The Anthropology of Assemblage

By Kelly, Julia | Art Journal, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

The Anthropology of Assemblage


Kelly, Julia, Art Journal


When William Seitz offered a definition of a whole range of artworks using the term "assemblage" in 1961, he opened up a category of art making that was at once excitingly expansive and frustratingly vague. Beyond the rather tautological claim that such works were "predominantly assembled," Seitz set out their non- or antiart credentials: "Entirely or in part, their constituent elements are preformed natural or manufactured materials, objects, or fragments not intended as art materials."1 One of Seitz's lists of the properties of assemblage defined it in terms of "the need of certain artists to defy and obliterate accepted categories, to fabricate aggressive objects, to present subjects tabooed by accepted standards, to undermine the striving for permanency by using soiled, valueless, and fragile materials, and even to present ordinary objects for examination unaltered."2 This conception of assemblage was made possible by earlier twentieth-century art practices, notably Cubist collages and constructions, and the Surrealist object.3 The assault on artistic tradition posed by juxtapositions of found elements had, for instance, been evoked by the Surrealist writer Louis Aragon in a 1930 discussion of collage, where he referred, among other things, to Pablo Picasso's inclusion in his collage works of "the real debris of human life, something poor, soiled, despised."4 The Surrealist concept of the bringing together of jarringly arbitrary and unexpected images and objects was also a clear prefiguration of the principle of assemblage.

The use of "poor," ephemeral, nonart materials in turn had an important basis in certain revisions of the concept of art making in the early twentieth century, deriving in part from a changing perception of non-Western objects.5 That the materials could be throwaway, replaceable, perishable, heterogeneous, unaesthetic, and subject to seemingly haphazard, fragile, or transitory arrangements, like Baining masks or Congolese nkisi ("power figures"), was, I would argue, a significant point of reference both for Surrealist objects and for assemblage.6 Seitz's project to set out die scope and function of assemblage has a stronger basis in conceptions of the non-Western object than might at first be apparent. Concepts like process, "poor" art, and precariousness, which have had a considerable resonance in recent art making, owe much to an anthropological perspective that was latent, if undeveloped, in Seitz's analysis. This introductory essay seeks to bring to light overlooked trajectories in early twentieth-century art and conceptions of non-Western objects, to reframe assemblage in relation to these ideas, and to reanimate it as a practice today.

While we might readily associate assemblage with collections of messy, awkward stuff, Seitz's exhibition and its accompanying catalogue embraced both me "dirty" junk sculpture of artists like Bruce Conner and the cool conceptualism of Marcel Duchamp. Assemblage was also presented as the close cousin of collage, sharing its antiart impulses but also going beyond its usual, two-dimensional emphasis. If the term "collage" today has a rather rarefied aspect, exemplified by the highly precious and elegantly disposed fragments of yellowing paper in works by Picasso or Georges Braque, whose radical challenge to the art of their time is not always easy to uncover, that of "assemblage" has the potential to conjure up an image of recalcitrant clutter, intended to trouble white cubes through sculpture and installations, despite the inevitable aestheticization of the survey exhibition. Assemblage's potential ugliness and lack of marketability has often meant it has not been easily assimilated into trajectories of high-modernist art or indeed conceptual art. While Yves Klein's Le Vide (1958) for the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris stands as a landmark piece of pure conceptualism, Arman's intended counterpart, Le Plein (1960), remains overlooked by comparison, a stubborn pile of rather nasty rubbish. …

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