Summary of Assemblage
In the early 20th century, many artists increasingly began incorporating everyday objects into their paintings and sculptures, blurring the lines between art and life. Ranging across styles, avant-garde artists created three-dimensional, mixed-media assemblages that questioned the very definition of art as it had come to be known. Using mass-produced objects and junk, artists like Marcel Duchamp often made satirical and biting critiques of modern, commercial culture. In the 1950s, Jean Dubuffet coined the term Assemblage for this hybrid art form, and while other artists used terms like Combines or Accumulations, the trend took off in the second half of the 20th century.
Artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Arman, and Martha Rosler pushed the boundaries of Assemblage into the realm of Installation and Performance, creating immersive environments and experiential events. More contemporary artists such as David Hammons and Tracy Emin engage Assemblage techniques to create works that confront viewers in challenging ways.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Assemblage art combines mundane objects in new and surprising ways, requiring the viewer to question their relation to the world of objects around them. Sometimes used as social critique or as an exploration of the fantastical and dream worlds, Assemblage art gives objects new meanings, makes creative connections between disparate elements, and elevates non-art materials into the realm of art.
- In combining readymade or found objects with varying degrees of modifications, Assemblage art challenges the medium specificity that formalist critics insisted structured the progress of modern art. Blurring the distinctions between painting, sculpture, and theater, Assemblage art is not just an optical experiences but engages multiple senses and often requires more physical interaction on the viewer's part.
- Because it usually incorporates manufactured items and non-art materials, much Assemblage art aims to question notions of authorship and originality that have been so important to traditional concepts of the artist. In choosing the objects instead of hand-crafting them, the Assemblage artist subverts the traditional notion of the artist as a creator. Additionally, because Assemblage art is often a characteristic of folk art traditions, who can be considered an "artist" has greatly expanded over the decades, incorporating untrained and self-taught artists outside of the mainstream.
Overview of Assemblage
The avant-garde development of Assemblage drew upon long-standing cultural and artistic trends, dating back to the Renaissance. By the late 1500s, curiosity cabinets were popular among the aristocratic class, as shown by Gabriel Kaltemarckt's advice that a collection should include "curious items from home or abroad" and "antlers, horns, claws, feathers...belonging to strange and curious animals." Some collectors went so far as to combine taxidermied animal parts to create fantastical creatures. Such collections, essentially containing found objects and readymades, became de rigeur symbols of intellectual and cultural distinction. Curiosity cabinets, often on a more intimate scale, subsequently became popular among the middle class and were often found in Victorian homes.
The Important Artists and Works of Assemblage
While Picasso and Braque invented modern collage by incorporating real objects into their paintings, Marcel Duchamp's creation of a sculpture from only mundane objects was the spark that eventually led to Assemblage art. The first of its kind, the work consists of a bicycle wheel mounted on a four-legged stool. Both elements, immediately recognizable, are transformed into something new as their everyday functions are disrupted. Rather than meeting the ground, the bicycle wheel rotates freely and continuously through the air, its circular shape and radiating spokes creating a geometric contrast to the triangular stool, and with the seat of the stool occupied, it is no longer available for a sitter and instead becomes a makeshift pedestal. Duchamp wrote, "The Bicycle Wheel is my first Readymade, so much so that at first it wasn't even called a Readymade. It still had little to do with the idea of the Readymade. Rather it had more to do with the idea of chance." As he further defined his concept of the readymade, he called this work, an "assisted readymade," indicating the alteration or combination of various found objects, a technique that greatly informed the development of Assemblage as a distinctive genre.
The work is also considered a pioneering example of Kinetic Art, a trend that emphasized movement in the artwork, and is closely aligned with Assemblage. It was the bicycle wheel's potential for movement that attracted Duchamp, as he said, "To set the wheel turning was very soothing, very comforting, a sort of opening of avenues on other things than material life of every day." In many ways, the heart of Assemblage can be traced back to Duchamp's questioning of definitions of art, originality, and our relation - in ways both good and bad - to the modern, physical world.
Various items, including a wooden ruler, a tape measure, a watch mechanism, a tin cup, are attached to a wooden model of a head, once used for making wigs. The work, the only existing Assemblage by Hausmann, conveys Hausmann's caustic assessment of the state of his country: "The German wants only his order, his king, his Sunday sermon, and his easy chair...has no more capabilities than those which chance has glued on the outside of his skull; his brain remains empty." In addition to being a commentary on the state of the German people, the subtitle The Spirit of Our Time alludes to the influential German philosopher Friedrich Hegel, who thought everything was mind. But art critic Jonathan Jones notes, the "sculpture might be seen as an aggressively Marxist reversal of Hegel: this is a head whose 'thoughts' are materially determined by objects literally fixed to it... a head that is penetrated and governed by brute external forces."
A leader of Berlin Dada, Hausmann's innovative use of Assemblage creates a sculpture that, by presenting a kind of robotic dummy, challenges the expressivity of the face that one sees in more realistic sculpture. At the same time, the work speaks to the fragmentation of identity and life that the artist and others experienced in the aftermath of World War I.
While Hausmann was known for his innovative photomontage, Mechanical Head has become his most famous work and is an important touchstone for the contemporary discourse on the cyborg. As art historian Matthew Biro wrote, Hasumann established "the cyborg as a figure of modern human identity: the cyborg to represent the new hybrid human: a half-organic, half-mechanized figure that he believed was appearing with ever greater frequency."
This photograph depicts a partial view of Schwitter's most ambitious project - his living space in Hanover, transformed by Assemblage into an installation. A vertical and angular column rises toward a cluster of planes and cubes on the ceiling, while on both sides of the image a profusion of forms both invite and reject a rational reading of the architectural space. Destroyed during the Second World War, only accounts and a few photographs testify to the original construction. Following her 1924 visit to the site, Dada artist and art historian Kate Steinitz described it as a "three-dimensional collage of wood, cardboard, iron scraps, broken furniture and picture frames."
Merzbau was a forerunner of what we today call installation, as Schwitters conceived of the space as an immersive environment where interactivity was a fundamental factor. As art historian Jaleh Mansoor wrote, Merzbau was "a continuous project altered daily, the small apertures were often sliced out of a larger mass, or covered over and buried under the agglomeration of objects, wood or plaster." Fellow Dada artists, including Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Hoch, Hans Richter, and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, contributed pieces to the installation, which Schwitters originally called the Cathedral of Erotic Misery.
For Schwitters, the work was meant to be the all-consuming culmination of what he called Merz. In 1918, Schwitters began creating the over 2,000 abstract collages, paintings, and drawings that he called Merz. He connected its origins to the traumatic effects of World War I, explaining, "Things were in terrible turmoil... Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments; and this is Merz." Including detritus, such as movie tickets, broken pipes, chicken wire, and metal scraps, he said Merz was "the combination of all conceivable materials for artistic purposes. And technically the principle of equal evaluation of the individual materials... A perambulator wheel, wire-netting, string and cotton wool are factors having equal rights with paint."
Forced to relocate several times during World War II, Schwitters created multiple Merzbaus, which were destroyed, and he left an unfinished one in England before his death. Based upon the surviving photographs, a reconstruction of the Merzbau was subsequently built in Hanover. Contemporary art critic Rachel Cook described visiting the site, "The walls have disappeared behind constructions which comprise a series of grottoes, columns, shelves and cubes.... The effect of all this strange geometry is disorienting and paradoxical. Even as you're beset by a sense that the floor is shrinking and the ceiling growing ever lower, the structure itself seems somehow to be infinite." Instead of creating a simple sculpture, Schwitters created a built environment, pushing Assemblage art beyond sculpture and into installation. Here was an art form that had to be physically experienced - walked through - in order to be comprehended.
Schwitters became foundational to later artists, including Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Hamilton who, as a student, helped move and restore part of the third Merzbau in England, and subsequent art movements, including Neo-Dada, Pop Art, and Arte Povera.
Useful Resources on Assemblage
- 6k viewsKurt Schwitters: Merzbau 2013BAMPFA
- 5k viewsContemporary Responses to Kurt Schwitters | TateShots 2013
- 4k viewsMeret Oppenheim. Retrospektive. Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin 2013
- 64k viewsMark Stokes - Joseph Cornell: Worlds in a box
- 369k viewsRobert Rauschenberg - Pop Art Pioneer Full BBC Documentary 2016
- 2k viewsAssemblage and Politics (Modern Art in Los Angeles)Getty Research Institute
- 22k viewsHunters & Gatherers: The Art of AssemblageOur PickSotheby's
- 39k viewsBetye Saar: The Liberation of Aunt Jemima
- 48k viewsTracey Emin on My Bed | TateShots2015
- 1k viewsMartha Rosler's Meta-Monumental Garage Sale at MoMA 2012
- Jean Tinguely, Homage to New York, 1960Our Pick
- Audio. Robert Breer. Homage to Jean Tinguely's Homage to New York. 1960
- Louise Nevelson Sky Cathedral videoOur Pick
- 2k viewsART EXPLAINED | Robert Rauschenberg Monogram at Tate ModernTalk by Sarah Phillips
- 3k viewsInside 'Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust" 2015Our PickRoyal Academy of Arts / Sarah Lea
- 44k viewsAssemblageOur PickMOCA / Artists George Herms and Betye Saar and MOCA Chief Curator Helen Molesworth
- 7k viewsBetye Saar interviewNetropolitan Artsconversations
- 2k viewsArt and everyday lifeLecture by Martha Rosler 2014 / lisbonconsortium
- 26k viewsAssemblage - Sculpture: Jeremy Mayer at TEDxGoldenGatePark (2D)TEDx Talks November 29, 2012
- 14k viewsThe Art of Assemblage - George Herms | Agathe Snow - MOCA U - MOCAtvMOCA
- 13k viewsHANNELORE BARON : A COLLAGE AND ASSEMBLAGE EXHIBITIONERIC MINH SWENSON
- Sunday at the Met - Robert Rauschenberg: CombinesOur PickConversation with Robert Rauschenberg and Calvin Tomkins
- The Art of AssemblageOur PickBy William C. Seitz
- Critical Writings: New EditionBy Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
- Kurt Schwitters Merzbau: The Cathedral of Erotic Misery (Building Studies)By Elizabeth Burns Gamard
- A Technical Study of Picasso's Construction Still Life 1914By Jackie Heuman / Tate Papers No. 11 / Spring 2009
- Kurt Schwitters: Reconstructions of the MerzbauOur PickBy Karin Orchard / Tate Papers No. 8 / Autumn 2007
- African Influences in Modern ArtBy Denise Murrell
- Raoul Hausmann's Revolutionary Media: Dada Performance, Photomontage and the CyborgOur PickBy Matthew Brio / seminaticscholar.org / 2007
- Kurt Schwitters: the modernist master in exileBy Rachel Cooke / The Guardian / January 6, 2013
- Kurt Schwitters' Merzbau: The Desiring HouseBy Jaleh Mansoor / InVisible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Culture (IVC) / Issue 4, March 1, 2002
- The Spirit of Our Time - Mechanical Head, Raoul Hausmann (1919)By Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / September 27, 2003
- MoMA's First Work by a Female Artist Was a Fur-Lined TeacupBy Alexa Gotthardt / Artsy / January 11, 2018
- 'Luncheon In Fur': The Surrealist Teacup That Stirred The Art WorldBy Nina Martyris / NPR / February 9, 2016
- Jean Tinguely's Clamor Still Echoes TodayBy Nina Siegal / New York Times / October 14, 2016
- Joseph Cornell: Pioneer of assemblage artOur PickBy Deborah Solomon / Royal Academy of Arts / May 21, 2015
- Joseph Cornell: how the reclusive artist conquered the art world - from his mum's basementBy Olivia Laing / The Guardian / July 25, 2015
- Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust review - like being lost in a wondrous Victorian atticBy Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / June 20, 2015
- Arman, 76; Sculptor Made Art Out of Everyday ObjectsBy Mary Rourke / Los Angeles Times / October 31, 2005
- How Arman Opened the Door For Assemblage ArtBy Nessia Pope / Art Space / November 21, 2013
- Betye Saar: the artist who helped spark the black women's movementOur PickBy Nadja Sayej / The Guardian / October 20, 2018
- For Betye Saar, there's no dwelling on the past; the almost-90-year-old artist has too much future to think aboutBy Caroline A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times / April 29, 2016
- Construction Industry: Contemporary Assemblage, Construction and ReliefBy Alexander Glover / Studio International / February 9, 2015
- Martha Rosler on the Garage Sale, plights of modern workers, and her college days in CaliforniaBy James Eischen / Bomblog / November 7, 2013
- No Picassos, But Plenty Off the Wall BargainsBy Randy Kennedy / New York Times / November 16, 2012
- Tracey was hereBy Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / August 5, 2008