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DEBRIS: Candy Wrappers and Collages

Submitted by admin on December 6, 2024 – 1:01 pmNo Comment

Kurt Schwitter

by Buffalo Sean

Did you ever do a double take at a movie theater ticket? Maybe following the lettering, smeared in places and printed in a blocky font, made you consider the background and the forms it creates in negative space. Ponder the rough edges of a torn advertisement, the wrinkles of a paper bag, the sheen of a plastic wrapper- elements of the natural world, landscapes and abstractions can originate anywhere. Dramatic, energetic, imaginative and narrative, found art can be as engaging as any abstract or representational image. Think small and all the wonders of a Fellini film can unfold in front of you.

In this day and age of electronic overload, glittering 3D televisions and instant gratification it may seem improbable to take a step back and examine society’s detritus for signs of inner life- but it may be a bridge to the past that can give us a foothold in the future. Creating, playing, growing, cooking, building and crafting have almost been deleted from our lives. It has taken us a century to forget the familiar sights and sounds of agriculture, industry and crowds that defined humanity for 3,000 years. Our struggle to emancipate ourselves from backbreaking work has yielded a world of forlorn souls missing a connection to the creation of the objects and architecture that fill our everyday existence.

Barely discernable as art, nearly indistinct from the cutting room floor, Kurt Schwitters’ greatest works defined Modernism’s obsession with the found object from Rauschenberg’s combines to Okay Mountain’s immersive installations. Open at the Menil Collection (1515 Sul Ross) through January 30, 2024, Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage is the first solo exhibition of the artist’s work in this country in a quarter-century. Present at the genesis of Dadaism and grand-uncle of Modernism, Schwitters created an immense amount of small collages in his lifetime that form the bulk of his work. Abstractions with clear and present compositions, they carry with them textures and colors as well as the specificity of their time and place of creation in words, adverts and snippets of contemporary culture. What to us is merely an artfully balanced composition was a very specific political and sociological statement in Weimar Germany’s cultural landscape, at times even autobiographical.

In addition to his collages Schwitters experimented with art forms that would not come into their own for fifty years like sound art and installations. One of the most fascinating works included in the Menil exhibit is a recreation of Schwitters’ Merzbau, an encapsulating installation first built in the artist’s house in Hanover, Germany between 1923 and 1940. The sculptural environment took on elements of Russian Constructivist and proto-Modernist abstraction in a grotto-like space punctuated by artwork from his favorite artists and random ephemera like sticks, figurines and scraps of paper. In the two decades of its existence the Merzbau expanded throughout the house, annexing two rooms, a balcony, cellar and the attic. An obsession and a refuge, Schwitters’ installation evolved as Germany descended into Nazism- finally ending with the artist’s escape to Norway and then England. His artwork was ridiculed as degenerate in his home country. The Merbau was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid in 1943. Despite the loss and his exile Schwitters continued to work on his installation concept, creating second and third Merzbaus as he shuffled across Europe. His collages also morphed with the times, taking on pop culture as it emerged from the first half of the century. Within a decade of Schwitters’ death America asserted its dominance in the artworld, owing no small part to the artist’s wide-ranging influence.

It may only be a walk through the hallowed halls of Renzo Piano’s Menil but the chance to explore the best of Kurt Schwitters’ work is a chance to reconnect with a time when people knew what it was like to carry water from a well, start a fire, pluck a chicken, barter at a market, darn a sock or pick a pocket- and want to get away from it all. Mechanization, communication and entertainment have stripped the earth from our lives; as we aim to reconnect with the world the struggles of the 20th century to rid society of that same earth we yearn for hold lessons we can apply to negotiating technology and hands-on experience today. Just be aware- it may take over your life.

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