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.