Multiple Perspectives on Beuys

January 31, 2014
Joseph Beuys, Mönchengladbach Museum Catalogue, 1967. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.      

In the 1960s, the term “multiple” was introduced to define a new category of (mostly) small-scale art objects. Produced in numerous copies and in a range of media, from prints and sculpture to more experimental forms, multiples challenged the primacy of the unique work of art. They were of particular importance to the German artist Joseph Beuys (1921–1986), who saw them as a way to distribute his art and ideas to a wide audience. Over the course of his career, he created 556 different multiples: sculptures, prints, photographs, films, and found objects, along with 36 postcards. Designed to subvert established categories of art, these editioned objects were primarily acquired by individual collectors, not institutions. Today, they present important questions for the museums that now own them: what happens when these works, some of which were intended to be used or lived with, are presented as “artifacts” in a gallery? Matters grow more complex when considering Beuys’s claim that together, his multiples communicate “the whole Beuys.” How can their relation to each other, and to the rest of Beuys’ oeuvre—his installations, lectures and performances—be best represented for museum audiences?

To address such questions, Maja Wismer, Renke B. and Pamela M. Thye Curatorial Fellow in the Busch-Reisinger Museum, collaborated with Luke Smythe, Curatorial Fellow of the International Patrons of the Pinakothek at the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, to organize a study day there this past December. Entitled “Multiples in Museums,” it investigated the topic from a range of cultural and institutional perspectives. Stefan Gronert focused on how his institution, the Kunstmuseum Bonn, uses different display strategies to place the multiples in the artist’s own cultural context, the Rhineland of Western Germany during the postwar era. Rachel Jans, of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, examined the relationship between Galerie René Block/Edition Block and Joseph Beuys in the 1960s and ’70s, and how together they used the gallery, and the wider art market, as a vehicle for cultural transfer, confrontation, and commercial exchange. Andrea Gyorody of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Sarah Suzuki of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, spoke on Beuys’s production process and his choice of materials—important topics given the conservation challenges these unconventional art objects now pose to museums. Joining this small and focused group were students from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München and Harvard University’s History of Art and Architecture program, the Straus Center’s Samuel H. Kress Objects Conservation Fellow Nicole Ledoux, and one of the very early publishers of Beuys’s multiples, Bernd Klüser.

Although the multiples were originally designed to circumvent institutions, it was clear throughout the study day that they have become a great resource for museums, able to convey both a comprehensive view of Beuys’s ideas and to illuminate more general questions about the role of the museum in society. For Wismer, ideas that took root during the study day will continue to grow and blossom for some time. Since fall 2012, she has been researching the Busch-Reisinger Museum’s Willy and Charlotte Reber collection of Beuys’s multiples and working on installation plans for them in our new facility, while co-curating an exhibit with Smythe on the Pinakothek der Moderne’s collection of similar pieces that will open this summer in Munich. 

Wismer found the study day both inspiring and reassuring.  As she discussed the issues raised by Beuys’s multiples with colleagues from around the world, she says, “It became clear that Harvard Art Museums’ approach to interpreting and showing these works is in line with those of other major institutions. There was consensus among the study day participants that they are not simply autonomous art objects made for the white cube of the museum gallery. Rather, they are the interconnected products of the new information exchanges, artistic collaborations, and distribution networks that the internationalization of contemporary art in the 1960s made possible. They should be understood and presented in that context.” 

Wismer expects that more stimulating discussions will grow out of the study day in the future. After her tenure at Harvard ends this spring, she will continue her work on Beuys and his multiples at the University of Basel in Switzerland, where she is writing her dissertation on the subject.

  • of Study day participants at the Pinakothek der Moderne.