For the first time in 26 years, an overview of Kurt Schwitters’ work is touring the US, and the Berkeley Art Museum is the exhibition’s only west-coast venue. Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage spans the artist’s output between 1918 and 1947, and includes collages, assemblages, sculpture, and the reconstruction of the architectural/sculptural installation Merzbau, which was destroyed when the Allies bombed Hannover in 1943. Schwitters had a deep commitment to his practice and personal vision and was a model artist who never stopped experimenting. His work has had an enormous influence on the generations of artists that came after him.
Schwitters’ hallmark was hybridity. He started his career as a painter and then moved to collage, assemblage, and sculpture, all while never truly leaving painting behind. He was associated with and influenced by many movements, including Dada, Futurism, Cubism, and Constructivism, appropriating what he thought useful or provocative from each and synthesizing it with fragments from the next without becoming dogmatic about any of them. In 1919 Schwitters coined the term merz to describe his work. The origin of this word was a scrap of an advertisement for a bank, and is taken from the German word kommerziell (commerce). He saw that snippet of a word as the embodiment of what he was trying to accomplish—to take a part of something and make it his own—and he organized his practice around it. As curator Lucinda Barnes explained, “The merz approach is to connect everything.”
The works in the exhibition are mostly small, some no bigger than the palm of your hand. Schwitters clipped bits of words from various sources and mixed them with other materials such as paper, fabric, feathers, and paint. Like the word merz from kommerziel, the words are fragmented. But rather than making them incomprehensible, this practice opens the text up, transforming each word from a linguistic fence to something looser and more associative. They sometimes provide clues to his interests and lifestyle. For example, a few collages attest to Schwitters’ more pleasurable habits: snippets of labels from wine bottles, chocolate wrappers, and tobacco often make appearances. The intimacy of each composition invites an almost forensic inspection, and I often found myself nearly fogging the glass with my breath in order to identify and understand each assortment of fragments so meticulously combined.
Mz. 310 Carneval. (1921) is one such composition, where fragments of small, readable text are mixed with parts of individual letters and torn pieces of striped paper in a confetti-like arrangement. Another is Mz. 410 irgensowas. (1922) (“something or other”) where the text fragments take on an almost Constructivist look. In both of these, Schwitters covered the edges of the collage with a mat to create a clean, perfect rectangle that reigns in the implied chaos of the interior composition. By making the edges precise and regular, Schwitters creates a window from which to view this arrangement, mimicking the era’s growing interest in the camera-eye, selecting and framing the world. In contrast, the two small examples of his Oil wiping on newspaper (1939) feature compositions mounted on top of a substrate instead of matted beneath it. In these, the edges are irregular and raw. Often the compositions can be “read” like a Rorschach blot. pink collage (1940) only looked abstract from a distance, but as I drew nearer it resolved into a dark tree trunk with white mountains rising up behind it. Up close, the compositions have a particularity and a specificity that makes them seem representational.
Schwitters’ work is extremely evocative of the time in which it was created. Using small wisps of fabric, scraps of paper from the daily news, ticket stubs, hair, feathers, and paint, he managed to conjure a world with an intimacy that pointed to a specific place and time. In his early collages there are bright colors and jaunty compositions, but like the shift from crisp framing to something more nuanced, later works seem more painful and yearning. Often the work seems to echo the chaos of the world: the final days of WWI and its aftermath, clear through to the turbulence of WWII when Schwitters was forced to flee the Nazis, first to Norway and finally settling in England. Untitled (Silvery) (1939) was produced while Schwitters was in exile, and its loose, atmospheric composition, which shifts with the light, perhaps reflects the artist’s own feeling of being unmoored. Later works seem darker still, with layers of things one finds in ruins or the remains of a bombed house. Mz x 19 (1947) is a thicker, built up collage. Strata of paper terminate in a surface that reveals part of a postal cancellation stamp. A letter may be buried under this rubble of paper, a fragment of personal history lost under layers. The not knowing is what gives this tiny work an emotional punch that falls somewhere between sentimental and agonizing.
At first, Schwitters claimed that the collages were “not intended to mean anything, [but] only to be strong compositions in color.” He later amended this view: “Poetry arises from the interaction of these elements, meaning is important only if it is employed as one such factor. I play off sense against nonsense.” Although the work is considered historical, the approach that created it is thoroughly contemporary, and artists such as Damien Hirst and Ed Ruscha have cited Schwitters as an influence. He anticipated the rise of commercialism, created collage work to materialize the saturation of information in the modern world, and predicted the indiscriminate use of varied materials as a way to reflect on the society in which it was created. The intimacy of scale and the way the work seems simultaneously expansive and specific makes it well worth seeing in person. Upon attending an exhibition of Schwitters’ work in 1959, Robert Rauschenberg claimed, “I felt like he made it all just for me.”