Assemblage, Bricolage, and the Practice of Everyday Life

Article excerpt

Certain art-historical terms, the French artist Jean DubufFet explained to William Seitz in 1961, are determined by a period- and context-specific "spirit" or "mood."' While DubufFet was in fact discussing the example of collage, it is tempting to apply his insight to Seitz "s 1961 Art of Assemblage exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which marked, in many ways, the simultaneous culmination and demise of a specific spirit of the late 19505 and early 19605. The word "assemblage" itself would be quickly superseded-by the end of the decade-by new terms such as environment, performance, and Conceptual art, and this moment in the history of twentieth-century art remains to this day largely eclipsed by these subsequent developments. In order to excavate this early history of the 19605 and to demonstrate its relevance for our understanding of contemporary art, this thematic cluster of essays will focus on Seitz's description of assemblage as an activity involving "the fitting together of parts and pieces."2 This definition evokes the do-it-yourself process of constructing objects from odds and ends, described by the French word bricolage and most famously theorized in 1962 by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Examining the relations between assemblage and bricolage will bring to light a trajectory of process-based practices in contemporary art since the late 19505, while demonstrating the value of conceiving assemblage as a model of engagement with the world rather than as a formal category. This introductory essay will address one feature of the assemblage-bricolage nexus in particular: its relation to the two opposing fields of work and leisure.


In his correspondence about The Ait of Assemblage, Seitz emphasized that the works in the exhibition should not only juxtapose at least two different materials, but that these materials should be "discarded or purloined" "rather than new"-just like the residues from which the bricoleur, according to Lévi-Strauss, draws for his constructions.3 Seitz seemed insistent that these heterogeneous materials remain "identifiable." In a letter to David Smith, in which he sought to justify the inclusion of only one of the American sculptor's works in the exhibition, he explained: "You so often obliterate die sources of the things you use, diat I did not regard you as essentially an assembler but as a sculptor."4 The most interesting critical debates on assemblage practices in the early 19605 certainly hinged on this very nexus of recognizability and transformation, which related to more general discussions of the artists' approach to their materials.1 Similarly, Lévi-Strauss's definition of bricolage as a "science of the concrete" describes above all an attitude to the material world. For Lévi-Strauss, the bricoleur "'speaks,' not only with things ... but also through things."6This dialogue with objects, in which assemblage artists were also engaged, was interpreted at the time as a break from the autonomy of Abstract Expressionist painting. In his landmark essay "The Legacy of Jackson Pollock," Allan Kaprow hailed the arrival of a "new concrete art" which would embrace everyday materials.7ThIs "new concrete art," which would expand into assemblage, environments, and Happenings, calls to mind, of course, the bricoleur's "science of the concrete."

The fact that the bricoleur speaks through things, as well as with them, points, furthermore, to the sociopolitical ramifications of assemblage in early 19605 Europe and America. As Jaimey Hamilton's essay on Arman (in this issue of Art Journal) demonstrates, assemblage presented itself as the privileged expression of a new consumer subject whose very identity was defined through an increasingly accelerated cycle of acquisition and disposal of objects. While the concrete nature of assemblage allowed it to underscore the new dominance of the commodity, it was its emphasis on process that suggested the ways in which subjects are formed through this changing set of relations. …