Collage at 100 I/III
September 7 - November 20, 2012
Collage at 100—Strange Glue (Traditional & Avant-Garde Collage)
A new machine for seeing 1
The revolution of papier collé 2
It is almost a cliché now, at the turn of the twenty-first century, to remark that the invention of collage has had a greater and more profound effect on twentieth-century art than any other development. 3
Nostalgia anyone? 4
Collage at 100, a yearlong exhibition series in three parts, honors the centennial of the invention of collage by the Cubist pioneers, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Strange Glue (Traditional & Avant-garde Collage), the first exhibition in the series, assembles the work of more than one hundred contemporary artists who employ myriad approaches to collage. The works on display were chosen to exemplify the richness, power and vitality of a form of human expression that is growing at an increasingly rapid rate. One aim of the show is to vicariously tell the story of the first one hundred years of collage-making through the work on display. In a phrase, it’s the story of the decline of naturalism and the rise of fractured representation.
To better appreciate the vast range of approaches to collage, the works on display are divided into art historical sections. Each area may be identified by visually locating a given salon-style grouping or via the written categories provided in the checklist pamphlets and the accompanying catalog. Additionally, the checklist and catalog also provide the names of historically celebrated collage practitioners whose past work seems to be recalled by virtue of the similarity to contemporary artists in Strange Glue. Another aim of the show is to provide examples of art that raise questions about the definition or the limitations of the word collage. Visitors are encouraged to look for examples of collage that are evocative of historic antecedents as well as find examples that seem to signal the need for the definition of the word to expand. To accommodate the unusually large amount of work, the show is split between two sites on campus, the Thompson Gallery and the Red Wall outside the Robin Wood Memorial Theatre—directions to and from both spaces are provided in the checklist booklets. In the spirit of a teaching gallery, the Red Wall grouping was designed without any historical sectioning in written form in order to encourage the application of thought from one site to the next.
Though far from being exhaustive in its efforts to tell the history of contemporary collage, Strange Glue aims to not only expose the evolution of the advent of collage into everyday art making vernacular, but to also demonstrate that the act of gluing is no longer a necessity for contemporary collage practitioners. Clearly, that is an odd set of circumstances. How can something that started out being dependent upon glue not need it anymore? As a term, the French word collage—which literally means to stick or glue—expands when you consider the various ways contemporary artists have accumulated, grouped, assembled, edited and affixed materials—of all kinds—as well as fused technologies during the last hundred years. Intellectual, conceptual, emotional, associative, and pattern-based glues, to say nothing of digital glue or the simple act of juxtaposition, are but just a few examples of the different approaches displayed in Strange Glue. Some works, in particular, are a radical shift from Picasso’s and Braque’s original experimentations with pasted paper. As several pieces in Strange Glue emphasize, physical adhesives are only rudimentary possibilities in collage’s ever expanding arsenal.
Today, artists explore issues of identity, place, culture, race, memory and conflicts of every sort, a nearly endless list. Obviously, there have been many developments and milestones in collage over the last century. The unexpected layering and multifaceted nature of the collages on display demonstrate that the impetus for combination is much broader, much deeper and much more significant than pasting paper ever could be had it not advanced beyond the first experiments to edit the depiction of space and form. Given that there is no manual and no treatise on how to construct a collage, what did it take for contemporary artists to arrive at this point—cutting and gluing so strangely—as compared to artists just fifty years ago? That question is at the heart of Collage at 100.
The Quickening of Collage
Widely apprehended and adapted, modern collage began by taking apart the traditional action of observing and depicting nature by showing only bits of it at a time. Often, several vantages were combined simultaneously, which forced a definite amount of visual editing. This intentional fracturing was what gave Cubism its look; a look that compelled generations of artists to expand and take apart everything that was once understood about making art. Cubism gave rise to Futurism. World War I ushered in Dada and then Surrealism. World War II saw yet another major shift with action painting and The New York School, until Pop Art replaced gesture and intuitive expression with contemporary imagery from newspapers, magazines and television. The social upheaval surrounding issues of racism, sexism and elitism during the 1960s spawned a more politically pointed and conceptually minded art after that. Collage seemed to become a vehicle to contain all the things that naturalism could barely communicate within its traditional modes of expression. Thus, each of these historical areas left a wake of shifting attitudes to form new derivations of an expanding collage state of mind. That ebb and flow ensued immediately after collage’s first appearance, and artists quickly evolved collage by increasingly departing from a dependence on depicting semblances of the naturalistic world in favor of showing the overlay, superimposition, juxtaposition and fractured collision of dreams, feelings, ideas, and politically-charged content. For every age that abandoned a particular focus, another age was sure to reclaim it. Throughout the past century, collage demonstrated that it is not constrained by borders, categories or the space-time continuum. Today, the once radical activity of editing nature and fracturing it has evolved to include anything and everything. In fact, the freedom wrought by ceaseless combination has become normalized and thoroughly embedded in contemporary art and culture; just compare the editing of today’s filmography with that of forty years ago and one begins to get a sense of how adept our culture has become at dealing with the barrage of information we now contend with on a daily basis.
However, that acknowledged, it is important to keep in mind that before the movie industry could construct whole films using computer generated imagery (cgi) in the 21st century, before “cut and paste” was a virtual activity and Photoshop® became a household name in the 1990s, before David Hockney reinvented using the camera to form mosaic depictions of the world around him, or David Salle assembled different styles of painting in his polyptych paintings of the 1980s, before Elizabeth Murray redefined the shaped canvas in her early examples of the late 1970s or before Judy Chicago’s triangular shaped installation The Dinner Party liberated women from the pitfalls of historical omission, before the first shaped canvases of Frank Stella in the late 1960s, before Andy Warhol appropriated pop culture to make his screen-print paintings and Richard Pettibone appropriated Andy Warhol’s paintings to make his paintings in the mid-1960s, before Robert Rauschenberg expanded the painter’s palette to include every tangible object in the world in the 1950s, before de Kooning cut up drawings and paintings to rearrange Abstract Expressionist compositions in the late 1940s, before Joseph Cornell cut up extant films to make visually poetic silent movies and constructed boxes using flotsam and jetsam in the 1930s, before Max Ernst painted on and cut up photographs to make Surreal collages in the 1920s, before Kurt Schwitter’s invention of Merz—combining fragments—in 1918, before Marcel Duchamp invented the first Readymade in 1914, or for that matter, the first Assisted Readymade in 1913, before Georges Braque invented papier collé in the summer of 1912 and before Pablo Picasso pasted a scrap of wallpaper with an industrially printed design of chair caning onto his painting Still Life with Chair Caning in May of 1912, collage was already widespread and touched every aspect of human occupation.
We take collage for granted. Few know of the lineage of collage’s important milestones—the above list being a meager encapsulation—and it has affected us all. Just try to imagine the amount of times, each and every day, the computer functions “command c,” “command x” and “command v” are used. We collage all day long, 24/7; yet most of us do not even realize the irony of our virtual simulation of a once exclusively tactile process.
Collage was widespread decades before Picasso and Braque’s cubist techniques as evidenced in Victorian photo collages and scrapbooks. Moreover, the roots of collage can be traced to the invention of decals, wallpaper, inlaid wood, mosaics, quilts, gilding, and even the first prosthetic, among so many other milestones. Among the oldest instances was the first time humans combined rock to stick with sinew to form a tool, and that first object, constructed in that way, was essentially the first assemblage. And so, the impetus to combine, which we widely refer to as collage, be it with flat papers or physical objects, has been with us for as long as we have been organizing ourselves into groups.
Why then, is 1912 so significant?
When Picasso and Braque pioneered the first use of collage in the field of fine art—specifically, gluing things they did not make to their paintings—the act of painting was irrevocably expanded. Although some historians credit Edgar Degas’ The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer as the first modern assemblage—because of the artist’s inclusion of the burlap skirt and cloth ribbon in the original wax sculpture—Still Life with Chair Caning is essentially given due credit as the first collage and first assemblage—collage, because of the pasted oil cloth, and assemblage, because of the continuous rope that acts as a frame. Degas’ assemblage did not inspire subsequent artists to alter their approach to making art; Picasso’s and Braque’s first collages and assemblages did.
Within the first year of Picasso’s and Braque’s early experiments with pasted paper, artists in Paris and those who were visiting witnessed the drastic changes in drawing, painting and sculpture, which despite being naturalistic and referential, became virtually unrecognizable compared to each respective medium’s traditions. Furthermore, one hundred years ago, without the use of the Internet, word of collage had spread to several European countries and Russia before the close of the second year after the appearance of paper on painted canvas. That one act gave permission to abandon the reliance on paint in an ever quickly advancing society of change. Art movements such as futurism and Dada adopted collage as either one of or as the main vehicle of artistic expression. Collage was the perfect process to respond to the flurry of developments we are still experiencing at a dizzying pace today. And since then, the culture of the art world has dramatically changed, too. For one thing, the cult of male-dominant artists that is given credit for most of the major shifts in collage, has rightfully become less male-centric. In fact, just under two-thirds of the art in Strange Glue is made by contemporary female artists, which is a strong contrast to even just a handful of decades ago.
What do we call a work made by pressing Silly Putty® into more than one newspaper page to form a composite image? How are we to consider art that is digitally assembled and altered? How do we approach art that copies another work of art? How are we to categorize a work made by cutting away paper but not gluing anything else to it? What do we make of a work that tears up other works only to photograph it and put the photo of the arrangement on display? Is recycling art? How can we define a work that places fractured imagery over a repurposed object? Is gluing sand collage? Is a digital photograph of cut paper on a couch a collage? And what do we do when what artists are coupling is intellectual and not physical material? How do we contend with sur-referential and non-resembling conglomerate imagery? One hundred years ago artists put things that that did not originate in their studios, industrially fabricated things, onto the surfaces of their art. But today, artists are making paintings, cutting them up, scanning the cuttings, then rearranging the pieces digitally using scanning and imaging software to print what can easily be duplicated in our age of mechanical reproduction, and that’s the art object. All these examples, and so many more, abound in Strange Glue, but they all have one thing in common. Without Picasso’s and Braque’s invention, nothing on display here would have been possible to make today.
Clearly, postmodern collage is not a single story. In fact, the story of contemporary collage can never fully be told; while some parts come to light, others lay in shadow. Too much has occurred and too much is happening right now to ever fully give credit where credit is due. But, of course, the history of art historical divisions continues to be parsed out with all its “isms” as historians and thinkers dissect the past. With this in mind, Strange Glue endeavors to celebrate this important point in time through visual inundation; there are more than 130 different stories provided in Strange Glue—the number of artists included in the show. Strange Glue stacks so much work together in so small a space, visitors cannot avoid the overwhelming sense of collage’s omnipresence. On the one hand, the rationale for organization serves to mediate the deluge of artistic application. On the other hand, organization per se contradicts the fact that collage is often counter-category, because it is quite literally about the fusion of two or more things. Thus, it is important to acknowledge that the work on display, though grouped into specific sections, is more often than not just as able to straddle more than one group, and we are encouraged to imagine particular works in other designated and undesignated categories.
Despite problems of categorization, there is one factor that unifies every collage ever made. Collage is always about drawing. Moreover, collage has redefined the very act of what drawing can be. The fact that collages are composed by pulling disparate parts together—often including parts made by others into a common whole—heightens its interest, its conceptual power. Regardless of the possibility of whether or not an artist rendered one or many components by hand, an act of drawing is initiated the moment a thing is placed. To draw means to pull the eye and mind just as much as it means to drag a pencil, brush or crayon across a surface.
Collage challenges pictorial conventions, while also usurping them. Another issue that arises in Strange Glue is how collage often confronts the relevance of the “cult of originality.” There are works by artists that hauntingly remind us of past artists, or past masterpieces of collage. Such artistic harkening is not just another art for art’s sake production. Strategies of appropriation are not signs of weakness, but proof of the vitality of the mind that couples the old with the new. What does it suggest for a contemporary image of war to be coupled with traditional images, angels depicted with multicultural features? Dredging up a past way of working, referencing another artist or a specific work, is like a footnote inside an original point of view. It brings some lost or forgotten idea or image back into the present for reconsideration under new circumstances. Much like when jazz musicians play a standard with a new twist and the audience is on the edge of their seats to witness a subtle homage mixed with unexpected twists, whenever collage artists paste something old or something they did not make into their work, that action makes it altogether something different, something special in that precise moment, never again to be repeated. To call that activity merely copying, denoting a lack of originality, is a complete misnomer. Indeed, collage makes for a complicated, but rewarding visual-intellectual experience. That is the power of collage: to haunt, to prompt, to reconsider, always anew. With such complexity, the artists of Strange Glue contribute to the ongoing understanding of the human condition, while not relying on the conventions of old. The variety of work suggests that the spirit of collage is always about adding the new to the established and the opposite is also true. When you consider the power of collage and its limitlessness, naturalism is limited by comparison. After all, even the best-made image using linear perspective loses its illusory power when viewed from any angle other than the angle the scene was originally observed. In this way, perspective is confined to a single point of view, one story.
The Italian Renaissance was called a rebirth because of a rejuvenation of pictorial conventions—suppressed out of respect for religious beliefs for more than a millennia—coupled with the systematized development of a naturalistic point of view and the development of linear perspective. Although today, we can still sense and observe the reach and influence of Italy’s Master artists, the Renaissance ultimately gave way to the inventions of a collaged reality. Look around you, and take stock of everything made since the Industrial Revolution. It is all collage-based. The principles of Renaissance perspective gave way to the rise of a far more expansive and inclusive visual order, albeit, a fractured one. Collage has spread as widely and with as much influence as western perspective did, if not more so. As many works in Strange Glue demonstrate, collage can easily adopt any language, including the language of perspective, anytime it is necessary for a given work. Moreover, as Strange Glue artists also point out, collage is the only process that can incorporate any and all other processes without losing its ability to be recognized. No other form of self-expression can make that claim. With this explosion of creative output, Collage at 100 seems to suggest, culturally speaking, we are not experiencing a rebirth per se, because collage started from scratch to create something altogether new. Furthermore, collage cannot be likened to rebirth; nothing regarding collage had originally been suppressed in order to be reborn. Collage is more like a phoenix. Out of the ashes of western perspective, came a new visual inclusivity.
Collage, as such, is the new realism—more inclusive then the old system of depiction ever could claim to be. In a very real sense, the collective work in Strange Glue asserts that collage has allowed us to re-imagine ourselves, and our relationship to absolutely everything.
Gallery Director, Curator
The Thompson Gallery
1. Florian Rodari, Collage: Pasted, Cut and Torn Papers
, Skira and Rizzoli, New York, NY, 1988, p. 31.
2. Dianne Waldman, Collage, Assemblage, and the Found Object
, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. New York, NY, 1992, p. 8.
3. Elisabeth Hodermarsky, The Synthetic Century—Collage from Cubism to Postmodernism,
Yale University Art Gallery,
Herlin Press , Inc., West Haven, CT, 2002, p. 6.
4. Kirsten Hoving, A Case for Joe,
catalog essay, (quoting from note paper scrap, "scrawled by Joseph Cornell," Cornell Archives,
Smithsonian American Art Museum), Hey Joe—An Homage to Joseph Cornell, Exhibition catalog, curated and published by Strange Glue (Traditional & Avant-garde Collage) catalog available at
W. David Powell, Lulu.com, 2012, p. 6.
exhibition reviewed in ArtScope
magazine's November/December 2012 Issue