Art Expanded, 1958–1978


Walker Living Collections Catalogue

One of Many

The Multiples of Joseph Beuys

One of Many

The Multiples of Joseph Beuys


Beginning with the example of his iconic 1969 work Schlitten (Sled), Joseph Beuys expert Maja Wismer traces out the patterns at play in Beuys’s prolific body of multiples produced between 1965 and his death in 1986. Wismer discusses the artist’s use of the multiple form across his career, citing the ways in which the multiples both complement and expand his artistic practice. Wismer describes Beuys’s multiples as akin to “humus,” writing that these works “materialize a variety of artistic gestures that exist discreetly as objects while also providing fodder to other projects, becoming elements that decompose or morph in and out of other forms across the totality of his artistic production.”

Wismer, Maja. “One of Many: The Multiples of Joseph Beuys.” In Art Expanded, 1958-1978, edited by Eric Crosby with Liz Glass. Vol. 2 of Living Collections Catalogue. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2015.
Walker Art Center ©2015
Joseph Beuys, Schlitten (Sled), 1969, wooden sled, felt, fabric straps, flashlight, fat, oil paint, string; ed. 48/50, 13 ¾ x 35 7/16 x 13 ¾ in. (34.9 x 90 x 34.9 cm). Alfred and Marie Greisinger Collection, Walker Art Center, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1992, 1992.218. ©2015 Estate of Joseph Beuys/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

At the 1969 art fair in Cologne, West Berlin–based gallerist René Block presented Joseph Beuys’s large-scale installation The Pack (das Rudel) (1969). The work consisted of a VW van with twenty-four wooden sleds spilling out of its open rear doors. Each sled was equipped with a blanket, a flashlight, and a lump of fat, and was stamped with the artist’s name and the “+” symbol that would become one of his signature marks. Block offered the installation for the sum of DM 100,000, approximately $25,000.1 By 1969, Beuys was by no means a newcomer to the West German art scene. Working as a professor of sculpture at the renowned Düsseldorf State Art Academy since 1961, the artist had already developed a substantial body of work, gaining a reputation not only for his drawings and sculptures but also for his contributions to Fluxus performances in Europe as well as his own provocative actions.2 Marking the occasion of his first solo show in a commercial gallery, Beuys’s spectacular 1965 performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare offers a relevant example. With his face and head covered in gold leaf, Beuys walked through the gallery from work to work—a dead hare posed delicately in his arms—while narrating some inaudible explanation. The event, which was visible to audience members through the gallery’s storefront window, attracted such a crowd that news cameras were sent to film without knowing the reason for the commotion.3 In 1967, just two years after this infamous performance, a single collector had acquired Beuys’s first institutional exhibition at the Städtisches Museum Mönchengladbach almost in its entirety.4 Despite his relative prominence, however, the spectacular price for The Pack was a bold gesture: up until that point, no contemporary German artist had ever sold a work for that much. When the sale was confirmed, extravagant price tag intact, it was a surprise to many.5

Beuys’s installation was not the only piece on offer in Block’s booth at the art fair. Paralleling the success of this work was Schlitten (Sled) (1969), a multiple that the artist developed in tandem with the larger environment. Made in an edition of fifty, each Sled was identically outfitted as those in The Pack—though for the multiple, he used a slightly different sled model. Each was sold with a plaque that confirmed its authenticity as a multiple published by Edition René Block, Berlin. Offered for DM 300 (approximately $75)—with financing available—it was clearly more affordable than Beuys’s massive installation, and in due course a number of them were sold on the spot.6 Sled was the third of Beuys’s multiples made in collaboration with Block, with whom the artist had been developing performative works and other projects since 1964. By the mid-1970s, their collaboration would help to establish them both in the New York art scene.7 As Block later recalled, Sled was the first of their collaboratively produced multiples that fully embraced their shared investment in the form. While Sled certainly reflected Beuys’s artistic position, as will be further examined here, it also served to embody the democratic impulse that initially drew Block into publishing artworks in multiple form.8 For Block, Sled corresponds to his definition of the multiple as representative of the “new aesthetic aspects which evolve from Marcel Duchamp’s concept of multiplication” while at the same time achieving, “like the print, [the status of] an autonomous work of art which has been conceived for multiplication and which actually only begins to fully exist through the process of multiplication.”9

Beuys began conceiving of multiples around 1965, and by the 1970s, they had become a well-established category within his larger oeuvre. By 1986, the year of the artist’s death, he had created more than 550 multiple artworks and postcards.10 Aside from the countless multiples produced under the banner of Fluxus, Beuys’s consistent and prolific production of multiplied artworks is unique within the field of transatlantic, post–World War II art. Working at the time that the multiple emerged as a new category of art in the 1960s, Beuys challenged and extended the boundaries of the genre through his numerous contributions to the category. Not interested in art for art’s sake, he shaped the concept of the multiple into a flexible category that could accommodate various objects—works that didn’t belong to any other traditional genre or category of artistic activity. Not to be misunderstood as surplus or waste, Beuys’s multiples are closer to humus: the multiples materialize a variety of artistic gestures that exist discreetly as objects while also providing fodder to other projects, becoming elements that decompose or morph in and out of other forms across the totality of his artistic production.

This working mode of elaborated “recycling” resonates with a short story originally published in Beuys’s 1964 text Vehicle Art, which centers on the “chief of the leader of the stags” in search of a recipe for a Kunstpille (art pill).11 While the stag hadn’t yet found the correct formula through his experimentation, the unintended byproducts of that work seemed promising. On the way to his ultimate goal—the self-contained Kunstpille—the stag accidentally produced Kunst zum Einreiben in Form von Salbe, which translates as “art to apply as ointment,” and Kunst in Wurstform zum Scheibenabschneiden, or “art as sliceable sausage.” While they did not reflect the stag’s original intention, these unintended inventions reassured him that he should continue his endeavor. As an open and continuously growing body of work (the results of which hardly ever paid off in economic terms), Beuys’s multiples—his “ointment” and “sausage”—yielded an inverted manifestation of process and labor distinct from his otherwise elaborate installations and performances, opening up new approaches and lines of thought for his continuing exploration. Other than incorporating Beuys’s attribution, mark, or appearance, his manifold multiples share no cohesive style; a unifying aesthetic is absent even though his recurring handwritten signature and iconic stamps unmistakably profess his authorship.

While Sled is significant for its popularity, becoming a notable and even iconic example of a Beuys multiple, it can also be read as symbolic of various ideas that the artist pursued throughout his career. As a sculptural object with clear reference to the installation The Pack, Sled acts as a metaphor for the distribution of Beuys’s ideas through the (here, quite literal) vehicle of a multiplied form. It is also mirrored in the different types of sleds that reappear as iconographic motifs within Beuys’s visual vocabulary. Featured in a number of early drawings, the sled can be read as a signifier for transition and movement, facilitating an imaginary reconnection with processes of metamorphosis in nature or the nomadic movement of archaic peoples.12 Both Sled and The Pack can also be interpreted as illustrations of the infamous and often retold story of the artist’s rescue after his plane crash on the Crimean Peninsula in 1944.13 While the narrative may contain more fiction than fact, it has nonetheless become an important part of the artist’s self-made mythology. As the story goes, Beuys was in a plane crash while serving in the German Air Force during World War II. Discovered by Tatars, he was pulled through the snow on a sled and taken in by the benevolent nomads.14 The materials they used to wrap his injured body—fat and felt—would later become prominent substances in the artist’s sculptural works. Sled can therefore be read to fulfill three distinct roles: first, to serve as a representation of Beuys’s larger framework of references and personal mythologies; secondly, to function as an example of the multiple form that aligns, more or less, with the definitions of the genre; and, finally, to epitomize his desire to use the multiple as means to distribute ideas. Read within an examination of Beuys’s use of the multiple over the years, Sled becomes an almost self-contained formula for understanding his approach to the multiple form.

The Multiple as an International Concept

The term “multiple” was coined by Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri when he introduced his publishing project Edition MAT (Multiplication d’Art Transformable) in Paris in 1959.15 Spoerri’s project aimed to undermine the exclusivity of the original work of art by creating replicated objects, still claiming each to be an original. Without providing an exhaustive account of the different strategies of multiplication developed and carried out by various artists in the succeeding years, it is worth noting that the multiple proliferated rapidly throughout the United States and Europe during this time.16 In 1963, just a few years after Edition MAT introduced the multiple, George Maciunas founded Fluxshop in downtown New York, solidifying the form as a critical tool for questioning the exclusivity of art and challenging the separation between art and life.17 As Multiples Inc. founder Marian Goodman noted in the 1970s, the concept “led to an enthusiastic response by American artists to the idea of a consistent, mass-produced look in art editions…. Pop Art with its impersonal surface treatment [and] its love of industrial or ‘media’ techniques had cleared the way for mass-produced art.”18

The introduction of Edition MAT, combined with a frequent presence of Fluxus artists in the Rhineland, made the form well known among progressive artists in West Germany.19 Multiples and prints by US Pop artists were brought to Germany by Galerie Ricke of Kassel (and later Cologne) beginning in 1965, further solidifying the concept of the Auflagenobjekt (editioned object) in the minds of German artists.20 Widely obtainable and increasingly visible—whether entering institutional contexts via thematic exhibitions, shown in department store displays, or made available at specialized fairs—these artworks in multiple form opened the art world to a new breed of participant-collectors.21 The size, cost, and relative mobility of such objects had a broad international impact and the multiple proved able to influence existing art-world power structures, both in the United States and Western Europe.

A German documentary television program made by Gerry Schum in 1968, Konsumkunst–Kunstkonsum (Consumption Art–Art Consumption), offers unique insight into the activities surrounding multiplied art in the preceding years and introduces many of the form’s European protagonists.22 Among the program’s featured individuals and entities are the previously mentioned galleries, René Block and Der Spiegel; the publishing bodies VICE-Versand, art intermedia, and Galerie Fischer; and individual artists such as Spoerri, Ferdinand Kriwet, Gerhard Mack, and Charlotte Posenenske. The documentary gives an impression of the discourse dominating the field and provides an introduction to the terminology used by the advocates of this new art form. It not only highlights the streamlined production of multiple art objects and focuses attention on the division of labor between artist, publisher, and producer but also advances the idea of the multiple as an everyday consumer commodity and alludes to the expansion of the audience, noting the redefinition of the art viewer as consumer. For example, the film’s narrator cites Goodman’s Multiples Inc. shop (with its prominent display window located on New York’s Madison Avenue) as an exemplary model of a customer-friendly gallery. Friedrich Wolfram Heubach, the founding editor and publisher of the art and theory magazine Interfunktionen, recalls his reaction to the film:

The consumerist euphoria rampant at the time, which celebrated consumerism as a kind of emancipatory, egalitarian exercise … seemed aberrant enough to me, but what really capped it all was the repeatedly posed notion in Schum’s film … that art should appeal to everyone’s aesthetic needs and should be available as a commodity.23

Aimed at an audience that was preconditioned to understand consumption as part of contemporary life, Schum’s film reflects an impulse to redefine the art market in more populist terms.24 The multiple is presented as an object within reach for anyone, its success founded, in part, on the boom in consumption that went hand in hand with postwar economic revitalization. Merging with the resurgence of liberal-democratic values, this new consumer culture, which the multiple so clearly embodies, dominated the so-called Wirtschaftswunderjahre (the postwar period of “economic miracle”) that began in West Germany in the early 1950s and continued until the outbreak of student revolts in 1968.25

Repurposing the Category

Block remembers that Beuys was resistant to the idea of multiplication at first; like Heubach, the artist had no interest in producing pleasing collectibles.26 Beuys’s installations and performative works of the 1960s had allowed him the freedom to introduce new, “non-art” materials such as fat or felt into his sculptural works. From this exploration of unconventional materials, he began stretching the definitions and limits of genres, developing what he referred to as his Plastische Theorie (“Theory of Sculpture”).27 At the core of Beuys’s approach to sculpture lay a contrast between rigid, geometric forms—which he described as “crystalline”—and softer, more organic entities. He was focused on making specific material choices, selecting changeable elements and substances that could be catalyzed into different states of being. Beuys’s interest in these transformative “evolutionary forces” for example, warmth, which could morph a crystalline form into a softer shape—pervaded his approach to both sculpture and other forms of expression. Emphasizing mutability and mobility over such qualities as structure and singularity, Beuys applied this theoretical framework to perceptive processes as well as forms of communication. His “Theory of Sculpture” hence provided a model for the artist to develop a broad interpretation of creation as a dynamic process. While there is not one final definition for this theory, Beuys employed it to describe his wish to expand the understanding of creative acts beyond their traditional application within the field of the arts.28 In light of such an extension of the concept of art, it is evident that there was little appeal for the artist to work within the restraints of multiples (or any other statically-defined category) as a formal genre.

Beuys was, however, clearly receptive to new approaches to the expanded arts that emerged during the early 1960s. By the middle of the decade, he had absorbed ideas from his peers, Robert Filliou and Allan Kaprow being key among them, and had come to recognize the potential of shaping a particular and active relationship with the viewer through the use of objects. Incorporating the artist/audience relationship as a subject of concern and exploration, Beuys extended his ideas about sculpture into more discursive modalities. Evervess II 1, published by Block in 1968, made this shift in Beuys’s thinking explicit. The work is comprised of a modest wooden box with two bottles of mineral water, one with printed labels and the other adorned with two patches of grey felt. The box’s stenciled lid contains a message to the recipient: “Sender beginnt mit der Information, wenn ‚‘II’ ausgetrunken und der Kronverschluss möglichst weit weggeworfen ist” (Sender begins to transmit the information when “II” is emptied and the bottle cap is thrown as far away as possible). The recipient is meant, in turn, to execute the message as a score, thus the viewer’s (potential) performance forms an essential component of this multiplied work. In the same year, politically engaged artist Klaus Staeck invited Beuys to contribute a proposal for a postcard as part of a series offered for sale outside the official documenta 4 venues in Kassel.29 Beuys’s contribution, which depicts a semi-aerial view of the square in front of documenta’s main exhibition space, bears a circular stamp in the artist’s signature style. By its very nature, the form of the work allows for an interactive exchange, activating a link between sender and receiver.30

Following the release of Sled in 1969, Beuys would publish other multiples with Block, including Filzanzug (Felt Suit) (1970) and Silberbesen und Besen ohne Haare (Silver Broom and Broom without Bristles) (1972), which have become iconic works within the artist’s oeuvre. In their painstaking fabrication, these works reflect as much the publisher’s interest in new models of artistic production as they do Beuys’s interest in the offbeat materials that would become his signature media. While Block’s engagement with the multiple form emphasized a demystification of artistic authorship by releasing pieces without artists’ signatures, Beuys continuously situated his persona as an essential component of his works, including the multiples.31 Despite these differences, the gallery’s Fluxus-inspired program, combined with Block’s unique and ambitious focus on contemporary German art, guaranteed a productive context that offered Beuys both a certain amount of visibility and a platform for the development of his experimental work.32

Beuys drew inspiration from others producing multiples as well, folding their ideas into his growing engagement with the form. Working under the auspices of his Interfunktionen publication, Friedrich W. Heubach offered Beuys another model for producing multiplied art. Heubach’s artist commissions were integrated into special editions of the publication, becoming both discreet works of art and a means of funding the magazine. Heubach’s approach emphasized printed matter over the production of loose objects. Embedded in the context of a magazine, the works produced under Heubach’s imprint veered away from the craft-oriented genre of “artist prints” and toward more commercial publication.

German publisher Wolfgang Feelisch’s VICE-Versand was another initiative that programmatically shaped Beuys’s conception of multiples. Characterized by their manageable size, low production costs, unlimited-edition runs, and affordability (works were made available for a retail price of DM 8, or approximately US $2), Feelisch’s “Zeitkunst im Haushalt” (Topical Art for Your Household) series was intended to be distributed via mail-order catalogue as widely and as democratically as possible.33 The concept of unlimited editions resonated with Beuys. In an interview published in lieu of an introduction to his first catalogue raisonné of multiples, he offered this insight into his interest in the multiple form:

Well, it’s a matter of two intersecting things. Naturally, I search for a suitable quality in an object, which permits multiplication.… But actually, it’s more important to speak of distribution, of reaching a large number of people.… I’m interested in the distribution of physical vehicles in the form of editions because I’m interested in spreading ideas.34

Inspired by the success of the paperback pocket book in the 1950s, Feelisch aimed to educate and change the patterns of everyday life; proliferation and dispersion were key.35 Beuys’s unlimited edition for Feelisch titled Intuition (1968), originally announced as Intuition … statt Kochbuch (Intuition … Instead of a Cookbook), is a plain wooden box held together by staples or nails and marked in pencil with the word of the title.36 Both simple and utilitarian, Beuys’s multiple quickly became Feelisch’s bestseller.


In 1967, Beuys helped to establish the German Student Party in an effort to promote peaceful protest.37 Posed on the precipice of the great cultural upheaval of the 1968 student revolts—which called for the reform of educational institutions while taking a critical position toward the Vietnam War, the governing parties, and Germany’s failure to confront its own past—Beuys’s engagement with the German Student Party demonstrates his increasingly active engagement in the political sphere. It was against this backdrop of political turmoil that Beuys introduced the political organization as a manifestation of his artistic practice. He soon became interested in extending the invitation for political participation beyond the limits of the student population, which led the German Student Party to morph into a series of entities, including the Organization of Non-Voters for a Free Referendum (1970) and the Organization for Direct Democracy through Referendum (1971).38

Lecturing and speaking out for political change became an integral component of Beuys’s practice. Building on his “Theory of Sculpture,” he developed the concept of “Social Sculpture.” The Organization for Direct Democracy served as a framework to advocate this concept as a way to transform existing political structures.39 Inspired by the theories of social organisms put forth by Rudolf Steiner, an influential German scholar of anthroposophy, Beuys considered it was necessary to harness the creative energy of every human as a crucial step toward inciting change within prevailing economic and political systems as well as pedagogical institutions. With this energy corralled, Beuys believed that society might move toward adjusting the balance of power within Western nations.40

As Beuys became more and more radical in his thinking, discussions emerged about his practice of overenrolling his courses—asserting democratic education over exclusion—which he did in direct violation of the admission policy of the Düsseldorf State Art Academy. Following a yearlong legal battle over his unauthorized actions, Beuys was dismissed from his position in the fall of 1972.41 Paralleling these events, the artist began discussing alternatives to traditional, state-operated educational institutions, working with supporters from both in and outside of the academic system. In January 1972, a committee for a Free School of Higher Education became the basis for the Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research (FIU), cofounded by Beuys along with Staeck, journalist Willi Bongard, and Georg Meistermann, a professor at the academy.42 According to the FIU’s manifesto, one of the main “tasks of the school” would be to unlock each student’s “creative potential”—regardless of their education or background—in order to extend creation beyond “the ability to shape material” and into spheres that engaged with socially relevant issues. “In a new definition of creativity,” the manifesto asserts, “the terms professional and amateur are transcended, and the fallacy of the unworldly artist and the alienated non-artist is abandoned.”43 In 1974, Beuys participated in public discussions to promote the school. In Düsseldorf, some began to formulate plans for a location and a funding model, while others discussed establishing a Free University in Ireland. While no physical institution was established, several participants did initiate a cluster of active branches.44

Despite his increased attention to sociopolitical activities, Beuys did not abandon the idea of multiplication. On the contrary: the frequency with which his objects were categorized as multiples increased significantly during these years. Manifold in form, dimension, and edition size—and published with a number of different partners—the multiples from the 1970s stand as evidence of Beuys’s continuously expanding practice. The potential of distribution inherent to the concept of multiplication became integral to his discursive work. Some multiples were published as flyers, informing recipients about the programs of his political organizations. These multiples became vehicles to distribute his ideas, serving also as “props for memory,” as the artist once termed them.45 Sometimes they were sold with the intention to raise funds for the associated organizations or related projects.46

Beuys’s multiple So kann die Parteiendiktatur überwunden werden (How the Dictatorship of the Parties Can Be Overcome) (1971), a printed polythene carrier bag containing a piece of felt and sheets of printed text, is a good example of his politically-engaged editions. This work became a key source of information concerning the ambitions of the Organization of Non-Voters for a Free Referendum. Distributed at no cost at Eine Straßenaktion (A Street Action) (1971) in Cologne, and sold in Kassel at documenta 5 in 1972 where the artist set up a “political bureau” as his contribution to the exhibition, this multiple informed the audience about the organization’s agenda and acted as a reminder of Beuys’s larger cause.47 Likewise, the calibrated glass cylinder Rose für direkte Demokratie (Rose for Direct Democracy) (1973) reproduced the vase from the desk where Beuys held meetings and discussions with documenta visitors. While the original vase contained a freshly cut red rose each day, the multiplied version stands in as a reminder of those earlier dialogues.

Various multiples were realized in relation to activities by different branches of the FIU. Often these were published by Staeck, an artist, publisher, and political activist who had become one of Beuys’s travel companions by the mid-1970s. In these increasingly dispersed modes of production and distribution, the multiples provide evidence of the artist’s active and public engagement with sociopolitical debates in the increasingly politicized context of the Federal Republic of Germany. Instead of democratizing art through multiples—as the early advocates of multiple art had encouraged—Beuys used his multiples to advocate for participatory democracy.

Accumulation and Self-Documentation

Despite the many functions they served—as carrier of political messages or “props for the memory”—it is important to remember that Beuys’s multiples were understood as artworks first and foremost. From the late 1960s onward, his works were staples of thematic group exhibitions that aimed to institutionalize the genre of multiplied art, present the form’s unfolding genealogy, and summarize its various approaches.48 Beuys’s multiples drew attention from the art market as well.49 The popularity of these works as collected objects is reflected in an article published in the March 1972 issue of the German weekly magazine Stern, the title of which asked, “Haben Sie auch schon einen hängen?” (Do you have yours hanging yet?). The article featured a number of collectors with their versions of Felt Suit—either worn or hanging in their wardrobe—and Sled, which was invariably pictured as a child’s toy. The feature provides strong evidence that Beuys and his multiples had become a part of both political discourse and consumer culture.

Yet, despite their popularity, the multiples were considered too fragmentary, ephemeral, and disparate from the standard of the “original” artwork that was at the core of the collecting methodologies of twentieth-century Western art museums. It was publishers and private collectors—and notably not museums—who became pivotal for the production and preservation of these works. Writing in the early 1980s, Gerhard Storck, the late director of the art museums in Krefeld, reflected that it was private collectors who had actually collected these fragmentary works at the time of their production. While Storck believed that multiples were only able to reveal their complete, complex forms when seen in relationship to one another, museums wishing to display these works had to rely upon the holdings of private collectors to do so. Recalling a visit to the home of physician Rainer Speck, who, among others, had been a devoted collector of Beuys’s multiples (and had even published a few of them), Storck jealously described his desire to engage these works in a private environment, “after a meal for example, with clean fingers.”50 Despite their mass-produced quality, multiples by Beuys and other artists still attained a familiar, even intimate quality when placed in the homes and collections of individuals.

While the multiple was promoted as readily attainable for all—hedging even on the territory of an impulse purchase—Beuys’s increasingly diverse output required the careful dedication of his more committed collectors. No longer conceived as one-off objects, the multiples became, for some, a serial affair. A preorder sheet for the second edition of the catalogue raisonné was integrated into the first, allowing the avid collector to keep up-to-date.51 On the one hand, this inclusion reaffirms Beuys’s commitment to the project of the multiples as of 1971; and on the other, it points to an enigmatic statement that the artist made, which was recalled by collector Günther Ulbricht in 1987 who remembers Beuys’s words: “If you have all my multiples, you have all of me.”52 More than fulfilling the wish to capture every aspect of his expansive practice in the form of manageably sized multiples, the order form also reads as a teaser for his collectors to “stay tuned,” and they did, some of them acquiring complete collections.53 The concept of dispersion—which was one of Beuys’s core motivations to design multiples—was thus tempered by the allure of accumulation.

The category of the multiple reveals another element of Beuys’s working method as his expanding practice translated into frequent appearances in the public realm. With his lectures, discussions, and political demonstrations came an increasing amount of press coverage on television and, perhaps more importantly, in print. Designating a certain quantity of any given print-run as an edition, Beuys declared selected press clippings focusing on his art and persona as readymade multiples. Inverting the work of other artists, who proactively placed pieces among the advertisement pages of magazines and newspapers, he appropriated press articles and clippings written about him, in effect transforming mainstream media into his own multiplied art. Sometimes he used these materials unchanged from their original form, while at other times he altered them by adding his signature or a number of stamps.54 At once reflecting his public reception and documenting his activities, these multiples function as a discourse on Beuys’s work—“products of the artist’s working biography”—that the artist himself incorporated throughout his own practice.55 This act of “self-documentation,” which is a term borrowed from Barbara Rose who used it to describe Claes Oldenburg’s determination “to use every leftover,” becomes especially evident when looking at those multiples that are simply printed matter.56 These bits of ephemera included entry tickets, posters, and invitation cards—some designed by Beuys, but many made without his input—used as tools to announce a performance or an exhibition. Reappropriated as multiples, these printed materials served to document Beuys’s art events and other moments, enacting a self-referential feedback loop.

As his success and visibility grew, Beuys was given more opportunities to travel, both throughout Europe and globally. A number of his multiples are the immediate result of spontaneous associations derived from encounters he had or discoveries he made on these trips. Amerikanischer Hasenzucker (American Hare Sugar) (1974), for example, is an appropriated sugar packet taken from a Minneapolis restaurant during the artist’s first encounter with American culture during a three-city tour arranged by Ronald Feldman Fine Arts Inc., New York, and Dayton’s Gallery 12, Minneapolis.57 Beuys’s travel companions included Staeck as well as printer and publisher Gerhard Steidl and curator Caroline Tisdall. During their journey to New York, Minneapolis, and Chicago, Beuys delivered lectures at art schools and other public venues. After the fact, even the trip itself—which he titled Energy Plan for the Western Man—was folded into Beuys’s growing catalogue of works.58

Audio recordings such as Schottische Symphonie/Requiem of Art (Scottish Symphony/Requiem of Art) (1973), coauthored with Danish musician and composer Henning Christiansen, are examples of multiples that approach documentation in a more conventional sense. These also fit in, to some extent, with the group of Beuys’s object-based multiples—mass-media objects being, per definition, a prototypical multiple. Due to his open-ended definition of the genre, the heterogeneity of Beuys’s multiples also reflects the collaborative nature of these works: in addition to publishers and collectors, “artists, writers, musicians, photographers, gallery owners, or political groups” frequently assumed the role of coauthor.59 The indexical information of the multiples, which includes their edition size and publisher name, is reminiscent of their art-historical precursors—prints and casts. This systematization also corresponds to a push to assimilate the production of art with that of other goods customarily authenticated by a trademark sign or label. Beuys’s complete set of multiples, therefore, serves as evidence not only of his expansive artistic practice and his intensely lived working biography but also of the development of the genre.

Beuys’s impulse toward self-referential documentation while also projecting that material outward as a form of communication with his audience is, of course, a trend seen elsewhere in conceptual art of the time. From 1968 until 1979, Japanese artist On Kawara consistently noted the date and time when he arose each morning on postcards each stamped with the phrase “I got up at” that he sent to selected recipients. Through this repetitive act, he assured himself of his own being, charged the calendar date with meaning, and also distributed responsibility for his work and its preservation among the recipients. Similarly, American artist James Lee Byars was known for sending stylized letters that served as professional communication while also existing as works in and of themselves.60 These are just two artistic practices, among many, to which Beuys’s concept of dispersion might be compared, though these artists’ differing approaches and interpretation of the relationship between art and life is a subject for another text entirely.

It should be noted that self-documentation was not a strategy that Beuys limited to his multiples. Rather, similar to all of his materials, these self-historicizing documents became part of the translatable humus that fed a broad range of artistic works. The document Lebenslauf/Werklauf (Life Course/Work Course), provides a good example. The piece, which first appeared as the artist’s contribution to the booklet for the Festival der Neuen Kunst (Festival for New Art) in 1964, appropriates the conventional format of an artist’s curriculum vitae, mixing biographical moments with fiction and professional history. The editing process for this work began in 1961 and continued to serve as a structural constituent of his exhibitions, establishing his characteristic practice of fusing life and work by introducing parallel narratives and rendering the different paths indistinguishable. The first English translation of this document became a part of his multiples practice through its appearance in I The Chief, II How To Explain Paintings to a Dead Hare (1970).

In what “may be regarded as a kind of visual analogue to Life Course/Work Course, Beuys created the installation Arena—Dove sarei arrivato se fossi stato intelligente! (Arena—where would I have got if I had been intelligent!) (1970–1972).61 Consisting of one hundred frames that contain various photographs of performances and installations, Arena offers a summary of Beuys’s performative and sculptural work from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. Here again the artist appropriated his life’s work, reiterating it in a new expanded form. Similarly, the print Vitex Agnus Castus (1973) reconstitutes the visual record of Arena as an editioned object. Such works point to Beuys’s own biography as an elastic, constantly recycled, and complex component of his art across the wide range of production. Different bits and fragments of biographic material become tangible through such multiplied forms brought into circulation along with the artist’s ideas.

Across decades of production, Beuys created his very own definition of the multiple. By the 1970s, his version of the genre had come to exist as an open category and had become his constant companion. For Beuys, the structural nature of the multiple guaranteed continuous dispersion and multiplication of his ideas, while at the same time offering a cumulative overview and record of his public life and work. His impulse to maintain the connection between early and later work, to suspend and maintain the ongoing dialogue evinced by his practice, becomes especially tangible through his multiples. The many layers of Beuys’s continuous method of self-referencing are encapsulated in a screenprinted image that appears in a version of his multiple 3 Tonnen-Edition (3 Ton Edition) (1973–1985). Here, the artist is seen reinstalling one of his sleds from The Pack, and nearby rests a shipping crate used for its transport to Stockholm’s Moderna Museet in 1971. This photograph by Lothar Wolleh documents Beuys releasing his work into the public sphere yet again—this time into the sphere of the museum—and positions the work of reinstalling and recontextualizing as an integral part of the artist’s practice.

Maja Wismer is a PhD candidate at the University of Basel, where she is writing a dissertation on the multiples of Joseph Beuys, situating them in their 1960s and 1970s West German context of production and reception. After studies in Basel and Berlin, she received her MA in art history in 2009 from the University of Basel. She has since worked at an international level on a variety of exhibitions and publication projects within the field of contemporary art. Project venues include, among others, the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich; the Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm; and the Latvian Center for Contemporary Art, Riga. Beginning with her MA thesis on The Uncanny by Mike Kelley, her exhibition work and academic research have consistently explored how exhibitions and publications unfold as forms and translate into the public sphere. Research for this article was made possible by Wismer’s position as Renke B. and Pamela M. Thye Curatorial Fellow in the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard Art Museums, from 2012 through 2014.