In 1961 the Museum of Modern Art mounted the exhibition The Art of Assemblage. Curated by William Seitz, this exhibition marked the first time the term "assemblage" was put into popular use and also the first time "assembled art" was recognized for its importance in the context of modern art. Seitz set out to refine the definition of "assemblage" in order "cover all forms of composite art and modes of juxtaposition". The exhibition was significant in that it presented "assemblage" as one of the two most important innovations in modern art, the first being abstraction.
Today, assemblage encompasses all works that are assembled from found objects or material from everyday life. The term is frequently associated with a very Bauderlarian sensibility in its expression of modern life and, in particular, of urban culture. The technical innovation of the artists presented in this exhibition is unparalleled. The use of collage, originating in the work of Picasso in 1912, has radically evolved over the past 40 years into elaborate constructions, from the scrap metal of John Chamberlain to the cabinetry of Ed Kienholz, from the flea market bobbles of Bruce Conner to the refined paper reliefs of Richard Tuttle. This exhibition will trace the history of assemblage from its founding fathers Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters through the artists who have take assemblage through the 60s and 70s to it present manifestation of the 1990s.
Duchamp and Schwitters were the first to open the possibility of assembled art. Duchamp's 1921 Fresh Widow, a pun on French window, was originally conceived by the artist as an "assisted readymade". However, as a result of its inclusion in Seitz's exhibition, it is now considered to be one of the earliest examples of assemblage. Stemming from decidedly Surrealist and Dada attitudes, the miniature French window lined with black leather also illustrates the Seitz's basic definition of assemblage: "setting one thing beside another without a connective".
Schwitters pursues the collection of lowly materials to a more extreme end, accumulating and assembling the detritus of the city into three-dimensional compositions. Merzbild/Rossfett(Horse Fat) 1918-19, heavily influences the development of assemblage in the 50s and 60s. In embracing painting, collage, sculpture and even architecture simultaneously, Schwitters new universal medium "Merz" transforms the ugly and discarded into the refined and the beautiful. Both Schwitters and Duchamp, in their repositioning of the heretofore obdurate boundaries of legitimate art set the stage for the assemblage artists of the following years.
The poetics of Schwitters is at the very foundation of the work of Joseph Cornell. Untitled (Grand Hotel Fontaine), c. 1955, reveals a hermetic world of street maps, hotel advertisements, thread spools and shiny gadgets. The contained environments of Cornell’s boxes defy all traditions and acceptable genres in art history collapsing painting and sculpture and elevating “junk” to a new high art status. Similarly, Chamberlain’s use of painted automobile scrap metal in Untitled, 1962, transforms the most mundane of materials to elegant pedestal sculpture.
Christo's Packed Road Sign, 1962, is one of the earliest wrapped works by the artist. Akin to Duchamp's assisted readymade, the road sign loses its original significance/function through the intervention of the artist who “packs” the road sign in burlap and string.
The scavenging continues in the work of Ed Kienholz and Bruce Conner, however the desire to transform the ugly to the beautiful is inverted. Kienholz's The Future as an Afterthought, 1962, consisting of a group of naked dolls tied to a wooden lamp-like base, fuses surrealist erotic references and social criticism with the craftsmanship of furniture making. Both the art practice and the resulting object aggressively obliterate traditional art categories. In The Widow, 1962, Kienholz pairs two female mannequin heads on either side of a teeter-totter mounted on a floor cabinet, the faces smeared in blue and black paint look blankly into space separated by a framed mirror of aluminum foil.
Bruce Conner's Rat Purse, 1959, continues the assault on approved media and subject matter by combining a tin can suspended inside of a woman’s silk stocking filled with a medical syringe among other un-identifiable street fare. The keenly surrealist bend in the work of Kienholz is also played out in the intimate, autobiographical wall reliefs of Conner. Homage to Jean Harlow, 1963, mixes 60s Pop preoccupations with celebrity culture with a very personal
Both Conner and Kienholz accept the qualities of age and usage that the objects they appropriate possess. Kienholz refers to the "little tragedies" evident in his material and both artists have alluded to issues of death and immorality throughout their careers. Their works undermine sculpture's historical pursuit of permanency by using fragile, valueless materials. Unlike Schwitters and Cornell, they both deliberately avoided transforming their materials into precious stuff.
Daniel Spoerri's "snare" picture of a table top after a meal, La Table Bleue–Restaurant de le Galerie 'J', 1963, dramatically freezes what he refers to as "situations prepared by chance". In presenting objects assembled through ordinary daily acts without any aesthetic intention Spoerri's sculptures are situated at the intersection of life and art.
The work of Dieter Roth is represented by two major installations. Having passed away in 2000, Roth has been one of Europe's most elusive and complex figures. Working in a multiplicity of styles and media, Roth has built a diverse oeuvre of paintings, sculptures, films and installations. Olivetti-Yamaha-Grundig Combo,1965/1982, is a "literature organ" consisting of a typewriter, tape recorders, and various organ keyboards and sound devices. Roth was interested in the performative potential of sculpture and here the interaction of the viewer, who can compose and record unique musical creations, is central to the work. The process of making becomes the central subject of the work and Roth's aesthetic intentions emerge from vehemently anti-aesthetic sources. In Etwas mit dem goldenen Ei, 1974-1988, the presence of the artist "creating" is left lingering in the open paint tubes, paint brushes and in the cigarette butts stubbed out in the paint caps that line the easel. The radio playing suggests the possibility of the artist's imminent return. Painting and sculpture collapse into a performance with no ending.
Moving the idea of assemblage into a post-modern, contemporary context, Richard Tuttle's four part series of wall reliefs Two or More from 1984 continues the discourse of paintings versus sculpture. Combining handmade items with Pepsi cans, feathers, wire and other found materials,
Jason Rhoades Deer Dressed as a Horse Dressed as a Sheep, simultaneously juxtaposes a store-bought lawn ornament with plaster and a homemade sheep suit. While on a literal level the artwork perpetually disguises itself, conceptually the layering meanings, set up by the physical permutations of the object, metaphorically speaks about how the art object is many different things at the same time.