Art multiples have existed for a very long time, in fact, probably as early as art itself, considering some of the Etruscan or Aztec artifacts you see in museums. As far as contemporary art is concerned, the idea to reach a wider public through the use of an affordable edition tempted artists for many a generation. Man Ray, in the Seventies – when he finally got the recognition he deserved –, whooped up a stunning 5000 copies version of his famous Cadeau, at a time when everyone made huge editions of lithographs and etchings.
Then, by the mid '80s, multiples sort of went out of fashion, only to return big time in the early 2000's with a new boom of street art paraphernalia, t-shirts and websites such as Cerealart.com who sported excellent artists and magnificent limited editions, such as the Action Figures by Marcel Dzama, the Flower Ball by Takahashi Murakami or the “Too young 2 die” ashtray by Yoshimoto Nara. Although the economic crisis hit the multiple art industry in the last few years (some excellent web shops, like Imperfect Articles, that made amazing artist t-shirts, have closed down) the multiple extravaganza remains alive and well.
Making editions has become cheaper and cheaper, and a lot of artists are making their own editions in order to market them directly to their public through websites such as CafePress or Zazzle, others hand produce them and sell them even on Ebay, up to the successful artists who get to have their multiples produced by established galleries. The king of mass production is probably Damien Hirst, whose marketing skills have made him open Other Criteria, a publishing company that produces posters, editions, books and clothing. Some of them are simply amazing and quite affordable too. Having a gallery to produce your multiple is a fantastic way to promote yourself as an artist. The latest remarkable multiple I saw was from Canadian artist Anitra Hamilton. Her Ikea plate revisited, Delft, is a companion work to the previous project, Ming.
Ming featured a series of white, made-in-China plates. The artist hired a Chinese art student to hand paint the word Ming on to the surface of the plates using traditional blue porcelain paint. The project refers to colonization. Delft Blue - the classic blue and white Dutch porcelain - would not exist had the Dutch Colonists not left Europe to plunder the far East. A work that brings to your home the personal history of the artist, whose ancestors were Dutch colonists.
The Multiple Store is another UK icon online shop that was founded in 1998, sporting excellent multiples by Fiona Banner, Rose Finn-Kelcey, Alison Wilding and many more really interesting UK artists. Another interesting reality is The Present Group, an art subscription project from the US that for only $ 150 a year gives you the opportunity of owning three unique multiples from upcoming artists. Art Metropole in Toronto, Printed Matter in New York, and many more courageous shops and galleries around the world offer a huge amount of printed multiples made by artists, which would deserve a research article in its own right.