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Comparative Exhibition of Multiples on View at Harvard's Busch-Reisinger Museum

Cambridge, MA,

Unprecedented presentation of objects by Joseph Beuys, George Maciunas, and Fluxus provides insight into radical art of the 1960s in Europe and the US

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The Harvard University Art Museums present Multiple Strategies: Beuys, Maciunas, Fluxus, an exhibition of nearly 200 works including printed and object multiples, photographs, and unique objects, at the Busch-Reisinger Museum from February 24 through June 10, 2007. This pioneering exhibition stages a dialogue between the work of German artist Joseph Beuys and that of the loose international collective known as Fluxus, and in particular, its principal organizer George Maciunas, and examines the role of the printed or object multiple in these artists’ pursuit of an expanded notion of what art could and should be. Drawing from the significant holdings of Beuys and Fluxus in the permanent collections of the Busch-Reisinger Museum and the Fogg Art Museum respectively, the exhibition will offer a unique pairing of the two through a number of carefully considered thematic groupings and juxtapositions.

In the 1990s, the Willy and Charlotte Reber Collection, a rare, nearly complete assembly of multiples by Joseph Beuys, was acquired by the Busch-Reisinger Museum; and in 2005, the Fogg Art Museum acquired the Barbara and Peter Moore Fluxus Collection, a remarkable first-owner collection that places Harvard’s Fluxus holdings among the most significant in North America. Fluxus and Beuys have each been the subject of numerous large-scale exhibitions over the past few decades; however, this will be the first time any institution has mounted an exhibition specifically examining the relationship between the two bodies of work. Although objects from the Moore collection have appeared in other major Fluxus exhibitions, this will be its first public exhibition at Harvard.

Multiple Strategies: Beuys, Maciunas, Fluxus is organized by Jacob Proctor, Ruth V S Lauer Curatorial Assistant in the Department of Prints, and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History of Art and Architecture. “These objects challenge us to think differently about art and to ask what role it can play in society, as well as to reconsider long-held, perhaps unquestioned, ideas about the relationship between art object, viewer, and institutional frame,” said Proctor. “In different ways, both Beuys and Fluxus used their art to stimulate collective social and political engagement. I hope that this exhibition will not only challenge received wisdom and critical assumptions about these works, but also ensure that art maintains an active and critical role in the intellectual life of students. At the same time, viewers will see that there is a strong aspect of play, humor, and wit to these works.”

The avant-gardists of the early 20th century launched a succession of assaults on the concept of aesthetic autonomy, perhaps the most devastating of which were Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades.” Duchamp developed the term readymade in 1915 to refer to found objects chosen by the artist as art. By suggesting that a preexisting, industrially produced object — such as his notorious Fountain (1917), a urinal that he turned on its side, signed “R. Mutt,” and submitted to the first exhibition of the American Society of Independent Artists — could be considered a work of art simply by virtue of the artist’s having designated it as such, Duchamp asserted that there was no longer a fundamental difference between making art and naming art. Considered scandalous during the time of their production, by the early 1960s many of Duchamp’s readymades had taken the form of authorized, limited edition, handcrafted replicas and were considered valuable works of art that seemed to contradict their original intention.

In the 1950s and 1960s the term multiple came to be applied to a new type of art object that, while intended to be produced in numerous copies, fell outside the parameters of such traditional forms as printmaking and cast sculpture. Often fabricated using the materials and techniques of mass production, these objects typically existed in very large, or even unlimited, editions. Unlike painting and sculpture, or even traditional fine art printmaking, the multiple engaged directly with the conditions of industrial production, mass communication, and an increasingly global economy.

For the artists of the international avant-garde known as Fluxus, the multiple presented a means to revive and reformulate the readymade’s critique of aesthetic autonomy. Fluxus emerged in the early 1960s as a loose, collaborative effort to fundamentally redefine the terms of artistic production. The group coalesced around the Lithuanian-born American artist George Maciunas (1931–1978), who served as Fluxus’s principal organizer, designer, publisher, and impresario. Fluxus sought to dethrone “serious” culture by creating objects and performances demonstrating that, as Maciunas said, “Anything can be art and anyone can do it.”

Joseph Beuys (1921–1986) also looked to the readymade as he sought to bring art and life into closer proximity. But unlike Maciunas and the Fluxus artists, Beuys almost immediately distanced himself from the readymade’s inventor. In a live appearance on German television in 1964, Beuys dramatically inscribed a large placard with the statement “The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overrated.” Duchamp’s readymades had signaled the obsolescence not only of traditional works of art but perhaps even of the notion of art itself. For Beuys, the readymade became part of a larger effort to reinvest artistic activity with metaphorical, ritual, and even spiritual significance.

Although they often differed in their choice of strategies, Beuys and Maciunas shared many of the same goals including using art as a means of realizing social and political change, recognizing the importance of collective action, and eliminating the boundary between art and life. The production of multiples played a key role these efforts, often acting as a mediator between the production of objects and a growing emphasis on artistic process and action unfolding in real time.

Beuys, for his part, referred to his multiples both as vehicles for the spreading of ideas and as anchors that encouraged people to make connections between objects and across media. Maciunas began producing multiples as an extension of his activities as a publisher and initially conceived of the multiple as a challenge to conventional modes of cultural production and distribution, while his position and use of multiples became more complex and multifaceted over time. It is certainly true of both Beuys and Fluxus multiples that the significance of a group of objects is almost always greater than the sum of its parts. Variously conceived as carriers of ideas intended to circulate through the world as absurdist send-ups of consumer products and as invitations to direct participation by the viewer, many of their works attempt to undermine the very concept of the art museum and the notion of aesthetic autonomy it implies.

“In addition to showcasing two important collections of postwar art, the ability of this exhibition to both perform and stimulate intellectual study makes it particularly appropriate to our mission of teaching and research,” said Thomas W. Lentz, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums. “While the exhibition is drawn almost entirely from our collections, its potential for scholarship reaches far beyond our basic ability to showcase these works and extends to our role as a teaching museum. In posing questions, creating opportunities for dialogue, and offering comparisons to students, scholars, and the public, this exhibition points to the efforts of both Beuys and Maciunas to transform the ways in which art is exhibited and distributed.”

Featured Works
On view in the exhibition are significant works from Joseph Beuys, George Maciunas, George Brecht, and Robert Watts, as well as Marcel Duchamp, Yoko Ono, Chieko Shiomi, Alison Knowles, Claes Oldenburg, Ben Vautier, and many others. Particularly iconic works include an early example of the Fluxkit (1964). The Fluxkit was designed and produced by Maciunas as an ambitious effort to present the scope of Fluxus production in one container. Inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-Valise (the Fogg’s c. 1961 copy of the Boîte is also included in the exhibition), the Fluxkit gathers its array of Fluxus editions and printed matter in a specially-modified briefcase. Also featured are other anthology editions Fluxus 1 (1964) and Flux Year Box 2 (late 1960s). The exhibition includes rarely-seen, often unique, maquettes and prototypes for editions. These objects are both compelling in their own right and offer a unique glimpse into the creative process. Examples include the collage maquette for Robert Watts’s 1962 SafePost/Jockpost/K.U.K. Feldpost, Peter Moore’s 1967 Venetian Blind, and the aborted 1966 Claes Oldenburg edition False Food Selection. Also included in the exhibition is the rare first version of Chieko (Mieko) Shiomi’s Spatial Poem No. 1 (c. 1965), in a wooden box with densely packed paper flags arranged so that they nest together when the box is closed. Only a few examples were assembled in this way; the assembly was so painstaking and labor-intensive that even the notoriously meticulous Maciunas was stymied and resorted to placing the flags on a flat board for the majority of the edition. The selection and installation of objects in the exhibition highlights the interconnections between Beuys’s multiples and his social and political activism. In addition to showcasing many lesser-known works, this emphasis offers new insights into such seminal Beuys editions as the Felt Suit (1970), Ja Ja Ja Ja Ja, Nee Nee Nee Nee Nee (1969), The Silence (1973), Evervess II 1 (1968), and Intuition (1968).

Multiple Strategies: Beuys, Maciunas, Fluxus is made possible, in part, by the Friends of the Busch-Reisinger Museum.

The exhibition is accompanied by a brochure, featuring 13 illustrations and an essay by curator Jacob Proctor.