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Kurt Schwitters at The Menil Collection, Houston

Mz 443 /  Untitled (Kao) by Kurt Schwitters, 1922

Mz 443 / Untitled (Kao) by Kurt Schwitters, 1922

Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage
The Menil Collection, Houston
Through January 30, 2011

Post by Leslie Thompson

Click here for image gallery.

Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenburg. What do these famous artists have in common?  How about the fact that these men owe a great deal to the German –born artist Kurt Schwitters. The first major American exhibition on the artist in twenty-five years, Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage at The Menil Collection pays tribute to the great man who influenced a generation of modernists.

The exhibition focuses on Schwitters’ abstract collages, or what he has termed as “Merz”- a word as fragmented as his work, derived from a German ad for “Commerzbank.” The artist began producing collages and assemblages in 1918, shortly after befriending the Dada group. Although never officially a member, Schwitters adopted many of the principles of Dadaists and employed radical approaches to creating art. These strategies are apparent upon entering the first gallery, wherein the viewer encounters collages and assemblages that mix paper and various materials with paint.

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Each gallery examines and explores the relationship of painting to collage.  For Schwitters, the processes of painting and collage were complimentary to each other, combining the two in several ways: works in which Schwitters paints on top of collage materials; collages incorporating papers with which the artist used to clean his paintbrush; and then other works that include discarded scraps Schwitters painted specifically to use as collage material.

As evident in its title, the exhibition concentrates on Schwitters’ use of color in his abstract collages. As guest curator Isabel Schulz points out, the artist experienced a number of phases in the effects of his colors. His early work is dominated by dark tones, as seen in Merz Picture Thirty-One from 1920. His work proceeds to exhibit luminous colors with rich contrasts. A later gallery reveals collages dominated by large proportions of black, as in Untitled (ASINET 9) from 1923.  Towards the end of the exhibition, the viewer notices Schwitters’ tendency towards blending white into his colors, creating softer compositions like Untitled (France), 1946/47.

Perhaps the climax of the entire exhibition is the reconstruction of Schwitters’ original 1933 Merzbau. For the artist, the Merzbau served as a studio, a venue for talks, recitals, parties; a place where anything and everything could be collected and transformed into abstract art. Visitors can enter the cave-like installation, a room full of painted white wood and plaster objects. There are ample nooks and crevices to explore, sprinkled with found and constructed objects and images. Unfortunately, air raids during WWII destroyed the original Merzbau. Thanks to careful analysis of archival photographs, visitors have the opportunity to experience this long-lost treasure. And let me tell you- it is quite a treat.

How does Schwitters remain relevant today? Just stroll through the last gallery and view how the German artist influenced a generation of American modernists with his exploration of the many possibilities of collage. On display are examples from the work of John Chamberlain, Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly and the like.  Even to this day, Schwitters’ spirit continues to permeate the world of contemporary art. Don’t believe me? Visit the Menil and see for yourself

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