Thursday, September 29, 2011


I didn't think I would make it, but I pulled things together and found myself at my number one ticket for the fall - Kurt Schwitters' Color and Collage, at the Berkeley Art Museum. It's an incredible show, with two sides, or perhaps it's one show of incredible collage with a very cool supplement. In the end, not exactly what I expected, but I'll quit foreshadowing and try to explain.
Color and Collage is Schwitters' first single-artist retrospective held in the United States in 25 years. It features primarily collages (which he would refer to as drawings, paintings, or Merz) from the Berlin period, where he spent most of his career, moving to Norway in 1937 (read: fleeing the Nazis), and there are just a couple pieces from this period, and then leaving Norway for London, where he spent the rest of his life, dying in 1948. There are a number of London pieces, and, like Norway there are surprising differences between each period, Norway I would call the stark difference, save for that it is so underrepresented (so few works survive), it is probably a stretch to make any generalizing claims about the Norway work.
As you should now, in each locale- Berlin, Norway (Oslo? - I'll check later), London- Schwitters built into each of his living spaces an incredible architectural collage, which he called Merzbau. The first two were destroyed, the London Merzbau I believe still exists. I had thought that this exhibition was an actual reconstruction of the London Merzbau, but it in fact only includes a replica of the Norway Merzbau based on photographs. This replica of Merzbau doesn't end up being as impressive as my dreams- it's more informative than aesthetic, with scraps from the photographs that the Merzbau replica was based on included architecturally. These documentary insertions give some idea, I guess as how to compare the replica to the original (the replica is clearly more spare), and in some ways it comes off as quaint. It is, however, um, very cool. We are given a into into the end-point of Cubism.
Schwitters, just for the record, does seem to have Merzbau as integrally related to Cubism, btw.
And the dialogue between the two (thinking of the early Picasso and Braque with the single train ticket or newspaper fragment pasted into an oil painting, ending in the Merzbau's haunting subconsious of white paint, angles, and fragments- detritus from art and life) is incredible. The suggestions of the realtionship between Schwitters, or Merz (as he referred to his one-man movement) and other art movements is also telling.
In the mid-twenties, Schwitters became close, at least briefly to El Lissitzky and Theo Van Doesburg (Constructivism and DeStijl represented in these figures). There is a three-dimensional (I should say more three-dimensional, as most of the Merz pieces are more or less three-dimensional) piece called "Merz 1924,1. Relief mit Kreuz und Kugel" (Relief with Cross and Ball), where you have the cross, really a fragment of a grid coming from the wall, almost a half foot deep, in grays and black, hugging a red ball. Above all of these is pasted a fragment of an imagined surface, what appears to be an architectural sketch of solid and broken intersecting diagonal lines on a beige paper, which appears like a fragment of an imagined surface, suggestive of skin, or a surface unrefined. This is the more typical Merz in this fragment, placed above the "perfect" academic skeleton of deStijl.
Schwitters' collages of detritus refuse the vainglory or artists of excision (Pound, Broodthaers, myself) off their subjects. Was this, were these collages a long mediation on, or following, Picasso's sticking of a train ticket onto wet paint? Did Picasso grow weary of glorious art, knowing that he could "lower" his art with this gesture and still be praised for it? There may have been a formalism or structure in those first Cubist collages of Picasso and Braque, but it also may have been born there.
Schwitters' pitting of "sense against nonsense" is an analysis, or a celebration of art and its edge, the ledge where art is overlapping with happenstance. The interest seems to be something beyond chance, or beneath it. Merz is perfectly impure. It may contain some formalistic superstructure, some "design sense" but the details of the piece will resist it. One possible reading of the Merz collages are as examinations of the design principle, abstract formalism, undermined by the elements of the units of collage.
In "Iockere Vierecke" (loose rectangles) there is a horizontal crease, a the trace of a fold not quite halfway down the collage, which reminds me of Courbet's "Burial at Ornans," which I saw at the Musee d'Orsay in 2006. The Burial at Ornans was also apparently folded twice, causing the museum lighting to create a glare on the upper portion of the painting (which is one of the largest paintings I have ever seen), making it very difficult to see. This crease, in Schwitters' collage, does not so much contrast with as appear to be a nuanced evolution from the nail he would drive into a collage, in his words: "so as to produce a plastic relief apart from the pictorial quality of the paintings. I did this so as to efface the boundaries between the arts." With the crease here a step further is taken. A quality, as a nail or frame is a quality, showing itself thru light, apart from the ages, a-temporal, reflecting the clumsiness of the hand without the necessity of intentions, though also without the necessity of that intention's lacking. It runs thru the various papers, scraps, that compose Iockere Vierecke, and is reminiscent of others, of wrinkles in the individual scraps, which suddenly appear to be deltas or the confluence of rivers, running alongside the mountain range the crease appears to be in this light, before it all turns back to garbage.

remove the appearance
of human intention
and then remove the
apparition of natural
the result is not of
the world but is one,

all, a new but not
recent, built neither
on the back of man or
nature, which break
with the idiom

create connection
if possible between
the world

play off sense
against nonsense
producing a third)

no pictures allowed in here

No comments: