Sunday, June 19, 2011

Enhanced Status

Kurt Schwitters occupies a spot in the pantheon of modernism, peripheral perhaps, but he's in there, off to one side in the wing reserved for those hard to classify.  The Color and Collage show at the Princeton University Museum of Art should  go a long way toward improving his position.

Featuring approximately 100 works, a full-scale facsimile of his Merzbau, along with some writings and sound recordings, this is the first major exhibition of his work in the United States since the retrospective at MOMA in 1985.  If it took a generation to gather these pieces from collections all over the globe, the prospect for future shows of this scope promises to get even more difficult given the insurance, logistics and related costs of such undertakings.

Organized by the Menil Collection in Houston, it is curated by Isabel Schulz, co-editor of the Kurt Schwitters catalogue raisonné and curator of the Kurt Schwitters Archive at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover.

Schwitters has long been thought of as one of the chief proponents of non-traditional media, incorporating every-day found objects into his collages and constructions.  There were precedents, to be sure, including Picasso's Still Life with Chair Caning of 1912 and Duchamp's Readymades of 1913 - 17, but unlike these artists, Schwitters would make incorporation of common objects the centerpiece of his aesthetic.  As this exhibition makes clear, however, treasure-hunting, displacement and recombination were hardly the sum total of his legacy, a lesson not altogether convincingly understood by some of the artists who acknowledge his influence on them, particularly Robert Rauschenberg.  On the other hand, artists who may not have openly spoken of their debt to Schwitters, especially Joseph Cornell, shared more of his feel for color and organization than is commonly thought.  They were clearly on to something long before the Princeton show reinforced this central point: Kurt Schwitters was an image-maker whose palette included things as well as pigments and forms.

Frequently viewed in the light of Dadaism and Constructivism, in the end Schwitters was sui generis.  He coined the term merz, derived from the German word for commerce, to express his ambition to synthesize quotidian experience with art but without the nihilism and polemics of the Dadaists, nor, frankly, their posturing..

The collages and constructions that issued forth were the distillation of this ambition, the marriage of every day commerce with the more rarefied world of the studio .  The public, including many of the artists he would subsequently influence, took away only part of his message, the finding, displacement and synthesis.  This exhibition restores the full force of his vision, acknowledging his magnificent feel for color, composition and surfaces.  Schwitters may have begun with ordinary, common objects of no apparent "value", but the results were uncommonly beautiful and tranquil.  He understood it was just as reasonable to "dab" a patch of newsprint onto his "brush" as a cadmium yellow.

Schwitters also experimented with the effects produced by the glue he used, creating subtle layers above and beneath the tram tickets, newspaper clippings and product labels he incorporated.  Trained as a painter, he would embrace Modernism's challenge to Renaissance tradition by shedding the frame altogether in some of his assemblages of three-dimensional found objects.  (It is worth noting that even the frameless assemblages are presented here with newer frames around them.  Some conventions just don't die.)

Many of Schwitters better-known images are the large assemblages, bold, dimensional and masculine.  The Merzbau he built in Hanover, destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, was the logical culmination of this strain in his work, literally a walk-in sculpture that began in one room in his home and extended finally to six of them.  The reconstruction of a single room in Princeton relied on the few extant photographs of the original but is forced to leave out many of the surface details and objects the source pictures' fuzziness and distance could not reveal.

Naturally, the walls of the "room" have no right angles as their surfaces organically veer off in multiple directions, a variation on this framelessness.  And just as naturally, the logical extension here was Schwitters' literal combination of every-day life, his own living space, and his art.  In the end, however, this facsimile, stripped of most of the color and ordinary objects he incorporated, barely hints at the culminating spirit of the original, the dichotomies of messy, chaotic, random life and ordered, considered, practiced art.

Had this survey stopped here, it would have fulfilled its organizers' dream, the bringing about of a reassessment of Schwitters' importance; however, there is much more in Princeton to enhance his value.  Included are several collaborative lithographs made with a commercial printing establishment in which Schwitters combined his own drawings with portions of advertisements from previously printed litho stones lying about, i.e., found in, the printing plant.

Along with samples of his written work (poems, essays, childrens' stories), the gallery is filled with the sounds of Schwitters reciting his phonetic poem “Ursonate,” or “Sonata in Primeval Sounds.”  Nonsensical sounds usher forth in a staccato pattern beneath a large series of photographs of the artist himself, arranged on the wall, repetitive themselves save for subtle changes in facial expression.

This audible accompaniment to the overall experience of standing in front of and walking into Schwitters' art underscores his insistence on a total experience that makes no distinction in forms or media or where they come from.  There aren't many artists about whom that can be said, even those in the pantheon.