Kurt Schwitters

Portrait of Kurt Schwitters by El Lissitzky, 1929.


by Matt Gonzalez

“I use any material the picture demands.” Kurt Schwitters, 1920.

Today marks the conclusion of an important Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) retrospective, the first in the United States in over 25 years. Limited to three exhibition venues: the Princeton University Art Museum, the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, and finally the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA), Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage presents over 80 works by the 20th Century German born artist whose versatility spanned a variety of artistic mediums including painting, collage, sculpture, assemblage, and typographical work.

Although associated with Dada throughout his life, Schwitters resolved to be his own movement. He called it Merz from a fragment of a phrase, which originally spelled Kommerz und Privatbank, he had cut out of a newspaper advertisement and incorporated into one of his art pieces. As with much of his work lost or abandoned during the rise of Nazism and the ravages of World War II, the collage painting which named his movement was removed, and likely destroyed, from a Dresen gallery by the National Socialist who deemed it degenerate art.

It is all the more reason to celebrate this show which collects diverse works from various collections that span the entire length of his art making, from his earliest abstract collages made in 1918 to the final works which date 1947 after Schwitters had fled the Nazi invasion of Norway for England. Artists Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly both loan multiple works to the exhibition.

[Mz 601, 1923.]

The show, which was organized by the Menil Collection, is curated by Isabel Schulz, executive director of the Kurt and Ernst Schwitters Foundation (and curator of the Kurt Schwitters Archive at the Sprengel Museum Hanover), along with Joseph Helfenstein, director of the Menil Collection. Berkeley Art Museum director Lawrence Rinder deserves credit for securing this superb exhibition for his museum and presenting it to West Coast audiences.

After achieving some success as a landscape and portrait painter in Hanover, in 1918 Schwitters began making collages from discarded paper and incorporating a variety of objects into his abstract paintings. He sought to combine “all conceivable materials for artistic purposes” and did so by mixing oil and paper with objects made of rubber, cloth, wire, and wood. Schwitters utilized bus tickets, newspaper fragments, correspondence, packaging labels, tissue papers, cigarette packaging, and chocolate wrappers among other discarded items. He then reconfigured this found detritus to make abstract and non-objective artworks. German Dadaist Raoul Hausmann remembered the night Schwitters introduced himself in the Café des Westens, in Berlin. “I’m a painter,” he said, “and I nail my pictures together.”

Schwitters work adheres to a greater political emphasis than one might think at first glance. To the extent that Dada was a reaction to the chaos and inhumanity of World War I, Schwitters’ own abstract collage making, the picking up of disgarded paper and objects to make new things, is rooted in this conflict: “In the war, things were in terrible turmoil. What I had learned at the academy was of no use to me and the useful new ideas were still unready…. Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments; and this is Merz. It was like a revolution within me, not as it was, but as it should have been.” As a result his art broke with convention and his affinity with the Dada movement was cast.

His method was fluid. In addition to nails and bone glue, Schwitters used flour and water as a paste adhesive and also to create an opaque coat that nullified and muted certain color elements in the work. German-American art historian and dealer Charlotte Weidler watched Schwitters work in his studio:

“He spread flour and water over the paper, then moved and shuffled and manipulated his scraps of paper around in the paste while paper was wet. With his finger-tips he worked little pieces of crumbled paper into the wet surface; also spread tints of watercolor or gouache around to get variations in shadings of tone. In this way he used flour both as paste and as paint. Finally, he removed the excess paste with a damp rag, leaving some like an overglaze in places where he wanted to veil or mute a part of the color.”
Quoted in Harriet Janis and Rudi Blesh, Collage: Personalities, Concepts, Techniques (Philadelphia: Chilton, 1962).

[Untitled (Black Merz Drawing), ca. 1925.]

Schwitters worked his collage pieces laying them flat, which is particularly evident in those pieces signed in different places, which suggested they be exhibited in multiple orientations. The Untitled collage (Black Merz Drawing) is one such example, signed to allow for both a vertical and horizontal presentation, it underscores the pure essence of non-objective art. The piece dates from around 1925, yet its color is still crisp, with a dark background, and overlayed with blue, red, and yellow color fragments scattered around the picture plane. The composition presents the tumbling of paper downward, as if in movement. It is reminiscent of Jean Arp’s Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance (ca. 1916-17).

We must be careful not to judge Schwitters’ work solely from a contemporary vantage point. While it retains experimental elements, at times viewers struggle to conjure up his notoriety as a radical artist. Art critic and historian Kenneth Baker has noted the paradox of seeing the work today: “We have become so adjusted to visual scramble in art and to the repurposing of materials that we can scarcely imagine the challenge that Schwitters’ early assemblages and collages posed to respectable taste in their day.”

In addition to presenting collage, lithography, sculpture, and paintings, a replica of Schwitters’ famous Merzbau (Merz building) accompanies the exhibition, the Merzbau being, in effect, Schwitters effort at creating a total aesthetic installation by building out interiors of his home utilizing the angles and hard edges so prevalent in his collage work, which one could live and work in. Beginning in 1923, on three separate occasions Schwitters worked on a different Merzbau. The first, made in Hanover, was destroyed by Allied bombing. The second Merbau created by Schwitters in Norway after he fled the Nazis in 1937 was accidentally destroyed in 1951 by children playing with matches. The third, begun in 1947 in England never saw completion. However in 1983 set designer Peter Bissegger completed his reconstruction of the central portion of the Merzbau, and this is on display at the Berkeley Art Museum.

All exhibitions of Schwitters work in the United States are indebted to those collectors and curators who sought to promote his work during his lifetime. In particular, Katherine Dreier, an art collector who founded the Société Anonyme, Inc. with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, was the first in America to express interest in Schwitters’ work. Although her plans to give him a one-man show never materialized, she was responsible for the Brooklyn Museum’s 1926 show International Exhibition of Modern Art which included four paintings, 25 collages, and one sculpture by Schwitters, thus introducing him to art connoisseurs in this country.

[Mz x 19, 1947.]

Although Schwitters never reached America, he was prescient enough to know his work would be well-received here. In a 1941 letter to his wife Helma, who remained in their native Hanover, Schwitters wrote “I shall enjoy great renown in America.” He died January 8, 1948, one day after being granted British citizenship.

Schwitters’ work lives on. In addition to his visual art, he left experimental stories, poems, and plays, including his famous poem An Anna Blume (commonly translated as To Eve Blossom), which first attracted an international audience in 1919 for its originality and inventiveness, and various sound experiments including a 40 minute “primeval” sonata, Ursonate, which he composed between 1922-32, and which is still performed today.

Kurt Schwitters epitomized the avant-garde in his day, and continues to do so.

Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage. Through November 27, 2011. Berkeley Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, California.

Banksy or Bankboy?


Once upon a long time ago humans made art so beautiful that it still speaks to us today. 35,000 years ago Upper Paleolithic people were adorning caves with their impressions of their world. Hertzog’s documentary “Cave of Lost Dreams” takes us deep inside, his commentary is thick with the sensation of being in the presence of those ancient people and it’s their art that brings them so powerfully to us. Expertly painted creatures run across the unhewn contours of the walls, a rockface covered in elegant hand prints sits alongside, a hanging outcrop is decorated with a vulva. From the multi-disciplinary study being undertaken in the Chauvet cave we learn that this was a ritual site that people continually visited for thousands of years. Other material evidence that comes to us from these people are the fragments of a small bone pipe, so if we know little else, we know they had art and music.

The Chauvet paintings show that our ancestors had anticipated the delights of moving pictures- many creatures are multi-legged which, analysts suggest, implied movement in the flicker of firelight. Carbon-dating reveals that the addition of a defining line to a brace of mountain lions occurred five thousand years after the original was drawn. It is no wonder that the researchers say that they dream vividly of wild animals –lions, real and painted and of the cave itself.

The development of human culture through the creative arts is an intriguing cipher: we look at the art throughout our history and the mindset of the time is revealed: religiosity, social conventions, apprehensions of beauty. As our cultures became more complex and class divisions codified our art changed too, it took on public and private forms and spoke to our different realities.

The art of western civilization has gamboled through many transitions in our few thousand years of documented existence and we set great value on this part of our material culture.

At an art opening a few weeks ago in a sleek well-appointed gallery, a woman came up to me as I was looking at an image projected on the wall, “Its crass” she announced squarely to stimulate some debate, I tried to throw her off with some unintelligible remark about Heidigger which made my friend’s husband snort at my bitchiness, but Madam misjudged me and was enthralled, she plied me with her business card and confided that she was a “high brow” investment collector from Sonoma.

I enjoyed the artists’ works in the show, but gallery settings are hard for me, the artworld vibe is difficult for me. I love art but my gut feeling is that art and money mix like oil and water: when fiscal value is invoked, commodity is created and the intangible magic of art begins to disappear.

It is not just that art is has become such a hot investment game, its very nature has become mega-loaded and difficult to define, especially as the last hundred or so years of art has taken so many forms and directions. The conceptual realizations of the last century have left` many feeling excluded, confused, outwitted and ultimately indifferent to art. The visual arts, superseded by film and encased in the business mechanism of the artworld no longer speak to all of us, it’s a privileged relationship mediated through education and wealth, cozy for insiders, bewildering and redundant for the uninitiated.

In 1917 when Marcel Duchamp gave up painting and exhibited Fountain, a readymade urinal, he scandalously proposed that everything can be art. Duchamp wasn’t the only intellectual that was challenging the perspective of art, the Surrealists, the Dadaists, the Cubists (to name a few) were diversifying the forms of art to address the proliferation of cultural expression. This trend led through the last century and gave us a dizzying array of artistic forms and our appreciation was reflected in the price of ownership. Duchamp himself retired from being an artist early in life, and concentrated his creativity on chess, particularly the “endgame”. Chess, he said was better than art because it could not be commercialized. He did remain involved in the development of art though, advising gallerists and collectors and founding the Societe Anonyme in 1920 with Katherine Dreier and Man Ray to promote the public’s understanding of modern art.

Chances are, whether you are interested in art or not, that you’ve heard of Banksy: a street artist, a self-created brand, his career was not kick-started by a savvy art dealer nor endorsed by critics. His earliest works were made on public and private property in his hometown of Bristol, sometime later his work started to appear in London and from there to cities all over the world. Stencil artwork and written edicts, comments, jokes and anonymity have been his trademarks- cute rats, picturesque children and acute one-liners [“Watch out for the Crap!” on the steps of the Tate on the occasion of the 2002 Turner Prize].  Banksy’s stencil work is very nicely done and his messages are easy to understand, thus he has many fans, some of whom have a lot of money and pay artworld prices for his work. The work he continues to do on the street is free of charge and his legal identity remains under wraps.

Last year’s Exit Through the Gift Shop was Banksy’s first showing as a filmmaker and he didn’t disappoint; the story of Mr. Brainwash’s haphazard and meteoric rise shows how Banksy has busted the artworld’s cartel-style money-making scenario, and the luminous dealers and museum directors have been, as the kids say, molded.

Through the exuberant and irreverent creativity of Banksy and his compadres, Street Art, formerly known as graffiti, (around since there have been surfaces to adorn) has finally managed to kick the art establishment’s time-honored pre-digital control mechanism to the curb. Ever since the internet revolutionized our communicative abilities, street artworks, which used to suffer from a rapid onset of obscurity, due to generally being painted out in a matter of hours or days, now has an eternal home online and has consequently aggregated a massive audience.

Banksy, Shep Fairey, Faile, Nick X, Conor Harrington, Paul Insect and Escif, to name a few, fetch prices at auction that match and often outstrip the market value of artists who’ve ascended through the conventional gallery system.It seems that the blend of street art’s situationist flavor combined with a blatant disregard for establishment approval has won the hearts of the public.

Not everybody loves Banksy though, the only debate among serious art commentators is whether or not Banksy is an artist at all. I’m familiar with the flim-flammery of art establishment attitudes so this doesn’t surprise me:  I fully understand how the business of art defines and defends it’s pitch. An unholy triad decides what is and isn’t art, namely, art dealers (commercial gallerists), the intellectuals (art institution honchos and their representatives) and the collectors. What enters the annals of the history of art is endorsed by the approval of these groups: a dealer invests his money and reputation and gets behind an artist, the collectors buy the work and then somewhere down the line the institutional establishment shows them too. Often the institution and the dealers collude and the artist’s rise is all the more meteoric… Accordingly contemporary artists often reference this mechanism and other weirdness around originality etc with the art they make, and to understand what they’re trying to say you’d better have some grounding in philosophy and the history of art. If you’re interested and you have a bunch of cash (think hedge fund) an art dealer will befriend you and fill in the blanks, so you too can drink the wine and shoot the shit confidently down at the gallery.  It’s a business and a monopoly, and in my view, utterly not what art is about.

I’m disappointed that Banksy’s contribution is so slapped down and disregarded by the mainstream art press. Banksy is their elephant in the room, perhaps even their nemesis.  Nevertheless Banksy called it — he wanted to engage the artworld on their territory and did so when he moved  from illegal street art to illegal gallery display: having first focused on the general public who walk the streets in 2003 he turned to the perceived art audience with his crass placement of  “UK Crimewatch has Ruined the Countryside for All of Us” ( acrylic on canvas, 2003) in the Tate Gallery. Critics barricaded the doors against him, Jonathan Jones , art critter for The Guardian, full of bile, wrote a show-off article about how as one of the Turner Prize judges  he’d never nominate Banksy or any street artist, snottily he wrote:

“The reason I don’t like street art is that it’s not aesthetic, it’s social. To celebrate it is to celebrate ignorance, aggression, all the things our society excels at.”

I wonder if anybody called Jones out on that as he scoffed canapés and sucked down his wine at the Tate’s 2008 Street Art exhibit, which featured a wide selection of street art but notably not Banksy’s.  Lewisohn, the curator of that show on the exterior walls of the museum, weakly explained away Banksy’s absence saying that the audience was already well-acquainted with Banksy’s work and had sought to bring a selection of street art from other countries and cities into view. Maybe Banksy preferred to outshine the Tate show with his Cans Festival:  staged just before the opening of the Tate show, in an abandoned tunnel near Waterloo station, it featured the work of  30 street artists and was visited by 28,000 people in three days. Perhaps world’s most blatant anti-capitalist artist was flipping off the establishment endorsed show with it’s corporate sponsorship budget.

The blunt charge of anti-intellectualism which disbars Banksy from the elite ‘real art’ club is difficult to take seriously –- really? Banksy’s graffiti is inane but Emin’s sprawling signage “My Cunt is Wet with Fear” or Hirst’s spin paintings are somehow not? I predict that as Banksy’s work soars in value, establishment attitudes towards his artistic credibility will change. As Banksy has noted himself, “Galleries are just trophy cabinets for a handful of millionaires. The public never has any real say in what art they see.”

As the value of his work rises I predict that the artworld’s issues with his artistic credibility will continue to dissipate. Damien Hirst, currently the art establishment’s most canny moneyman, invested early in Banksy and has also collaborated with him on salable works. Soon enough one of those insider artworld outlets will bring Banksy into the fold and poor Jonathan Jones will have to figure out another way to get back onto the gallery supper A-list.

I liked Banksy straight away: irreverent and audacious on all appreciable levels, aesthetically pleasing and populist, (no need for a degree in the history of art to get Banksy’s message)  daringly  Situationist, (surprising peeps with art in their generally inane environment). He is bold and strangely modest in his anonymity, he comes across as a smart, anti-capitalist stoner type, I suspect he knows a lot about art history.

On good days I believe that Banksy really is fully inspired to liberate Art, the captive muse of capitalism. We have heard his art statement: art is everybody’s and you can say whatever you want, wherever you want. But does it ring true when your work is selling for megabucks in commercial galleries and auction houses?

On the one hand I understand that Banksy’s street art needs a considerable budget, beyond materials, the work’s execution has expenses which might run to: international flights and accommodations, assistants, cars, trucks, ladders, coffees, sandwiches and big bags of weed. Pricing a month-long trip to Palestine for three people, fifty thousand dollars seemed to be a reasonable estimate, this kind of cash must be coming from a steady stream of  artworld sales.  There is no crime in earning a living from art, Banksy’s official website states clearly that the artist is not represented by any gallery, galleries sell his work ‘second-hand’, inferring that the artist is just taking his cut. Well, kinda.

I see that he walks a fine line and that he is the fifth column in contemporary art.  While still putting art on the streets he also organizes exhibitions on his own terms  and accepts invitations from institutions where and when he pleases. The art that he embellished the segregation wall in Palestine shows me just how true his artistic aim is and his support, (moral and financial) of dissident street art groups, like the Russian group Voina, underlines his position.

Back in the Sixties Bruce Nauman made his spiral neon sculpture “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths” (neon, clear glass tubing suspension supports, 1967)  it’s a powerful piece, neon, at the time was used exclusively for  commercial displays, Nauman took neon and transplanted it into the territory of art and used it to remind us about the real message that artists try to impart.

For me the pudding-eating proof that Banksy is indeed a consummate artist is that he has given back a sense of self-determination to the viewer, breathing life into the  mystic truth of  an art environment where everybody is entitled to their opinion. It seems to me that in a decade or so, this shady figure has leveled the playing field and created a new agenda for art. When the conventional artworld stuck a player’s price tag on his work instead of fully capitulating to the establishment Banksy sidestepped to empower his  art paradigm.

One of my earliest memories is sitting on a little black toolbox in our garage, watching my Dad stone-carving. I was rapt as his chisel moved through the stone creating the whorl of a rose or the head of a lion. I knew the wonder of art as a child but when I was a curator and an art dealer I lost my connection to what art really meant to me.

Thanks to Banksy, the artist who dares to call the endgame moves on the artworld, I got it back.