Kurt Schwitters: Color and CollageOctober 3, 2011
Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage features over eighty works by the late German artist, including collages, mixed media pieces, paintings, sculptures, and an installation re-creating a section of the Merzbau, an immersive sculptural space that Schwitters built inside his Hannover home. Many of Schwitters’ collages—which he referred to as "Merz," a neologism that also served as the title of his independent art publication—famously include commercially or industrially manufactured printed matter, such as cigarette packaging, food ration stamps, news clippings, and other pieces of disposable paper. Part of Schwitters’ conception of Merz was that all material was art material, thus denying a distinction between the stuff of fine art practice and daily life. In some pieces, such as Merz 1926, 3. Cicero (1926), it is not uncommon to find both archival oil paint and broken household objects, visually unified through their specific color palettes and intentional compositions.
In light of this, it’s fitting that Schwitters’ life and art-merging strategies also resulted in unintentional works of process art, as his stand-alone collages and assemblages made of widely varied materials continue to age over the years. The oxidative darkening makes it harder to appreciate the subtle color relationships that must have existed between the elements of some works, but this deterioration has intensified the overall effect of others. For example, the composition of pink collage (1940) centers around a transparent wash of warm-colored pigment, the appearance of which is the result of the combined effect of the application of paint and the underlying tonality of the paper. Presumably once white or off-white, the paper has now yellowed, making the overall color more like a pale, blushing skin tone. The piece also bears mottling where the paper’s acidity has varied, setting off and highlighting its structured, geometric composition.
Arguably the most dramatic example of Merz as a practice was the Merzbau, a sculptural bricolage that Schwitters assembled from building materials and found objects inside his home in Hannover between the years 1923 and 1937, which he built again in Norway after he fled Germany during World War II. Both were eventually destroyed. Much like his collage pieces, the Merzbau was an intentionally ongoing project, and Schwitters never considered either space fully completed. As long as the artist inhabited each space, they were subject to additions, edits, and rearrangements. By contrast, Peter Bissegger’s reconstruction of Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau (1981–1983), located on the museum’s ground floor gallery, presents one static version of the Hannover assemblage.
Consequently, the processes at work in reconstruction are less obvious because Bissegger’s primary intention is to resurrect an experience of place only possible in the past. Commissioned by the Sprengel Museum in Hannover, the project took two years to complete and is the result of exhaustive planning and design
efforts. Working from documentation photographs taken in 1933 (which hang near the installation), Bissegger reverse-engineered the measurements and angles of the plaster and wood construction. Like a detective working with forensic evidence, his efforts to correct for distortion and to calibrate his measurements even went so far as to track down the original camera and lens models caught in a reflection in the photos.1 Tiny light bulbs populate the emphatically angular space, helping to illuminate the myriad white geometric planes that meld and defy categories such as “architecture”, “furniture”, and “sculpture.”
But while Bissegger’s piece presents a thorough semblance of the interior of a section of the Hannover space circa 1933, it makes no attempts to hide the fact that it is a reconstruction. The raw plywood walls that form the piece’s exterior remain visible, as does the plastic sheeting that helps alter the space’s lighting scheme. Every few minutes, the light changes between a blue-cast exterior light source that simulates daylight streaming through windows, and a yellow-cast interior light that simulates what the space may have been like after dark; the light cycle of an entire day is collapsed into a few minutes. This ingenious theatrical device offers viewers a compacted sense of the subtle, ambient variances lighting introduced into the space, while also foregrounding the artifice of both the reconstruction and the original.
Schwitters drew inspiration from Cubism, punctuating the Merzbau with found objects and colored sections placed specifically to create visual relationships with the spaces around them. Because Bissegger’s recreation only partially replicates a section of one of the many rooms the original Merzbau occupied, large-scale prints blown up from the original photos have been pasted directly to the interior walls, indicating where the original space would have extended, but where the recreation ends. These images show viewers what they would have seen had they stood in the equivalent spot in the original, but also call attention to the fact that the piece is not the original by emphasizing the parts of the space that could not be recreated.
Though clearly Bissegger’s reconstruction has a specific art historical referent, his project lays bare the labor involved in creating a material simulation of an object that has been destroyed, at the same time underscoring the necessary incompleteness of such an endeavor. As the piece travels, it transplants a carefully crafted interpretation of the Merzbau—one in which a fixed state stands in to represent a fluctuating process—and makes it briefly available to geographically disparate audiences. Thus, the reconstruction can be thought of as a process-based artwork not only because of the research and construction that have gone into its fabrication, but also because of the ongoing maintenance necessitated by its continual transport and re-presentation.
In certain respects, this process mirrors Merz’s aesthetic of assemblage, even as the final product—the installation itself—attempts to circumvent the inevitable effects of time so apparent on the surfaces of older Schwitters pieces in the exhibit. Ultimately, with neither a static original nor a wholly intact version of the Merzbau remaining for comparison, Bissegger’s installationcryst engages in a form of immersive pedagogy (familiar from natural history museums, historical societies, and similar educational institutions) that overtly blends theater and scholarship.
Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage is on view at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum through November 27, 2011.