Options Open: On Kurt Schwitters and Blinky Palermo
In 1984, while preparing for the great Kurt Schwitters retrospective that MoMA was to mount the next year, a member of the museum's curatorial staff noticed a discrepancy between one of its Schwitters assemblages, The Cherry Picture (Merzbild 32A. Das Kirschbild), from 1921, and a photograph taken of the structure in 1954, when it entered the collection: a cork attached to the surface of the piece had somehow migrated to a different spot altogether. Worse still, a photograph of The Cherry Picture published in 1924 shows no cork at all. Was the wayward bottle stop a belated addition by Schwitters, an artist known to have kept fiddling with his works when he could? And if so, where does it really belong? Or did someone else add the cork and yet another person unknown move it? After reviewing the evidence, MoMA conservator Antoinette King (in an essay published in 1992) found it to be inconclusive. The prominence of the cork "creates a particular formal unity in the assemblage elements," she noted, "entirely changing Schwitters's original work, if it is indeed not his own addition"—going on to cite the artist's conviction that "all that matters in a work of art is that all parts should be interrelated and evaluated against each other." But what if the parts tend to drift?
I was sorry not to find The Cherry Picture in "Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage," the first American museum show devoted to the artist since the one at MoMA twenty-five years ago, now on view at the Menil Collection in Houston through January 30. (The show also tours the Princeton University Art Museum, March 26–June 26, and the Berkeley Art Museum at the University of California, August 3–November 27.) It would have been nice to see whether that little cork has continued to bob around as a reminder that even now there is something very difficult to pin down in Schwitters's art—which, it's been said, "was never about the object itself, but the dynamic of relations that appeared in the course of its making."
If so, that's a problem for museums: all we have left are the objects. These always point back to the dynamic of their making, but when exhibiting them an emphasis on their static containment is the course of least resistance. And many of those that Schwitters left us, above all his collages, are objects of rare wholeness, harmony and radiance, their beauty all the more astonishing, given the funky stuff they're made from: "materials I happened to have at hand," Schwitters said, "such as streetcar tickets, cloakroom checks, bits of wood, wire, twine, bent wheels, tissue paper, tin cans, chips of glass, etc." Schwitters called this art of mixed materials Merz, taking the neologism from one of his collages, an element of which was a bit of paper bearing the word Kommerzbank (commercial bank) that had been cut up, leaving only the middle syllable. The making of the collages and assemblages seems to have been mostly a matter of moving things around, keeping them in play until the last possible moment: "He spread flour and water over the paper," one witness recalled, "then moved and shuffled and manipulated his scraps of paper around in the paste while the paper was wet. With his finger-tips he worked little pieces of crumbled paper into the wet surface; also spread tints of water color or gouache around to get variations in shadings of tone. In this way he used flour both as paste and as paint. Finally he removed the excess paste with a damp rag, leaving some like an overglaze in places where he wanted to veil or mute a part of the color."
And the color is mostly veiled or muted. So this exhibition's subtitle, "Color and Collage," comes as something of a surprise. If modern color is that of the Impressionists, of Matisse, of Mondrian—the ones whose clear, sharp, even aggressive hues seem to cry out, "Away with the brown sauce of the old masters!"—what you get from Schwitters is something altogether different. His collages and assemblages are typically dominated by grays, browns and beiges, or by pale or schmutzy hues, subdued sometimes almost to the point of indeterminacy. Schwitters is a tonalist in the classic tradition; when the collector Katherine Dreier wrote that his work reminded her of Rembrandt, he agreed, "I feel the greatest affinity to him.... I live in a world of nuances, and I am delighted that you grasped the essence of my work right away"—this, in an era when Dreier's adviser, Marcel Duchamp, imagined a "reciprocal readymade" consisting of "a Rembrandt used as an ironing board." It's just not true that, as the exhibition's curator Isabel Schulz claims, "Within the avant-garde, and compared to the collages of Cubism and the material pictures of other Constructivists...Schwitters's Merz painting offered an unusually bright palette." Even the works that are closest to geometrical abstraction, like Relief mit Kreuz und Kugel (Merz 1924, 1. Relief With Cross and Sphere), from 1924, or Relief mit rotem Segment (Relief With Red Segment), from 1927, where the forms are much more perspicuous and the color rather cleaner than is typical for Schwitters, are still very far from the clear-cut structure and pure primary colors of, say, De Stijl. Just as the organization of the forms is a bit cockeyed by comparison, the hues are more muffled, grayed out, retrieved from a world of nuances. Like almost everything else in his work, the color seems to be in transition from one state to another.
The task of looking at Schwitters's works, finally, is that of keeping them in transition, catching them mutating, rescuing them from the stasis to which their material condition—and the art museum's conspiracy of permanence—might seem to have condemned them. If the collages are generally more magical than the assemblages, it might be because the visually heavier, more obdurate nature of the materials out of which the latter are constructed makes it harder for the mind and eye to keep their parts in play—to maintain what for Schwitters was the essence of a work of art, its rhythm. "Every artwork throughout history has had to fulfill this primary requirement," he wrote in 1926, "to be rhythm, or else it isn't art." Or as an American contemporary of Schwitters put it just a few years later, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.
Less well known than either the collages or the assemblages are Schwitters's free-standing sculptures, many of them made toward the end of his life while living in England, where he had gone (after a sojourn in Norway) to escape the Nazis; a few of them are on view in Houston. They are mostly made from scraps of wood, and in all but one case an apparent unity has been imposed by a surface layer of plaster or paint so that their composite nature is less evident—something of a surprise once you've gotten used to how the collages and assemblages glory in their heterogeneity. While some of the assemblages of the later 1920s (when Schwitters was most influenced by abstractionists like his friend Theo van Doesburg) have a rectilinearity that recalls De Stijl and the Bauhaus, these abstract sculptures are different, freely mixing geometrical and biomorphic forms to create structures that are less simple than they first appear, and that have a vulnerable, almost abject quality that seems closer in spirit to the three-dimensional work of later artists like Cy Twombly and early Bruce Nauman than to any of Schwitters's contemporaries.
To some extent, these sculptures bear the influence of the work Schwitters did on his most famous and least seen work, the Merzbau or, as he sometimes called it, Cathedral of Erotic Misery. He built the Merzbau in several rooms in his apartment building in Hannover (where he was born in 1887) starting sometime in the 1920s and continuing until he escaped Germany in 1937; the building was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943. (In the meantime he'd started working on another Merzbau, in Lysaker, Norway, which he had to abandon when the Nazis invaded in 1940. Finally, in 1946, Schwitters began a Merz barn in Ambleside, in the Lake District in the north of England, but by then he was in very frail health and made little progress on it before his death in 1948. A fragment of it survives in the Hatton Gallery of the University of Newcastle.) It's hard to know how to date the inception of the project, since it started out as a number of separate Merz "columns," apparently heaps of materials that only gradually—as Gwendolen Webster writes in the Menil's catalog (distributed by Yale University Press, $50)—"modulated into incipient artworks, though the borderline between a pile of refuse and an artwork was never more than obscure." As the distinction between one "column" and another grew hazy and then finally irrelevant, what was originally a studio became an ever-growing environmental artwork in itself. It was still divided into various distinct areas, designated as "grottos," "caves" and "rooms," but they were not really self-contained; each was designed to lead on to the next. "Each part of the interior serves as an intermediary element to its neighboring part," Schwitters wrote in 1933. "There are no details which constitute a unified and circumscribed composition." By that time, the Merzbau had not only grown to encompass several rooms; it had also accumulated archaeological strata, with much of the original material (what one observer called "a hallucinatory confusion of tiny fetish objects") apparently buried beneath more recent layers of construction, mostly much cleaner and more abstract than the earlier ones. How important were the buried layers to the work as it continued? Certainly for Schwitters—who was not only its creator but its primary audience—they were crucial; if he'd wanted to reject them completely he could have destroyed them rather than preserve them unseen. And since the only way anyone else was ever likely to see the Merzbau was to be led through it by Schwitters himself, we can only wonder to what extent the experience of the work was inseparable from the narrative of at least some of its history.