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A Tumultuous Assembly: Collage in Contemporary Art

May 17, 2014 – July 27, 2014

installation view of an exhibition with a wall with title text


A Tumultuous Assembly explores the artistic legacy of collage, assemblage, and use of the found object. Initiated by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Marcel Duchamp in 1912–13, these radical approaches to artmaking revolutionized the nature and history of modern art. By mobilizing commonplace materials, collage-based techniques elevated the objects and detritus from everyday existence into the realm of fine art. Its practitioners, in disrupting the division separating art from life, not only overturned longstanding cultural and artistic norms, but also infused the ordinary with a poignant lyricism. Drawn from MMoCA’s permanent collection, A Tumultuous Assembly presents contemporary interpretations of collage and assemblage, created during the second half of the twentieth century, by such artists as Don Baum, Henry Botkin, Louise Nevelson, Robert Rauschenberg, and Ray Yoshida, among others.

The art historical lineage of the works on view can be found in the fragmented imagery of Cubist art; the defiant, “non-art” materials comprising Duchamp’s readymades; the irrational or chance-based combinations of Dada ensembles; and the Surrealists’ tactics of juxtaposition and associative play. The title of the exhibition, however, is a reference to Futurism. Founded in 1909, this avant-garde movement admonished entrenched traditionalisms and celebrated all things modern and innovative. “Tumultuous Assembly” is the name of a typographical collage by the Futurist poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, a pioneer of parole in libertá (words-in-freedom). Advocating for a more progressive style of free-verse poetry, he sought to emancipate written text from the constraints of grammatical structure, thematic continuity, and linear typesetting. He constructed his poems as pictorial word collages, cutting out numbers, letters, and symbols from newspapers and pasting them to the page in playful visual arrangements. In harnessing typography and page layout for expressive purposes, Marinetti allowed for the integration of non-linguistic influences into the domain of writing. And, much as Marinetti opened up textual practices, collage artists similarly expanded the boundaries of fine art. They coaxed latent potential from even the humblest materials, bringing together disparate media into a single whole.

One of a poet’s essential tools is the metaphor, the linking together of unlike words, each with their own set of connotations, to create new meaning through their union. Likewise, the artists included in A Tumultuous Assembly fabricate new works of art by joining fragments of pre-existing things. Although individual elements retain evidence of previous histories and functions, they take on new associational qualities when combined with other seemingly incongruous items. Henry Botkin, an artist who turned to collage in the 1950s, underscores the transformative powers of the collage process, writing, “I am convinced that this fresh magic and a new emergence of creativity have opened up many horizons. … Not only does it increase a pulsation of new forces, it ends in the poetic transformation of a dream world with new inspiration.” In The City, a torn scrap from a yellow legal pad, a Gordon’s Gin product label, newsprint illustrations and lettering, and a mixture textured papers and expressive lines, all coalesce into a cohesive composition of color, shape, and narrative possibility. Botkin’s mixed-media works speak to the visual poetics of random accumulation.

Other American artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg, embraced the methodology of collage in response to the spirit and energy of the mid-century urban environment, which was undergoing an explosion in mass-produced visual and consumer culture. Horsefeathers Thirteen-X, for example, juxtaposes layered newspaper clippings with a photograph of an elephant. With jagged edges and upside down orientation, the accompanying image of a partially peeled apple, halved orange, and two bananas further complicates the composition. In contrast to Botkin’s lyrical abstractions, Rauschenberg saw his collages and “combines” as embodying the chaos of modern society, stating, “I was bombarded with television sets and magazines by the excess of the world. I thought an honest work should incorporate all of those elements, which were and are a reality.” Ray Yoshida, an influential figure in the development of Chicago Imagism, similarly looked for inspiration outside of the fine arts, most notably in popular culture as exemplified by magazines and cartoons, and “trash treasures” gathered from Chicago’s flea markets. An early example of the artist’s celebrated comic book collages, Comic Book Specimen #2, Right Profile presents dozens of carefully excised cartoon profiles arranged in six orderly rows. Both Yoshida and Rauschenberg found aesthetic power within the pop culture’s vernacular imagery, and adopted a methodology that acknowledged and paid homage to their distinctly American environment.

Some artists found fertile ground in the realm of three-dimensional objects, taking things from the everyday world and re-presenting them as discrete works of art. Don Baum’s assemblages, such as The Apparition, merge the hand-made with the mass-produced—in this instance, paint-by-number panels and an old cutting board. Taking his cue from surrealistic tendencies, he combined familiar materials in unusual ways to hint at multiple meanings. Louise Nevelson also reimagined new contexts for otherwise discarded items. She composed her signature boxed constructions from wooden remnants of decorative building facades, old chair legs, cabinet doors, and other commonplace items she gathered from around her neighborhood and city streets. An emblematic example of her work, End of the Day XXVIII is a monochrome assemblage featuring abstracted elements set within a geometric grid. The all-over wash of black paint harmonizes the mismatched collection of wood scraps and infuses the work with a power and mystery that conjures, in the artist’s own words, “totality, peace and greatness.”

In examining artists’ diverse approaches to collage and assemblage, this exhibition endeavors to show how collage can be used as both a tool to express ideas about modernity and America’s throwaway culture, and as a way to capture the poetic potential of the everyday. The resulting works of art are richly textured hybrids whose shifting forms and associations can be read as metaphors for the constantly fluctuating realities of contemporary life.

Exhibition Support

Generous funding for A Tumultuous Assembly has been provided by Dan and Natalie Erdman; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts; and MMoCA Volunteers.