St. Louis

Daniel Spoerri, Spiegelobjekt (Mirror Object), 1964, two mirrors, wooden boards, found objects, 19 3⁄4 × 39 3⁄8 × 3 1⁄8". From “Multiplied: Edition MAT and the Transformable Work of Art, 1959–1965.”

Daniel Spoerri, Spiegelobjekt (Mirror Object), 1964, two mirrors, wooden boards, found objects, 19 3⁄4 × 39 3⁄8 × 3 1⁄8". From “Multiplied: Edition MAT and the Transformable Work of Art, 1959–1965.”

“Multiplied: Edition MAT and the Transformable Work of Art, 1959–1965”

One of Marcel Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs, 1935/1953, spun mesmerizingly on the wall. Frank J. Malina’s Tableau Mobile—Hercules (Mobile Picture—Hercules), 1960, glowed as multicolored lights floated across a black screen. Man Ray’s aluminum lampshade-like sculpture Le retour à la raison (The Return to Reason), 1919/1960, twisted gently in the air. These works are relatively small, but they created visual and physical movement, and some, such as Dieter Roth’s Book AA, 1960, required manipulation. Along with others that function similarly, these objects were produced under the auspices of Daniel Spoerri’s Edition MAT (Multiplication d’art transformable), the first postwar initiative to fabricate and disseminate series of multiples. They were reunited for “Multiplied: Edition MAT and the Transformable Work of Art, 1959–1965,” curated by Meredith Malone at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum and soon to be on view at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The show—which was organized chronologically and displayed works from the three series Spoerri organized, in 1959, 1964, and 1965—sought to give the ambitious, underexamined project its due, especially in the United States (Spoerri remains a subject of primarily European scholarship). But seen today, by a society that prioritizes grand spectacle and experience writ large, these works, with their belief in art’s potential to find social relevance amid accelerating industrialization, seemed overly optimistic, even as their playfulness made space for critical reflection.

Spoerri alone produced and distributed the first series, which was shown throughout Europe at galleries and museums as well as in nontraditional spaces. The works were equally priced and could be ordered by mail. This first series was the most engaging—many works required intervention—and the most challenging to display, because here they could not be handled. Malone attempted to overcome this gap by showing period photographs in which visitors touched the objects as well as ephemera, such as exhibition catalogues. A selection of large-scale works by Edition MAT artists provided greater context in showing how artists employed other techniques of transformation at the time: Pol Bury’s Erectile Entity, 1962, a strange combination of crackling moving wires that periodically ascend from a field of red paint, was a particularly remarkable example.

Like many utopian projects of this nature, the multiples became too difficult for the artist to independently oversee. He gave up the project. But by 1964, the fashion for multiples had grown internationally. Spoerri restarted the project with the Swiss artist and graphic designer Karl Gerstner and outsourced production, sales, and distribution to Cologne’s Galerie Der Spiegel, which charged varying prices based on each artist’s market value. Works in this second iteration were conceived as “originals in series,” with each work allowing endless variations. To demonstrate this distinction in the exhibition, Malone included multiple versions of several works, such as Niki de Saint Phalle’s Shoot-it-yourself-picture, 1964, in which small pouches of colored paint were affixed to a board and covered in white plaster. The owner was instructed to shoot the object with a rifle, popping the sacks of paint, which violently splattered and dripped down the white surface. To this series Spoerri contributed his own Spiegelobjekt (Mirror Object), 1964, in which small toys and everyday items were glued to both sides of a set of mirrors hinged together and opened like a book. Owners could adjust the angles of the mirrors to double the reflections in a mise en abyme. Like others in this second edition, the piece captured a moment in time by directly appropriating the real material of daily life, reflecting the spirit of Nouveau Réalisme, of which Spoerri and de Saint Phalle were practitioners. Asking viewers to weigh consumer culture against the inevitability of decay and obsolescence is as relevant now as it was then.

To display these domestically scaled works in a museum was a challenge. As Ágnes Berecz points out in her catalogue essay, “They needed to be displayed as possessions, to be used and amused or consumed by.” Spoerri succeeded in this respect: The works resist canonization. One left the exhibition with a sense of loss and desire.