Multiple choice

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 41, Winter 2014

Page 82

Multiple choice

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 41, Winter 2014

Page 82

Multiple choice

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 41, Winter 2014

Page 82

Artists' editions and multiples are the perfect entry point for new collectors. Louisa Buck gives the big picture on this exciting trend

The notion of the artist's multiple is hardly new. In the early 16th century Albrecht Dürer realized that as a maker of prints rather than unique paintings, he could sell his art across Europe, which he duly did, branded with his famous AD logo to protect his success. Some 450 years later his fellow countryman Joseph Beuys had a similar – albeit more altruistic – take on the multiple, an artistic idiom which he took to a new level, creating over 500 (then) inexpensive editioned artworks from the mid-1960s until his death in 1986. (An edition is simply a more prescribed quantity of multiples.) For Beuys, these small objects and works on paper were a way of disseminating his ideas to a broader public: the man who famously declared that "everyone is an artist" regarded his multiples as 'antennae' through which he would broadcast his creative concerns across the wider world: "I am a Sender", he declared, "I transmit!"

Many of today's leading artists share this view and find that the smaller scale and ease of distribution of the multiple enables them to reach beyond the more rarified upper echelons of the art world. Damien Hirst has developed diffusion ranges of his spots, spins and butterflies, which at one end of the price spectrum appear as unlimited multiples on fridge magnets and mugs, and at the other as limited-edition rugs and prints for five figure sums. Tracey Emin's mugs and Takashi Murakami's T-shirts, toys and handbags for Louis Vuitton are more examples of how big names have embraced the multiple.

Over at London's City Hall, Fiona Banner's five giant Full Stops have become one of the capital's outdoor landmarks. As Banner says: "There is something economic about the scale of the multiple that goes beyond the economics of production – it's a great way of working, and distribution doesn't necessarily rely on the gallery system." Banner's many forays into the multiple include seven glazed ceramic full stops in a limited edition of 100, which she calls Table Stops. Like their City Hall counterparts, they are based on different typefaces. According to Banner, these palm-sized sculptures function as abstract points of focus, which, "like tableware or executive toys ... are made to be handled and moved around."

Beuys not only appreciated the democracy and mobility of his multiples, he also saw them as an opportunity to experiment with a wide variety of formats and materials, ranging from The Sled of 1969, which kitted out a wooden child's sledge with his survival kit of felt blanket, lump of animal fat, and flashlight; to the 1985 Capri Battery, an expression of his ecological concerns in the form of a two-part sculpture consisting of a light bulb and a lemon. Now, as the art world becomes increasingly diverse and the art market ever more omnivorous, today's artists are following Beuys' creative lead with a vengeance. In gallery gift shops, online or in special outlets dedicated to the format, editions and multiples have proliferated, with artists of all inclinations embracing both the challenges as well as the boundless range of possibilities that come from making these smaller, replicable artworks.

This way of working developed in the 1950s and 1960s, when post-war industrial processes made it possible to produce objects quickly and cheaply to satisfy new consumer demand. The artists Jean Tinguely and Yaacov Agam seem to have coined the term in about 1955, and the first multiples were eventually produced in Paris a few years later.

While the means of production may be easier than for earlier generations, the end product can be demanding for contemporary artists. "I feel that making a multiple presents a more challenging scale than many of my larger things – you are trying to condense your ideas without trivializing them – and that's tough, but interesting," declares Yinka Shonibare, the artist best known for putting his giant Nelson's Ship in a Bottle on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, and whose brightly-patterned, six-metre high steel and fiberglass Wind Sculptures were shown to great acclaim at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Shonibare's most recent sculpture is a suggestively-shaped limited-edition Kaleidoscope which, although rather smaller in stature than much of his oeuvre, is no less attention-grabbing. Gazing through the slit in the shiny brass knob which covers one end yields an image of Botticelli's Venus, but in which a well-endowed black youth has usurped the place of the goddess in her scallop shell. "It's something for the ladies," states its maker, "a playful take on Laura Mulvey's male gaze," referencing the feminist film theorist's notion of women as objects in the Hollywood movies of the 1950s and 1960s.

"The multiple form is an exciting one for artists – in terms of their practice it often gives them a space for experimentation and the chance to do something unexpected in a form that we might not normally associate with them," confirms Whitechapel Gallery Director, Iwona Blazwick. "For artists who are just starting out, having people buy their work, even for very modest sums, also often acts as an important affirmation that can be make or break." For well over a decade every artist exhibiting at the Whitechapel has been invited to make a reasonably-priced limited edition work which is then sold to support the gallery program. Over the years the Whitechapel has offered specially-commissioned multiple pieces by major names such as Gary Hume, Bridget Riley, Sophie Calle, Sarah Lucas, Mel Bochner, and Isa Genzken, to name but a few, as well as works by up and coming figures such as Turner Prize winners Tomma Abts and Laure Prouvost. Inevitably, many of these are now sold out. "When you buy one of these editions you are not only acquiring a wonderful work of art which nearly always increase in value, you are also supporting future exhibitions – so it's a win-win situation," Blazwick points out.

The production of a fund-raising edition to accompany the exhibition program has now become standard practice for not-for-profit organizations throughout the contemporary art world. Not only is it an important revenue stream – especially as public funding for the arts dwindles – but according to Polly Staple, director of the cutting-edge Chisenhale Gallery in east London, the practice of making editioned work in tandem with a larger exhibition is also popular with artists as a means of recording their exhibition at the space. "I'm very attached to our wall full of editions because it tells the story of the artists that have shown in the gallery," she says. "After the exhibition has come down it's a way for their presence to continue to resonate in the gallery."

Whether an edition or multiple exists as a memento, a creative challenge or simply as a fundraiser, buying a piece that has been commissioned by a reputable gallery is also a move that is ever more popular with entry-point as well as established collectors. Not only does the involvement of a known space ensure that production values are usually top spec, but because the artist in question has already received the stamp of institutional endorsement, the piece is also more likely to accrue value.

Yet one of the major joys of buying editioned and multiple artworks is the fact that they only (usually) require a modest outlay, so even if the artist doesn't achieve stellar status and stratospheric market success, the work can simply be enjoyed for its own sake. Whether you want to own a major name for a modest price, or to support a young artist at the beginning of their career, there is an artist's edition or multiple to suit all tastes and budgets. It's why the current enthusiasm for the multiple shows no sign of stopping.

Louisa Buck is a British art critic and author of Owning Art: The Contemporary Art Collectors' Handbook.

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