German artist Joseph Beuys (1921–1986) conceived one of the most compelling aesthetic programs of the 20th century, one that still resonates for artists and viewers alike. All of his work—sculpture, drawings, performances, lectures, teaching, and political activism—was aimed at remaking Western culture into a more peaceful, democratic, and spiritually attuned system. He believed this grand transformation was possible only if all human beings applied their innate creative energies toward positive change. This idea infuses his work in all forms, from the photolithograph La rivoluzione siamo Noi (The Revolution Is Us) to his sculptural batteries of copper and felt to his famous declaration “Everyone is an artist.” To spread the word, he fashioned a persona as an itinerant artistic shaman who was instantly recognizable in his trademark felt hat, fishing vest, and work boots. Although Beuys was a polarizing figure during his lifetime, he is today considered one of the most important artists to emerge during the postwar period.
Beuys visited America for the first time in January 1974. By then his reputation was well established in Europe, but he was relatively unknown in the US. He had refused to visit while America was involved in the Vietnam War, and it wasn’t until after US troops were pulled from the conflict in 1973 that he accepted an invitation from two art dealers who shared an interest in his work: Ronald Feldman, who had a gallery in New York City, and John Stoller, director of Dayton’s Gallery 12 in Minneapolis. Beuys’s art had had very little exposure in the US, and the two gallerists hoped to present exhibitions of his work in each city.
Beuys accepted their offer with a caveat: he didn’t want to show his sculpture or drawings. Instead, he wanted his first visit to America to present a different aspect of his art: his ideas. He would do a lecture tour, and he would call it Energy Plan for the Western Man. Feldman and Stoller crafted an itinerary that stretched over ten days in January 1974, with stops in New York, Chicago and Minneapolis. Because Beuys wanted to speak with students instead of curators and collectors, they booked his talks at colleges: the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), and the University of Minnesota. At each venue, he spoke for an hour or more, making explanatory drawings on blackboards as he spoke and touching on topics ranging from history, economic theory, and politics to Christianity, myth, and the natural sciences. His message: society needed to embrace “an expanded concept of art” that went far beyond such traditional forms as painting and sculpture.1 “Everybody can do his own particular kind of art and work for the new social organization,” he told the audience at the New School. “Creativity is national income.”2
At the time of his visit, Beuys’s art took diverse forms that included sculpture, printmaking, drawing, performance, and installation. He also made multiples: two- or three-dimensional artworks made in multiple copies. Because they could be produced in large quantities and sold at low prices, multiples were ideal for extending the reach of his art. He spoke of them as “vehicles” that could move his ideas through time and space, sparking debate just as his lectures and performances did.3 Multiples became key to his artistic practice, and by the time of his death in 1986 he had made more than 600 of them in formats ranging from sculptures, prints, and photographs to found objects, audio and video recordings, broadsides, postcards, and books. Each one is a brief notation of an idea or experience; as a group, they provide a complete picture of his diverse output and extraordinary ideas.
During that first visit to the US, Beuys conceived 16 new multiples. Some came about through lucky encounters with objects that had significance within the context of his work. For example, while having dinner with John Stoller at Nye’s Polonaise Room in Minneapolis, he found a sugar packet printed with an image of a rabbit. Since he had long considered the hare his totem animal, Beuys collected about 40 packets and used them to make the multiple Amerikanischer Hazensucker (American Hare Sugar). In New York, he found a 3-D postcard of the new World Trade Center, bought 25 copies, and turned them into a multiple by adding the names Cosmos and Damian, one for each tower—a reference to the twin brothers who were itinerant physicians and early Christian martyrs.
A pair of multiples titled Surrender I and Surrender II was made from leaflets printed with that word, which students tossed at Beuys during his lecture at MCAD. And the video Dillinger, made in an edition of forty, documents an impromptu performance in front of Chicago’s Biograph Theater, where the gangster John Dillinger was shot to death in 1934.
One of the more complex multiples to come out of Energy Plan for the Western Man, a suite of 12 lithographs entitled Minneapolis Fragments, was a record of his lecture at the University of Minnesota architecture school. During the talk, Beuys illustrated his ideas by writing and drawing on six zinc printing plates instead of a blackboard. He took the plates back to Germany and had them printed in two versions: black script on white, and white script on black. When arranged in a grid, each provides a mirror-image facsimile of his lecture drawing.
Other multiples to come out of the tour were made from a felt blackboard eraser, a dollar bill, and a matchbook, all found during his travels across the country. Beuys’s conflation of life and art meant that every experience he had was potential fodder for his work.
In May 1974, Beuys returned to the US for a short visit. This time, he did no lectures or interviews. Instead, he did a performance: I Like America and America Likes Me, in which he spent three days with a live coyote in a gallery space that had been turned into a cage. He made his third and final visit to the US in November 1979 to oversee the installation of his retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. Together, Beuys’s three trips to America presented him in three guises—speaker, performer, and maker of objects—and touched off debates among American viewers that are sometimes heated, even decades after the artist’s death.
When the Walker Art Center was considering, in 1991, how best to represent Beuys in the collection, a large body of multiples seemed potentially more instructive for audiences than a single sculptural work. After an international search, a comprehensive but not complete collection of multiples was located and eventually acquired from Alfred and Marie Greisinger, collectors of contemporary art and proprietors of a pastry café in Baden-Baden, Germany. In 1997, the Greisinger collection became the basis for Joseph Beuys Multiples, a Walker-organized exhibition that traveled internationally and was accompanied by the first English translation of the catalogue raisonné of the artist’s editions. More than twenty-three years after Beuys visited Minneapolis during Energy Plan for the Western Man, the Walker exhibition gave audiences in the Twin Cities their first chance to see his work in depth.
To acknowledge Beuys’s commitment to using art as an instrument for social change, Joseph Beuys Multiples included an ambitious public program called 7000 Oaks, Minnesota. It was conceived as a continuation of Beuys’s project 7000 Eichen (7000 Oaks), which aimed to restore the urban forest around Kassel, West Germany.
Begun in 1982 and completed in posthumously in 1987, the project was carried out by Beuys and hundreds of volunteers who planted trees in locations determined by community councils and citizens’ initiatives. Near each tree, a basalt stele was sunk into the earth; the combination of rigid, static stone with continuously self-transforming tree was meant to evoke the harmonious coexistence in nature of opposing states of being. Among several multiples associated with the project is Pala (1983), a simple shovel fashioned from ash wood and wrought iron.
7000 Oaks, Minnesota focused on Cass Lake, a town of 860 people on Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. One thousand red maple, plum, white cedar, and crab apple seedlings were offered to the town’s residents and business owners and planted by volunteers from the community. In the project’s second phase, a group of students from St. Paul Central High School planted trees on the school grounds and in the surrounding neighborhood. In October 1997, the project was completed when a single native cottonwood tree and basalt stele were placed side by side in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.
Today, the Walker holds examples of more than 500 of Beuys’s multiples, one of only three large collections in the US. (The others are at the Broad, Los Angeles, and Harvard University’s Busch-Reisinger Museum.) While Beuys’s work in all its rich forms has had an enormous influence on the development of postwar art, the multiples were his way of “staying in touch with people.”4 At the Walker, they continue to be included in exhibitions drawn from the permanent collection, ensuring that conversations about his ideas will continue into the future.
1 See Heiner Stachelhaus, Joseph Beuys, trans. David Britt (New York: Abbeville Press, 1991), 61ff.
2 Carin Kuoni, ed., Joseph Beuys in America: Energy Plan for the Western Man (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1990), 8.
3 Beuys quoted in “Questions to Joseph Beuys,” an interview by Jörg Schellmann and Bernd Klüser, reprinted in Jörg Schellmann, ed., Jospeh Beuys: The Multiples (Cambridge, MA, Minneapolis, MN, and New York: Harvard University Art Museums, Walker Art Center, and Edition Schellmann, 1997), 9.