Assemblage - History and Concepts
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.
In 1482, Carlo Crivelli included a gold key on an actual cord in his depiction of Saint Peter in his Madonna and Child with Four Saints (1482). Though Crivelli's inclusion was somewhat novel, small, precious items were often used to enhance religious or secular objects. In the late 1890s, Antonio Mancini, an Italian painter best known for his impasto Impressionist works, at times included found materials, such as pieces of glass or tin foil and, in one painting of a clarinet, the instrument's keys. According to art historian William C. Seitz, the Italian Futurist Gino Severini began using found materials in his painting after talking with the French critic Guillaume Apollinaire about similar methods used in Italian fifteenth-century paintings.
Pablo Picasso and Umberto Boccioni
Traditionally, Pablo Picasso's Still-Life with Chair Caning (1912) is often credited as both the first collage and the precursor of Assemblage as it incorporates oilcloth and an ordinary piece of rope into the painting's composition. However, it should also be noted that by 1911 the Italian Futurists were exploring Assemblages, creating what they called "object sculptures."
As art historian William C. Seitz noted, Umberto Boccioni's "Fusion of a Head and a Window...which included a real wooden window frame and fastener was done in 1911 or perhaps 1912, the year of the first collages of Picasso and Braque." The leader of Futurism, Filippo Marinetti noted Boccioni used "materials that were totally different as far as weight and tactile value: iron, porcelain, and female hair." In the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture (1912) Boccioni advocated for a stunning inclusion of found materials, writing, "even twenty different materials can compete in a single work to effect plastic emotion. Let us enumerate some: glass, wood, cardboard, iron, cement, horsehair, leather, cloth, mirrors, electric lights, etc., etc." Futurist works of Assemblage were subsequently lost or destroyed and their impact overshadowed by Picasso's work in the genre, but their work influenced the Russian Constructivists, including Vladimir Tatlin.
In 1913, Apollinaire published images of several of Picasso's constructions in his journal Les Soirées de Paris. As art historian Jackie Heuman noted, the works "provoked uproar.... Criticism was based on the desultory finish, the use of ignoble materials and on the perceived inappropriateness of the subject matter. This hostile response may have expressed a sense that the sculptural canon was being subverted by popular culture. When asked whether the constructions were sculptures or paintings, Picasso replied: 'Now we are delivered from Painting and Sculpture, themselves already liberated from the imbecile tyranny of genres. It's neither one thing nor another.'" This blurring of genres became fundamental in the practice and theory of Assemblage.
Many Assemblage artists trace their interest in the technique back to the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp and his "readymades." In 1913, Duchamp combined a bicycle wheel and a common stool to create Bicycle Wheel, which he cited as his first readymade, when he coined the word in 1915. Subsequently, the use of readymades, ordinary objects that are mass produced, and found objects, which can include natural objects such as feathers, butterfly wings, or bits of wood, became an integral part of Assemblage. As New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art's Nan Rosenthal wrote, "His most striking, iconoclastic gesture, the readymade, is arguably the century's most influential development on artists' creative process.... The object became a work of art because the artist had decided it would be designated as such." In many ways, Duchamp's insistence that the artist - not critic or curator - is responsible for defining what art is opened the door for other artists to expand notions of art beyond what had previously been imagined. From the beginning, Assemblage art questioned the canons that had been put in place by critics and art historians.
As art historian William C. Seitz noted, "the admixture of Dada in assemblage must not simply be granted; it must be insisted upon." Developing in the aftermath of World War I and rejecting traditional political and social structures as absurdities that had led to the war, Dada emphasized an "anti-art" or anti-aesthetic approach to art. Ardently embracing experimentation, artists like Hannah Höch, John Heartfield, and Raoul Hausmann, transformed collage into pioneering forms of photomontage and Assemblage. Additionally, artists like Max Ernst and Hans Arp engaged ideas of chance in their collages and assemblages. By 1918, Kurt Schwitters scavenged scrap materials and trash to incorporate into works that he called Merz, a term he explained both as a nonsense word and derived from the second syllable of the German word "commerce." As Seitz further noted, Schwitters "occupies a position of special honor in the history of assemblage.... It was he who conceived of an embracing medium that included painting, collage, agglomerate sculpture."
Dada assemblage was subsequently adopted by the Surrealists to create uncanny objects. Man Ray, who was associated with both movements, glued tacks to an iron to create Cadeau (Gift) (1921), while Meret Oppenheim's Object (1936) is a teacup, saucer, and spoon wrapped in fur. Provoking subconscious realities and desires, Surrealist Assemblage echoed André Breton's suggestion: "Recently I suggested that as far as is feasible one should manufacture some of the articles one meets only in dreams."
Influenced by Max Ernst but distancing himself from Surrealist ideas of the subconscious, the American artist Joseph Cornell pioneered Assemblage in the United States with his shadow boxes in the mid-1930s. Described by art critic Jonathan Jones as "a new kind of art," Cornell's shadow boxes, known for their evocative juxtapositions of objects, had a noted impact on a diverse range of subsequent artists, including Arman who used glass display boxes and cubes for his accumulations of detritus and Betye Saar who adopted the shadow box to social and political critique.
International Trend: 1950s and Beyond
In the 1950s, Assemblage came of age, its potential fully developed by leading international artists in a number of movements. Neo-Dada, Arte Povera, Nouveau Réalisme, and Pop Art fully exploited the artistic potential of Assemblage, expanded its scale, ambition, and approach. Neo-Dadaist Robert Rauschenberg created Assemblages that he termed "combines," while Arman in the Nouveau Réalism movement pioneered what he called "accumulations," collections of objects that expanded into Installation Art and Public Art. Jean Tinguely created mechanized and motorized Assemblages that pioneered Kinetic Art. At the same time, artists not strongly associated with a particular movement also pioneered new approaches, as seen in Louise Nevelson's assembled wood sculptures. In 1961, the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted an exhibition entitled The Art of Assemblage, curated by William Seitz, and as art critic Alexander Glover wrote, "It would go on to establish the art of Assemblage as a global phenomenon and one that was indulged in by well-known artists."
Concepts and Styles
Assemblage and African Art
Following colonial conquest, many African sculptures and masks were imported to Europe in the 1800s. Viewed as artifacts rather than artworks, some were displayed in various museums, including the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris, while other items were often sold for very little. These works had a profound influence on avant-garde artists and movements beginning in the early 1900s, lending to the trend of Primitivism. In 1906, Henri Matisse bought a small Vili figure and showed it to Picasso, prompting his many visits to the African art collection at the Trocadéro. African art, while exhibiting a wide range of styles and techniques originating in specific tribal cultures, often incorporated various materials, including cowrie shells, leather, feathers, metal nails, raffia and other plant fibers, and bits of glass or metal. As art historian Jackie Heuman wrote, Picasso's "constructions were launched at a time when Picasso had become deeply interested in tribal art. Ethnographic artifacts use a mélange of materials, including found objects, and their presence undoubtedly had a profound influence on him." This influence continued among subsequent generations of artists, including Arman, who had a museum-quality collection of African art.
Blurring the Boundaries
From the beginning, Assemblage blurred boundaries between art and the reality of everyday life and explicitly challenged the traditional separation of genres. Referencing Picasso's Still Life (1914), a work that includes found pieces of wood, a shelf, and table tassels, art historian Jackie Heuman wrote, "The admission into the work itself of selected but otherwise untransformed fragments of the real world meant that art was not only addressing the everyday but being visibly invaded by it, challenging the concept of art as something precious and valuable." Duchamp's readymades also questioned the tradition of Western sculpture, the insistence on originality, and the nature of authorship, while Kurt Schwitter's Merz works envisioned an art encompassing all genres in one immersive environment, as seen in his Merzbau (1923-37). The trend became dominant in the 1950s, expressed in works like Rauschenberg's "combines," which combined sculpture and painting, and flew in the face of art critic Clement Greenberg's championing of media specificity as well as Abstract Expressionism.
Originating in experimentation, Assemblage played a notable role in innovating other artistic approaches, including Kinetic Art, Installation Art, Environmental Art, and Performance Art. Schwitter's Merzbau (1923-37), an early example of an Installation, influenced artists, such as Richard Hamilton. Hamilton, along with other artists from The Independent Group, collaborated on room installations for the 1956 exhibition This Is Tomorrow. In time, Assemblages became vast "accumulations," as seen in Arman's Le Plein (Full Up) (1960), for which he filled a Parisian gallery with trash, and Allan Kaprow's Yard (1961), consisted of a sculpture garden filled with tires. Such works also emphasized audience interaction in diverse ways, and exhibitions became events, performances, and happenings. Unveiled at the Museum of Modern Art, Yves Tinguely's performance Homage to New York (1960) was a self-destructing sculpture, whose remnants audience members were to pick up as souvenirs, and is a touchstone of Kinetic Art. Christo's increasingly monumental Assemblages in the 1960s helped to spur the trend of Environmental Art. In 1966, Allan Kaprow's book Assemblage, Environments & Happenings became a foundational text, not only definitively describing contemporary developments, but also influencing subsequent artists.
Assemblage, as art critic Alexander Glover notes, "is still influential and prevalent among today's contemporary artists," though it often subsumed as a technique in works defined as installations. Conceptual, Neo-Pop, and the Young British Artists widely adopted Assemblage, while leading artists of the 1950s and 1960s continue to masterfully explore the technique. For instance, Martha Rosler's Monumental Garage Sale (1973) and Meta-Monumental Garage Sale (2012) were advertised as garage sales in local papers and as a performance in the art press.
A new generation of artists uses Assemblage in large-scale installations, as seen in Tokomo Takahashi's Clock Work (2010), her third reprisal of a 1998 work, and Song Dong's 2009 Museum of Modern Art installation of fifty years' worth of objects hoarded by his mother. Assemblage also reflects a contemporary ethos of reusing and recycling. Maha Mullah, whose sculpture Food for Thought Almuallaqat (2014) assembled a large number of used Saudi Arabian aluminum pans, said, "I don't see the point in creating new objects while we have a lot of waste around us." Gabriel Orozco, Fishli/Weiss, Mike Nelson, and Christina Mackie are just a few of the contemporary artists noted for installations, assembling found objects and scavenged materials.