated art fairs, large-scale public exhibitions, and displays in popular venues like department stores had helped place multiples in the hands of a new and larger audience for art.3

A key facilitator of these developments was the Fluxus movement, which emerged in the early sixties and with which Spoerri was affiliated. Multiples played a central role in Fluxus, and were the focus of the publishing activities of one of the movement’s founding members, Lithuanian-born American artist George Maciunas. In 1963, as part of his initiative to break down the elitism of the art market, Maciunas opened his ‘Fluxshop’ in downtown New York. From this base, he produced and sold so-called ‘Flux Boxes’ and ‘Flux-Kits.’ Typically no larger than a briefcase, these compact containers housed a wider variety of multiples, created by many different artists.4 In the context of Fluxus multiples assumed a range of new, and often humorous guises, including scores for events and performances, interactive games, small booklets and other forms of printed matter.

As an affiliate member of Fluxus in Europe, who worked with Maciunas on several occasions, Beuys was well aware of his colleague’s activities and in 1965 began producing multiples of his own. In contrast to the works that Maciunas published, which often fit snuggly in the palm of one’s hand, Beuys’s first multiples were larger and were often more complex to produce. In place of small sheets of printed paper or boxes containing simple, prefabricated objects, Beuys favoured work with a more sculptural character, in which found materials were combined with hand-formed elements. This latter trait also set his works apart from Fluxus multiples, as well as those of Edition MAT, which avoided suggestions of hand-production. Many of Beuys later multiples also bore signs of the artist’s hand, in the form of signatures, inscriptions, and manually applied stamps. Like both Spoerri and Maciunas, Beuys had a strongly democratic vision for art, to which end he conceived his multiples as ‘vehicles’ for increasing art’s accessibility and distributing his ideas to a wider public.5 When his work began to take an explicitly political turn in the early 1970s, multiples became an ideal means of publicising his social concerns.

Thanks to his continuous creation of multiples across a twenty year period, which concluded shortly before his death in 1986, Beuys was among the few artists of his generation to maintain a near constant relationship to this art form. Ceaselessly varying the formats and materials with which he worked, collaborating freely with many publishers, friends and colleagues, and consistently expanding his thematic reach, Beuys left behind a sprawling, yet richly nuanced compendium of editioned works.

  1. Julia Robinson, ‘Multiple Manifestations. Nouveau Réalisme and Fluxus,’ in The Small Utopia. Ars Multiplicata, (Milano: Fondazione Prada, 2012), 136. 

  2. On the founding of Edition MAT, see Katerina Vatsella, Edition MAT: die Entstehung einer Kunstform—Daniel Spoerri, Karl Gerstner und das Multiple (Bremen, Hauschild: 1998), 36–40. 

  3. For a recount of the role of multiples in the West German art world in the 1960s, see, for example, the television program Konsumkunst-Kunstkonsum (1968), directed by Gerry Schum in collaboration with Bernhard Höke and Hannah Weitemeier for West Deutscher Rundfunk, broadcast on October 17, 1968.  

  4. On Maciunas’s Flux-kits and Flux Boxes, see Robinson, ‘Multiple Manifestations. Nouveau Réalisme and Fluxus,’ in The Small Utopia. Ars Multiplicata, 137. 

  5. Jörg Schellmann (ed.), Joseph Beuys. The Multiples, (München: Edition Jörg Schellmann, 1997), 9.