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.

Schwitters’s collages and assemblages tell something of the story of their history to the attentive viewer, but none of the development of the Merzbau is evident in the full-scale reconstruction of one room (on exhibit in Houston), based on photographs taken in 1933. Fascinating as it is, the reconstruction is a classic example of Baudrillardian simulation without depth, a copy made without an original, since everything that made the Merzbau what it was, other than a single surface stratum that was probably superseded by the time Schwitters was forced to abandon the project in 1937, is absent. What is lost in this atemporal reconstruction is precisely what was crucial for Schwitters, the way "time lives in space for all times. Thus space becomes a parable for time and points toward eternal creation." It would have been better to represent the Merzbau through photographs and other documents that might have been able to suggest—without pretending to reconstruct—its development through time.

How to show time at work in space is a problem for any museum; an artist like Schwitters throws it into even sharper relief. Much the same is true of Blinky Palermo, another artist from Germany with a knack for making extraordinary things out of unpromising everyday materials, and whose work has been less seen than heard about. Except for a few small shows of graphic works and editions, there hasn’t been an American exhibition of Palermo’s work since 1987, when the Dia Art Foundation, whose co-founder Heiner Friedrich had been Palermo’s dealer, exhibited To the People of New York City, the remarkable suite of abstract paintings (forty panels grouped into fifteen parts) that was found completed in his studio in Düsseldorf after his sudden death in the Maldives in 1977. Now the Dia has organized a traveling retrospective, curated by Lynne Cooke, which you can see through January 16 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, February 24–May 15; or Dia: Beacon and CCS Bard in New York, June 25–October 31.

As Susanne Küper writes in the catalog, Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964-1977 (Dia Art Foundation in association with Yale University Press, $50), "His paintings imply the possibility of ceaseless transformation of the constellation of their elements and permanent motion." Whereas Schwitters composed his works by joining scattered fragments, Palermo often presented his as groups of fragments that might not quite link up. "To the People bars a single vantage point from which its atomized members could unite," explains another catalog contributor, Suzanne Hudson, constituting "a far from arbitrary if still ultimately inexplicable episodic chain." Like Schwitters’s Merzbau, this is an art that doesn’t want to be pinned down. Although much of Palermo’s work may recall geometrical abstraction and Minimalism, one senses that its motivation was very different. Palermo never tried to reduce painting (or art more broadly) to an essence or to produce a polemical demonstration of its historical telos. His art was deliberately elusive; introverted but with a steely ambition evident in the obduracy with which it declines to present anything that could be interpreted as a statement of purpose. Nor was Palermo willing to make any statement on its behalf. He was notoriously reticent, but according to one of his rare interviews, "I pursue no specific direction in the sense of a style. I have no program. What I have is an aesthetic concept, whereby I try to keep as many expressive options open for myself as possible."

Not that Palermo (who was born Peter Schwarze in Leipzig in 1943, became Peter Heisterkamp when he was adopted by a family of that name and was finally bestowed with his louche moniker, cribbed from an American mobster and boxing promoter, either by his classmates at the Düsseldorf Art Academy or by their professor Joseph Beuys) pursued all that many of his options. Maybe it was just that in his brief career he never had enough time; he pursued his main lines of inquiry over a period of several years, testing their potential, in a manner as methodical as it was intuitive. It might also be that he found the best way of keeping options open was to keep them in reserve. Few artists have succeeded in making the empty wall space around their objects quite so resonant, and the atmosphere of things undone surrounding his works takes on a rare poignancy. That wouldn’t be true if he had lived to maturity, like his great friend Gerhard Richter. As life goes on, options tend to harden into positions, the avoidance of positions to deteriorate into eclecticism.

While the works Palermo referred to simply as "objects" might lean toward the Charybdis of eclecticism—after all, the term is really a catch-all for a wide range of things united only by their inhabiting an indefinite terrain between painting and sculpture—his "cloth pictures" are threatened by the Scylla of dogmatism. The cloth pictures are also the easiest of his works either to enjoy or dismiss, depending on your predisposition. "Modernism by the yard," the art historian Christine Mehring called them appreciatively in her recent monograph Blinky Palermo: Abstraction of an Era (Yale University Press, $60)—though you can see how the same phrase might be used in disdain. They are gorgeous abstract paintings made without paint, using bolts of ready-made fabric, most often in three broad horizontal bands. If you love the rich color harmonies of Mark Rothko or the somewhat more austere ones of, say, Brice Marden’s Grove Group, you’ll probably like these too, and yet you’re not likely to feel these are emanations of a man’s soul the way you might with Rothko, or of the light and air of a place in which the artist has immersed himself, as with Marden. Understated brushwork, a subtle layering of tones, a sense of the painter’s corporeal engagement with the making of color such as are found in the work of painters like Rothko and Marden—all of these are absent. Palermo has done nothing but choose this and that bolt of fabric rather than others, but in the choosing, everything is transformed by his delicate sense of chromatic relations.

Yet Palermo’s cool detachment can be disturbing. Isn’t there something too easy about all this? Even a noted ironist like Sigmar Polke later admitted to Mehring, "I thought [it] was too simple, you know, really dopey. And while others were toiling at I don’t know what, he sewed two pieces of fabric together and had the day off." There is something peculiarly divisive about these works, which may be part of the point: if you are willing to countenance the conceptual trenchancy of the gesture, then the paintings’ effect might strike you as suspiciously seductive or decorative; if their beauty speaks to you, you might be put off by the casual way Palermo arrived at it.

As with Schwitters, much of Palermo’s most important work no longer exists. He made nearly thirty wall drawings and paintings and planned several others that were never executed, all between 1968 and 1973. Most of them involved simple, seemingly insignificant interventions; he often outlined the shapes of some of the walls in a given room or filled them in with a different color, leaving only a border of the original white. Many viewers found the wall paintings dull or even unnoticeable; others, curiously disorienting. In 1971 Palermo exhibited documentation of the wall works he had done so far, using sketches, plans, photos, written notes and so on—and this is how they are presented today. Yet he acknowledged such a work would survive "only as the memory of the person who actually stood in it." Whatever the phenomenological effect of what Mehring calls their "combination of banality with a heightened sensitivity to space and perception" when seen in the flesh, trying to reconstruct it through these documents alone can be perplexing. Yet a certain befuddlement must have been part of Palermo’s initial intent with the wall paintings, poised as they seem to have been on the edge between heightened and routine perception.

In 1973 Palermo left Germany for New York, where he would stay for three years. He found that what he created there was "different from the kind of art I make in Germany. I use different materials and media and I find my work influenced by the country I am in." No more cloth paintings, no more wall drawings, hardly any more of those oddly shaped painted (or, anyway, colored) objects. Most of the "metal pictures" he made in New York follow a consistent formula: groupings of, usually, four panels, fairly widely separated, with each panel bearing a single main acrylic color area bracketed by bands of one other color at the top and the bottom. Whereas Palermo’s "objects" had been fragmentary in appearance, each panel of the metal pictures appears to be a self-contained whole; its fragmentary nature is revealed only by its relation (or lack thereof) to the group. The colors are intense, saturated, and they recur from one panel in a group to another, but not usually in any systematic way. They sometimes seem to refer to Mondrian’s palette—the three primaries, red, yellow and blue, plus black and white—yet they always swerve away from such purity toward mixtures that, once again, remind me of Rothko, but a Rothko compacted, hardened and without the sense of spread the elder painter allowed his colors so that they could suggest the infinite. Spaced as they are, the metal paintings command the wall by punctuating it. They are not expansive in the way of a Rothko or a Barnett Newman, but neither are they contained like a Mondrian or Albers.

Palermo’s was an art of ambivalence, and the main defect of the show at LACMA—that it is missing To the People of New York City—can at least be justified by the fact that it helps maintain this ambivalence. But it’s still pretty strange. After all, the Dia Foundation, which owns the work, organized the show. Is the piece absent because the foundation couldn’t bear to part with it for so long, or was LACMA unwilling to accord Palermo enough room to include a work that requires at least 275 linear feet of wall space? In any case, the danger of exhibiting the work is that it could hardly help being seen as a culmination, the climactic moment when Palermo’s ambivalence transcended itself in some grand synthesis. Maybe that’s true, but what I think is that it was just a momentary resting on Palermo’s stubbornly irresolute path. Dedicating the work to the city he had just left suggests that To the People might have been the last of the metal pictures, a summation of sorts but in the sense that he could end the series once it was clear to him how to make it into the statement of an artistic program. Rather than pursue the program, I suspect he’d have gone on to test some of the other options he’d left open to himself. What they would have been, we can only speculate.