Strange Glue—Collage & Installation

Collage at 100 II/III

December 19, 2012 - February 22, 2013


Strange Glue (Collage & Installation)



Is it a genre? Is it a medium? Is it an exhibition or display, a curatorial practice: to install?
Marga van Mechelen, 2006
 
I like to think of installation art as maximum collage.
Michael Oatman, ca. 1998
 
The covers of this book are too far apart.
Ambrose Bierce, ca. 1900
 
Strange Glue (Collage & Installation) is the second of three exhibitions in the Collage at 100 series, and the second and final part of the Strange Glue theme. It assembles the work of 27 artists whose art pushes beyond traditional collage practices to involve installation-based strategies. Although this exhibition is not intended as an examination of installation art per se, the show contains several installations, some of which are site-specific to The Cambridge School of Weston. The show was organized to expose some of the ways that collage, with its expanding set of strategies, easily moves past the flat realm of two-dimensional paper and into the third and fourth dimensions.
 
Not normally discussed as works of collage, installation art nevertheless owes a debt of gratitude to its parent medium. Thus, this exhibition aims to show the linkage between the flat realm of traditional college and the spatial dimensions of assemblage and installation. For example, some works in this exhibition are delicate or oversized and require multiple people to mount them. Some works are built to float off the wall, while others are drawn and collaged directly onto it, or even cut into it. Some works require large areas or entire rooms. Others involve specific spatial requirements or specialized hardware for hanging. There are works that intervene upon specific architectural elements to activate seldom-used locations, such as an outside or inside corner of a room. There are works that do not require walls, but usurp other surfaces such as windows, floors or ceilings. And some works are demanding to install due to the sheer number of components involved. To be fair, the exhibition contains artwork that could easily have been included in the first show. The presence of such work bridges the gap between the two parts of Strange Glue: the inherently flat, traditional modes of collage, and the inherently sculptural modes of assemblage and architectural encroachment. Regardless of the different ways in which the works interface with architecture, all the work exhibited embodies collage methods and attitudes, and demonstrates the plasticity of collage.
 
As discussed in the essays accompanying the first exhibition, Strange Glue (Traditional & Avant-garde Collage), and its Virtual Annex, the original definition of the word "collage" is now obsolete. The term has evolved to embrace a much broader meaning, reflecting an ever-expanding attitude towards bringing together any set of disparate things. This shift not only emancipates collage from its formerly rigid definition of glued paper, but also incorporates into the definition the sculptural forms of assemblage and installation art. Given that the first credited collage is also an assemblage, this changing definition should not come as a complete surprise. However, the inclusion of installation art into collage vernacular does not conclude the reaches of the definition. An art form that fuses the distinctions between flat and spatial, collage and construction, object and space, and sculpture and architecture requires viewers to move among artworks as they inhabit space—to in effect become a living part of the work. It is inevitable that some new derivation or some new kind of expansion will evolve in the near future. With this in mind, Strange Glue (Traditional & Avant-garde Collage) considers the first hundred years of collage practice and asks: what is it about collage that allows it to embrace such inclusiveness?
 
 
 
From Collage to Installation: The New Realism
 
I am a painter and I nail my pictures together.
Kurt Schwitters, 1919
 
Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)
A pair of socks is no less suitable to make a painting with than wood, nails, turpentine, oil, and fabric. A canvas is never empty.
Robert Rauschenberg, 1959
 
Elitism versus populism, high versus low, avant-garde versus kitsch, individual creativity versus mass production—the distinction between the aesthetic space of art and the social space of the world around us has been drawn throughout this century with a variety of faces.
Michael Archer, 1994
 
How did the practice of painting evolve into installation art? Why can installation art be understood as an expanded mode of collage? Although the debate about the birth of installation art remains an open topic and the exercise of condensing history runs the risk of oversimplification, several key events and creations during collage's hundred-year tenure offer insight into the above questions. Michael Archer points out that "installation, as a hybrid discipline, is made up of multiple histories; it includes architecture and Performance Art in its parentage, and the many directions within contemporary visual arts have also exerted their influence."[1] Archer's timeline, however, does not even mention collage. Art historians commonly accept that collage ushered in and transformed modernism in pervasive ways. But what inroads can be said to have inspired the evolution from flat depictions of the world into experiential environments? That question is central to this segment of the Strange Glue centennial reflection.
 
If we imagine modernism as having paved a road between single-point-of-view traditional canons of representation (naturalism) and contemporary art's myriad and pluralistic approaches to depicting the world (maximum collage, to borrow Michael Oatman's phrase), the early trailblazers who carved out the path would merit special markings along the way. Surely, there are thousands of stones laid in that path, but only a few contributions are significant enough to warrant the placement of flagstone markers—stepping stones that not only recall key moments, personages, significant works, and influential ideas, but also inspired widespread application of such ideas. Four such stones warrant mention.
 
Bricolage, 1912
Picasso and Braque had an art term for when they used whatever was on hand; they called such material, and the process of using it, "bricolage." Their attitude toward using available things is what opened the way to the use of collage in fine art in the first place. Indeed, as Brandon Taylor points out in his book Collage: The Making of Modern Art, it was Picasso's "passion for impersonation" and his "powers of invention" that led to his "expedient use of the wrong materials" to both describe and confound forms. When Picasso pasted a piece of oil cloth depicting chair caning onto the canvas of "the first literally collaged work in modern Western art," his action was a natural extension of his well-exercised bricoleur attitude. Taylor emphasizes, "bricolage was a working-man's ethic, and Picasso was forever keen to demonstrate that aesthetic value can be contrived out of unlikely means."[2] If Picasso's pasted and over-painted fragment of oil cloth in his Still Life with Chair Caning (May 1912) was the first stone that led artists toward encroaching upon the environs of life, Braque's invention of papier collé using fragments of wallpaper (early September 1912) was the second stone laid. Braque and Picasso fought over who deserved the initial distinction for being first to use collage in fine art, leaving history to grant two separate, but key markers. As the originators of fine art collage, there is little dispute about Picasso's and Braque's contributions to expanded painting, but their attitudes toward infusing bric-a-brac into art is rarely credited as the cornerstone that allowed artists to venture into truly spatial territory.
 
Readymade, 1913
Although not a painting per se, Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel (1913) could be considered the third stone in the path. Duchamp initially called the work a "readymade," but later recanted the designation, deeming Bicycle Wheel an "assisted readymade" instead—because he altered both parts of the sculpture when he combined them. By taking an ordinary kitchen stool and affixing a fork and bicycle wheel to its seat, Duchamp, like Picasso and Braque, broke the rules of traditional art by using things he did not initially make. Taking ordinary objects out of context, combining them—thereby destroying their usefulness—and then installing the final product in his studio apartment led Duchamp to revise the idea of the readymade: a single object, not made by an artist, designated as a work of art. That concept ultimately became a celebrated milestone of 20th century art. Given that the base of Bicycle Wheel is a piece of household furniture, Duchamp's sculpture can be thought of as a proto-installation piece, placed into a domestic setting.
 
Though not usually grouped together, Picasso, Braque and Duchamp should arguably be given group credit as the triumvirate provocateurs of modernism. Duchamp's contribution remains so controversial that we are still analyzing and discussing the concept of the readymade today. Though the impetus for these initial stepping stones are different, each involves the melding of art and life—pulling everyday objects into the work of art. For Picasso in particular, but also Braque, bricolage allowed for "clever bluff and counterfeit, for expedient and often jocular impersonation of the pictorial by the real."[3] For Duchamp, including everyday objects in the work of art was the antidote to the problem of "retinal painting," which aims at the aesthetic depictions of the semblance of things; he was against painting things for aesthetic purposes and was interested in using painting as an "intellectual tool. [4]" Incorporating everyday objects replaced the act of creating semblances, with the incorporation of artifacts from the quotidian—the shock of the actual things not made by the artist—alleviating the problem by putting, as Duchamp is often quoted, "painting once again to the service of the mind."[5] Duchamp's conceptual contributions would become a significant guideline to lay a much longer path away from traditional painting, toward a method of making art that was far more inclusive of the world. By the time Duchamp was designating his early readymades, however, the world was in turmoil. The First World War (1914 - 1918) intervened and literally tore apart Europe, sending artists into battle or seclusion. Ironically, the war too would become another stepping stone, albeit a stone laid out of anger, horror and outrage.
 
Painted the same year as the end of the war, Duchamp's last painting, TU 'M (1918) is both a painting and an assemblage which catalogs many of his ideas about painting. Interestingly, TU 'M contains painted shadows of many of his most famous readymades. One of the painting's most prominent features is the world's first depiction of industrial color swatches[6]—readymade colors. It also has an image of a pointing hand, painted by a commercial sign painter; a painted tromp l'oeil crack in the middle portion of the painting to which Duchamp affixed actual safety pins as if to suture the crack; and an actual bottle cleaner, which pierces the void of the painted crevasse while harkening to another early readymade. It is important to note the breadth of Duchamp's use of readymades in this painting: readymade objects (one of which points to an earlier readymade while doubling as a new readymade), illusory paintings of readymade paint swatches, and a readymade image painted by someone other then himself. His painting, like his readymades, further reinforced his prescient call for bringing everyday objects into modern art.
 
Merz, 1918
During the same year as Duchamp's final painting, another flagstone was added to the path by Kurt Schwitters, a prominent collage artist who coined the term Merz to describe the nuanced way he made his art. For Schwitters, Merz was the process of making art by combining fragments of detritus, but with a chilling reminder of whence such scraps came. Schwitters explains:
 
In the war, things were in terrible turmoil. What I had learned at the academy was of no use to me and the useful new ideas were still unready.... Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments; and this is Merz.[7]
 
In just a few short years after the war, Schwitters not only developed his ideas for Merz in painting and collage form, but also outfitted whole rooms with faceted objects.
 
Kurt Schwitters was not the first artist to create a work of installation art—Vladimir Tatlin's Model for a monument to the Third International, Moscow (1919-20) and El Lissitzky's Proun Room (1923) are often credited with that distinction. Schwitters’ overall contributions are significant for how they all relate and build off each other. Schwitters' ideas about combining bits of life into his flat collages, his term for that activity (Merz), and the fact that he eventually applied his ideas about his Merz process to sculptural practices that ultimately intervened within interior spaces make Schwitters the first artists to bridge the gap between painting, collage, assemblage and installation. In 1923, Schwitters expanded his practice by working directly on the walls, floor and ceiling of his family home in Hanover, Germany. He called the work Merzbau—the icon selected to represent this exhibition's card, ads and posters—and he worked on it actively between 1923 and 1937. According to some sources, Schwitters filled about six rooms with collaged and assemblaged materials before the home was destroyed in 1943, during a bomb raid. For Schwitters, Merz was not limited to flat materials; Merzbau is a spatial extension of the impulse to collage.
 
Schwitters was an outspoken artist, and his influence was prominent throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But it was not until a little after his death in 1948 that the next flagstone could be said to have been installed. Dada, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism would occupy artists and culture from the war years until the mid-1950s, and each art historical genre would heavily incorporate collage into its practices without taking up installation per se. However, in 1942 Andre Breton organized a retrospective exhibition of Surrealist art titled First Papers of Surrealism. For a vernissage, Marcel Duchamp created a temporary installation—or rather an intervention—called the Mile of String, in which the artist organized a tangled web of string connecting all the art and objects in the room, making it difficult for the guests to walk through the space and see the paintings on display. Despite such an obvious fusion of objects, space, art and life, it wasn't until the days of Pop Art when a new set of artists would pick up Duchamp's guideline again and lay the next stepping stone in the path heading toward the widespread applications of installation art.
 
Combines, 1955
As a movement, Pop Art—which was named for a visual cue in a collage by Richard Hamilton, entitled Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? (1956)—was the perfect art-historical movement to promote the last of the four stepping stones needed for collage to give way to installation art practices. Even in its name, the idea to incorporate household materials in the work of art was implicit. Not surprisingly, Pop Art was an art that widely spread the concept of importing pieces of the world into its art objects. While many Pop artists can be cited for including objects in their work, including such seminal artists as Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist, and Edward and Nancy Reddin Keinholz, it was Robert Rauschenberg whose blatant use of everyday things would capture the art world's interest in the incorporation of everyday things into the works of high art. Rauschenberg's early Combine Paintings (1954-1962),or Combines, are the capstone that put collage only a step away from installation art.
 
In Rauschenberg's Combines his audiences find the shock of familiar objects: a bed, a ladder, clocks, chairs, taxidermy animals, anything and everything. It was not just that Rauschenberg was a prolific bricoleur, who combed the streets of New York for its abundance of discarded objects. Rauschenberg's art was widely successful and widely discussed, and the artist was often quoted. Being in the public spotlight is probably what pushed his work above others to challenge and expand convention. About his Combines, Rauschenberg once said, “I think a picture is more like the real world when it’s made out of the real world.”[8] The Combines were the residue of the artist trying to "act in the gap between art and life."[9] Although Rauschenberg is talking about painting in his quintessential quote, collage is implicit. What he points out to us turns out to be the ultimate reason why collage is by far the most democratic and expansive of artistic processes. As Rauschenberg once said, “After you recognize that the canvas you're painting on is simply another rag, then it doesn't matter whether you use stuffed chickens or electric light bulbs of pure form.”[10]
 
Rauschenberg painted Monogram between 1955 and 1959. The moment when Rauschenberg put a painting on the floor beneath a face-painted taxidermy goat, with a car tire painted white along its tread placed round the body of the goat, the entire world of objects and materials—beyond traditional paint—became art's extended palette. Media-driven Pop Art was the vehicle that publicly pushed the concept that so many artists before Rauschenberg had been talking about. Within the first fifty years of collage experimentation, artists had contributed new words and ideas to traditional approaches to art making, ideas not only central to collage practices but which in turn expanded collage into installation.
 
Bricolage, Readymade, Merz and Combines all share the fundamental idea of importing artifacts into the work of art; by the 1960s, such incorporation was not at all novel. But during the 1960s, with upheaval in so many other cultural areas, the practice of bridging art and life became the subject of much public discourse, transforming the new expanded realism into a household concept and a common idea. Indeed, it was only a few short years later when artists began exploring and incorporating the environment—as it was then called—within the lexicon of the creative act. For example, the early installation by Wolf Vostell, 6 Television Dé-coll/age, (1963), was comprised of several televisions stacked on other televisions or file cabinets each with a separate channel running, allowing for spectator involvement. Joseph Kosuth made his seminal One and Three Chairs in 1965. Lucas Samarus created Mirror Room in 1966. And by the time Walter De Maria installed The New York Earth Room in 1977 and Judy Chicago had completed The Dinner Party in 1979, "Installation Art" had become a vernacular term.
 
 
 
Strange Glue
Other than the obvious differences of scale and encroachment, installation art differs from traditional collage work in a number of important ways. Installation art is rarely framed as traditional works of art are framed. Put another way, installation art is framed by its environs. Context is a strange and powerful glue. It informs the work, changes how it is viewed. But because of how it is framed, installation art is more often than not ephemeral and rarely lasts longer than the dates of its exhibition. Typically, installation art is not portable in the same way that framed art is portable, because the situation of one space verses another inevitably changes the way a piece is custom fit; the same piece exhibited in two different places can be completely different experiences. Often, a work of installation art has to be completely reconfigured if it is to travel. Moreover, installation art is often destroyed when the exhibition is over, and documentation of how it looked remains its only record.
 
Although there are only a few examples of the type of installation art that causes viewers to blur the distinction between art and life, Strange Glue (Collage & Installation) examines work that gradually shifts from one extreme of collage to the other: from the flat to the spatial, from the definite to the ephemeral. With the exception of two interesting cases, the work in Strange Glue (Collage & Installation) is not framed in the traditional sense. One exception is a series of framed collages that form a block of frames, spaced at regular intervals, which need to be considered as an overall group. The other example is a work in which several metal frames have been welded together in a conglomerate assemblage of frames anchored to the wall at a single point, which allows the work to pivot slightly. In both cases framing can be thought of as architectural encroachment. While the configuration of some pieces may be the only time they will ever be shown in a particular manner, other works—provided the right criteria is present—can generally be seen in similar configurations. There are three works in the show that will be destroyed or partially destroyed when the show is over. There is a particular work in the show that could not be included in its physical form because of space constraints and is exhibited instead via video. Another work exhibited is shown as a video because it's the documentation of its original in situ configuration. While none of these kinds of issues generally arise for flat works of collage, the versatility of collage allows for such situations.
 
As we have seen from one show to the next, a defining feature of collage, if not the most prominent feature, is its inclusivity. Perhaps by accounting for installation strategies among collage's arsenal of possibilities, we also usher in the next century of collage development. The artists of Strange Glue (Collage & Installation) exemplify the strange and hybrid nature of Picasso's and Braque's invention by marking the longevity, diversity and widespread application of what was once just a simple act of pasting things onto a flat surface.
 
How many things that surround us blur the distinction between art and life? What isn't made? Architecture is a collage-based process; it takes hundreds of people to coordinate the construction of a building, accounting for each object used. Similarly, it takes a league of nations and thousands of people to design and assemble the parts required to construct an automobile. Languages are systematic collages of symbols and verbal ideas adjusted by countless people. And cultures, too, are amalgams of usurped and original traditions. All of these examples abound with instances where life and art fuse—all collage processes. Ultimately, the realization that every object in the universe is made up of component parts invokes a connected understanding; as Walt Whitman once declared, “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of stars.” Indeed, organic and inorganic things are held together by the same stuff. Everything is bound to each other by gravity. It is fair to say that if ever we could figure out a way to glue two planets together, we would. Despite the impracticality of that last thought, black holes have been proposed to engage in such cosmic finding and binding practices. Indeed, the covers of collage are too far apart!
 
The first exhibition raised the question, What is collage? Strange Glue (Collage & Installation) poses, What isn't collage?
 
 
Todd Bartel
Gallery Director, Curator
The Thompson Gallery


[1] Michael Archer, Installation Art, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994, p. 7
[2] Brandon Taylor, Collage: The Making of Modern Art, Thames & Hudson, New York, 2004, pp. 13-19
[3] Taylor, p. 19
[4] Jose Maria Faerna, Great Modern Masters—Duchamp, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1996, p. 5
[5]Dalia Judovitz, Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1995. p. 20
[6] Ann Temkin, Curator of Paintings and Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art, from a short video in which the curator discusses Tu 'M, http://www.moma.org/explore/multimedia/audios/34, 12/13/12
[7]Dorthea Dietrich, The Collages of Kurt Schwitters, Cambridge University Press 1993, p. 6-7
[8]Susan Hapgood, Neo-Dada Redefining Art 1958-62, The American Federation of Arts in association with Universe Publishing, New York 1994, p. 18.
[9]Sam Hunter, Selections from the Ileana and Michael Sonnabend Collection, exhibition catalogue, The Art Museum, Princeton University, 1985 p. 21
[10]Jonathan Fineburg, Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being, 2000, Prentice Hall, p. 183


Exhibition catalogs are available at: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/unfoldingobject
 
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