Kurt Schwitters

The Menil Collection, Houston

Melissa Venator

Kurt Schwitters, Mz 443 [?] / Untitled (Kao), 1922; collage, fabric, paper, and pencil on paper; 12-3/4 x 9-1/2 inches; Harvard University Art Museums, Busch-Reisinger Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Frederic Wertham Collection, Gift of his wife Hesketh 0997; photo by Katya Kallsen, © President and Fellows of Harvard College

Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage, 2010; installation view, the Menil Collection, Houston; © Hester + Hardaway Photographers Fayetteville, TX

Today Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948) is recognized as one of the most important figures in twentieth-century art, as much for his technical innovations as for his influence on later artists. He is commonly credited as a pioneer in the development of collage, installation art and the use of found materials, all practices adopted in the 1950s and ’60s by artists like John Chamberlain, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly who sought inspiration in the space of everyday life. Less commented upon is the profoundly multidisciplinary nature of Schwitters’ practice, which expands beyond his modestly sized collages to include poetry, prose, music, sculpture, design and constructed environments disseminated through exhibitions, performances and periodicals. This heterogeneous material presents a challenge for museums: the traditional model of exhibition design, with its focus on conventional media, complicates any attempt to represent the ambition and variety of Schwitters’ work in all its manifestations. Perhaps this is why Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage at the Menil Collection is the first solo exhibition of Schwitters’ work in the United States in twenty-five years.

Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage comprises more than a hundred works spanning the German artist’s thirty-year career, including rarely seen works made during his exile in Norway and the UK. Despite the inevitable dominance of collages—inevitable because they form the bulk of his extant works—the exhibition includes key objects in other media, such as sculptures, prints, the first edition of his absurdist poem “An Anna Blume” and, most importantly, a full-size reconstruction of the artist’s Merzbau, the first such presentation in the United States. Still, most of the works featured are collages that support the exhibition’s overarching argument that color played an important role in Schwitters’ practice. At first, the collages’ subdued palette seems to contradict this claim; however, closer examination reveals Schwitters’ strategic use of contrasting colors as accents, as well as entire periods of production marked by brighter and more varied colors. Although Schwitters may never be remembered as one of the twentieth century’s great colorists, Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage forcefully reminds us of the intentionality that underlies all aspects of his practice. In respect to color, Schwitters made this point best when he wrote, “there are no uncolored objects.”

Peter Bissegger, Reconstruction of Kurt Schwitters's Merzbau, original Merzbau ca. 1930-37, destroyed 1943, reconstruction 1981-83; 154-3/4 x 228-3/8 x 181 inches; Sprengel Museum Hannover; © Hester + Hardaway Photographers Fayetteville, TX

Peter Bissegger, Reconstruction of Kurt Schwitters's Merzbau, original Merzbau ca. 1930-37, destroyed 1943, reconstruction 1981-83; 154-3/4 x 228-3/8 x 181 inches; Sprengel Museum Hannover; © Hester + Hardaway Photographers Fayetteville, TX

The reconstruction of Schwitters’ seminal work, Merzbau, is undoubtedly the jewel of the exhibition. The Merzbau was a geometric constructivist assemblage the artist began building into the interior of his Hanover home in 1923. The constructivist environment contained shrine-like collections of objects—figurines, twigs and the personal possessions of his unsuspecting guests—displayed in “grottoes” with names like Cathedral of Erotic Misery and Gold Grotto. More than a sculpture, it was a space the artist intended as a site for artistic production, performance and everyday habitation. Schwitters continuously modified the Merzbau until his exile from Germany in 1937, after which he built new Merzbaus in his subsequent locales. The original Merzbau was destroyed by Allied bombing and survives only through archival black-and-white photographs, which form the basis for the travelling reconstruction on view at the Menil, built by Peter Bissegger in 1988.

For visitors to the exhibition, the Merzbau reconstruction offers an opportunity to immerse themselves in Schwitters’ explorations of unconventional media and installation techniques. Entering the space is like walking into a whitewashed version of one of the collages displayed in the adjoining galleries. The collages’ flat geometric planes of color expand in space to become three-dimensional prisms that encase the visitor in a constructivist world. The found materials that populate Schwitters’ collages—candy wrappers, bus tickets, newspaper headlines and leaves—are apparent as well in the form of the grottoes, reproduced here not as reconstructions but as black-and-white photographs of the destroyed originals. As in Schwitters’ own time, a guest book encourages visitors to record their names, serving as an index of the people who have occupied the space.

The Merzbau, and Schwitters’ refusal to abandon it despite the dislocations of war, can be understood as the ultimate expression of his artistic concept of Merz, which he described as the “combining of all conceivable materials for artistic purposes, and in terms of technique treating all of them with equal respect.” The legacy of this simple statement is visible in the final room of the exhibition, which includes a selection of works by Chamberlain, Johns, Rauschenberg and Twombly, all of which show an unmistakable debt to Schwitters’ art. Twombly’s freestanding untitled sculpture of 1954, for example, echoes the geometric simplicity of Schwitters’ abstract assemblages and recreates their worn nostalgia with its distressed white paint, rough-hewn wooden surfaces and exposed nails and wires. But, as Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage demonstrates, the artist’s influence need not end there. Contemporary artists and viewers alike can admire Schwitters’ committed pursuit of his Merz ideal and its unifying influence on his multifaceted practice. Perhaps Schwitters’ most important contribution is his ceaseless experimentation in a variety of media in the name of Merz and its culmination in the Merzbau, one of the few moments when Modernism achieved its utopian aim to commingle art and life.

Melissa Venator is a PhD student in the Department of Art History at Rice University.

This exhibition will be on view through January 30, 2011.

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