Collage: Past, Present and Future
A review of Over, Under, Next: Experiments in Mixed Media, 1913- Present
April 18th to September 8th, 2013
by Sarah Kate Jorgensen
The Hirshhorn’s collage, found object, and assemblage show– Over ,Under, Next- marks the 100th anniversary of collage. Beginning with Pablo Picasso’s and Georges Braque’s 1912 paper works that challenged the hierarchical nature of painting and sculpture, collage has continued to question fundamental aspects of art, including the figure ground relationship that had been in place since the Renaissance. While collage began as part of a revolutionary modernist movement that explored form and substance, it has become a way to convey and explore ideas.
The recontextualization of materials and found objects that is the essence of collage and assemblage (similar to collage, it consists of making three-dimensional or two-dimensional artistic compositions by putting together found objects) is also found in contemporary society’s sampling of music, literature derived from other literature, remakes of old movies, and parodies of parodies. A great way to think of collage is provided by this quote from film director Jim Jarmusch:
Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, and bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.
According to curator Evelyn Hankins, Over, Under, Next,reveals that collage and assemblage expanded the possibilities of what art could be, by expanding the possibilities of materials used in art. Collage and assemblage not only expanded the possibilities for new materials, they continue to be the medium of choice for groundbreaking artists.Comprised of works from the Hirshhorn’s own collection, the exhibition is only partially successful in paying tribute to the 100th anniversary of collage, because it includes works that are neither collage nor assemblage, and it ignores many new developments in collage.
The show begins, promisingly, with Georges Braque’s Aria de Bach (1913), a work borrowed from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. This work combines collaged black paper and imitation wood grain paper with charcoal and white chalk. Braque, building on his experience as a house decorator, expanded upon synthetic cubism (which he co-developed with Picasso) by introducing color and texture into his compositions. He did this by pasting pieces of wallpaper, fabric and simulated wood paneling onto his drawings.
The exhibit continues with a variety of pieces that explore different approaches to collage. George Grosz’s relatively small Clock-Faced Woman (1953) made with photomechanical reproductions and pencil on paper exemplifies the mystery and humor that mark much of collage. In one of Joseph Cornell’s more famous boxes (Medici Princess, 1952), we see an image of a Medici princess, colored paper, metal rings, strings, cork and painted glass arranged behind the glass of a wooden case to embody one of Cornell’s fascinating scenes of nostalgia. Hans Richter’s Stalingrad (Victory in the East), 1943-1944, combines paint with a collage of newspaper articles to map the battle of Stalingrad- one of the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare. It reads left to right, moving from muted colors to the bright colors that mark the surrender of the 6th army of the Axis.
At this point,the show takes a questionable turn by including examples of art that do not exactly fit into the categories of found object or collage. John Chamberlain’s welded automobile metal sculpture Untitled (1961) is not mixed media. David Smith’s Agricola I (1951-1952) and Donald Judd’s Untitled (1961) are comprised of parts made specifically for the works, and, therefore, cannot be considered assemblage.
Then there is Anselm Kiefer’s giant painting The Book (1979-85) which, although it incorporates different media, is first and foremost a painting. As such, it shows the effect of collage on painting more than it represents collage itself. Similarly, it is unclear how Jim Hodges’s installation of silk flowers is a collage, assemblage, or found object. Other puzzling pieces include the conceptual piece by Damien Hirst: The Asthmatic Escaped II (1992).
Most of the artwork presented does owe a debt to the art forms of assemblage and collage. However, since collage clearly expanded the possibilites for materials, including so many new developments in the arts seems like a stretch or a cop out. If all mixed media emerged from collage, does the show succeed in revealing new directions in the art of found objects, collage, and assemblage? Instead of focusing on how collage and assemblage opened new possibilities in art, Over, Under, Next,appears to be a collection of random pieces that happen to be of different media.
The show recovers momentarily with the inclusion of Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford’s piece, High Roller Kats Gonna Pay for That (2003), a collage that points to the future. Made from photomechanical reproductions, acrylic gel medium, permanent wave end papers (gathered from his mother’s beauty parlor), masking tape, and additional mixed media on canvas, the collage is a mix of high and low media and an homage to black life in Los Angeles. The elements are not used to tell a story; they are the story.
Over Under, Next fails to fulfill its promise to discuss contemporary trends in collage and assemblage. This show reveals the limitations of creating a show solely from a single museum’s collection. The inclusion of a Rauschenberg, as a nod to the great collages of the Russian Constructivist movement, would have provided a sturdier foundation for the show. The addition of collage or assemblage works by contemporary artists such as Janet Jones, Fred Otnes, Judy Pfaff, James Michael Starr, Dale Copeland, Jonathan Talbot, or Cecil Touchon would have added forward-looking energy to the exhibition.
Collage and assemblage are fields ready to be re-explored and re-celebrated, but Over, Under, Next misses the mark. The last major survey of collage and assemblage art took place at MoMA in 1961. Much has happened since. Hopefully we will not have to wait too long for another thoughtful and comprehensive survey of new developments in collage and assemblage.
Jonathan Talbot creates a lively story based on characters from one of Duchamp’s iconic works.
Joan Hall’s Cat’s Cradle is a spin on embroidery with a cutting edge. By combining an old fashioned medium such as embroidery with digital photography, she has tried to create something new and experimental.