THE REALISM AND POETRY OF ASSEMBLAGE

The memory throws up high and dry
A crowd of twisted things;
A twisted branch upon the beach
Eaten smooth, and polished
As if the world gave up
The secret of its skeleton,
Stiff and white.
A broken spring in a factory yard,
Rust that clings to the form that the strength has left
Hard and curled and ready to snap.

T. S. ELIOT77

The catalogue of the exhibition (page 153) lists the materials incorporated in each work. It suggests the limitless diversity that relates assembled art to the world. The finished works, moreover, are usually closer to everyday life than either abstract or representational art. Such objects as Victor Brauner Wolf-Table (page 64), Edward Kienholz' Jane Doe (page 134), or George Herms' The Poet (page 133), however arresting, strange, or poetic may be their effect, resemble furniture more than they do sculpture; they fit more naturally in a living room than they do in a museum. A similar shortening of psychological distance results from the treatment of materials: one's hand is drawn toward the frayed holes in Burri sacks (pages 136-137) as unconsciously as toward a tear in a pair of trousers.

Intrinsic to the medium of assemblage is an entirely new relationship between work and spectator: a reconquest, but by different means, of the realism that abstract art replaced. In 1915 (for an exhibition at the Tanner Gallery in Zurich) Jean Arp spoke out "against illusion, fame, artifice, copy or plagiarism," and "for reality, the precision of the indefinable, rigorous precision." The participating artists, he said later, "were disgusted with oil painting and were searching for new materials."78 It was perhaps Picasso's unwillingness to take this step to complete abstractness that led him, in 1923, to assert that an artist must know how to "convince others of the truthfulness of his lies."79

Even Gris, who composed "flat architecture" in entirely nonrepresentational forms, chose to overlay his abstraction with realism: to "adjust the white so that it becomes a paper and the black so that it becomes a shadow."80 When he interpolated illustrations, pieces of mirror, or typographical clippings, replacing a deductive image by a fragment of the environment, the metaphysic of juxtaposition was barely posed: the reality problem raised by assemblage is a new and different one that has little to do with illusionism or trompe-l' oeil devices. When the scene behind the gold frame came forward and began to crack up or fade out (as it did in Mondrian's art of 1910-1915), abstract pictorial elements became more "real" than what they represented, and the gap between painting and sculpture narrowed until, in the abstract tableaux-objets that followed, the distinction was almost obliterated. Abstract

-81-

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The Art of Assemblage
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 5
  • Foreword and Acknowledgments 6
  • Introduction 9
  • The Liberation of Words 13
  • The Liberation of Objects 21
  • The Collage Environment 72
  • The Realism and Poetry of Assemblage 81
  • Attitudes and Issues 87
  • Notes 150
  • Photograph Credits 152
  • Catalogue of the Exhibition 153
  • Assemblange: A Working Bibliography 166
  • Index 174
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