“I am a painter and I nail my pictures together,” Kurt Schwitters said to fellow artist Tristan Tzara in 1919. At a time when German art was a heady mix of Expressionism’s yellow cows, Cubist collage’s angular abstraction and Futurism’s dynamic diagonals, Schwitters, a 32-year-old former art student working in a factory in Hannover, had started to make iconoclastic pictures out of discarded materials. A friend remembers him collecting “every tram-ticket, every envelope, cheese wrapper or cigar-band, together with old shoe-soles or shoe-laces, wire, feathers, dishcloths.”
Schwitters’s bottle-green and brick-red assemblages and collages, their tram-tickets, cotton balls and newsprint showing through under diamonds of blue paint, are now on view in Princeton, in an exhibition organized by Josef Helfenstein of the Menil Collection and Isabel Schulz of the Kurt Schwitters Archive in Hannover. It’s a sustained look at Schwitters’s eccentric and immensely influential practice, and also something of an event: the only full-scale retrospective of his work in the U.S. was back in 1985, at MoMA.
The show starts with tiny, lapidary collages, like Merzz 53 Red Bon Bon (1920), a symphony of luminous reds and pinks set off by yellow and turquoise paper squares. Some, like MZ 163 Mit Frau, Spritzend (1920) echo the portraits Schwitters’s academic training prepared him to paint, but most, like Merz 601 (Shifted Planes) (1923), are pure arrangements of shapes in a frame; all emphasize color, texture and material.
Schwitters wrote, too, and his irreverent 1919 poem “An Anna Blume” made him infamous. As nonsensical and colorful as as one of his collages–”Blue is the color of your golden hairs/Red is the color of your green birds” are some of its lines–he saw it as his ticket into the antiart group known as Dada; in an aspirational gesture, he emblazoned the word “dada” on the cover of the self-printed pamphlet containing the poem. Despite his overtures, however, the Dadaists rejected Schwitters, burning his “Blume” pamphlet at the 1920 Berlin Dada Fair. Too iconoclastic for more conventional artistic movements, Schwitters was too painterly and sentimental for Dadaism. Denied entry by the club he desperately wanted to join, he slapped stickers that said “Anna Blume” wherever he went; he interrupted other artists’ talks by barking like a dog. And yet he was as energetic in his artistic activities proper as he was in his provocations, alternating between painting, printmaking, collage, stage design, poetry, and sculpture, all while collaborating with artists Hans Arp, Théo Van Doesburg and El Lissitzky on a periodical. These encounters with his peers led Schwitters to make work like the experimental Merz Portfolio (1923). Comprising six orange, gray, blue, and brown prints full of geometric shapes, it shows the influence of Russian Constructivism.
No purist, Schwitters readily blurred boundaries between the mediums of sculpture, painting, and even architecture. The surface of Picture With Spatial Growths/Picture With 2 Little Dogs (1920/39) features wooden knobs, lace and hair; stuck into a niche cut into the top right of the canvas are two plastic toy dogs.
He continued experimenting with writing. A recording of Schwitters reading his poem “Ursonate” (1922-32) reminds us of how alien his work must have seemed to its original audiences. The poem is pure sound (one passage reads: “zee tee wee bee/ zee tee wee bee/ zee tee wee bee/ zee tee wee bee/ zee tee wee bee/ zee tee wee bee Fümms”). It seems to echo the beeping of streetcars and machines. A friend recalls that at one reading: “the whole audience … exploded in an orgy of laughter. The dignified old ladies, the stiff generals, shrieked with laughter, gasped for breath, slapped their thighs, choked themselves.”
To describe his art, Schwitters invented the term “Merz.” A bastardization of the German commerz (commerce), its meaning was elastic, and he incorporated it into the titles of most of his 300 early collages, as well as his DIY magazine, which ran from 1923 to 1932. “Merz” would end up being equal parts romantic self-invention and proto-pop branding.
He merged his nonsense word with Bauhaus, the name of the Modernist architecture and design school, to come up with Merzbau, the name he gave to a sprawling site-specific installation he began creating in his parents’ Hannover home in 1927. A sprawling accumulation of found objects, Merzbau gradually spread through multiple rooms and floors, to the balconies and the attic, transforming these spaces into caves complete with stalactites and stalagmites of collaged elements. Reconstructed in this show from photographs taken before it was destroyed, Merzbau looks like a teenager’s chaotically messy bedroom transformed by some chemical into a self-replicating, swift-spreading crystalline structure that has turned everything it’s touched into pure, mad Merz.
The party ended. Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, and by 1934 Schwitters’ advertising firm, Merzwerbe, had lost its contract with the city of Hannover. In 1936 he hid photographic negatives depicting conditions in Germany in an album cover and mailed them to Tzara in Paris. In 1937 the Nazis included his artworks in their exhibition of “degenerate” art, and sought Schwitters out for questioning. He fled to Norway with his son, leaving his wife behind in Hannover; she died of cancer in 1946, before they could reunite. From Norway, Schwitters went to Ambleside, in Northern England, where, living in exile in 1940, he tried to build another Merzbau, in a barn. He also made collages, and they look nostalgic: one late work of cut-up French airmail envelopes and letters suggests how much he likely missed his artistic contemporaries, living as he did in near-isolation in a country where he barely knew the language. He died, aged 60, in 1948, the day after he became a British citizen; his Merzbau in Hannover had been obliterated by bombs.
The Princeton exhibition emphasizes the postscript to this sad story–Schwitters’s towering influence on post-war American art. The late Robert Rauschenberg began work on his iconic Combines in 1954, after encountering Schwitters’s work at New York’s Sidney Janis gallery in 1953. A Marcel Duchamp-designed poster for that exhibition is on display here, as are Schwitters collages from the collections of today’s most prominent living artists: Cy Twombly, Ellsworth Kelly and Jasper Johns, the last of whose well-known Target With Four Faces (1955) emerges directly from Schwitters’s assemblages. Musicians too took notice: Schwitters imagined a score in which the tones would be produced by “violin, drum, trombone, sewing machine, grandfather clock, steam of water, etc.,” 40 years before John Cage composed pieces using a watering can, a iron pipe, a bottle of wine, a grand piano, five radios and an electric mixer.
The extraordinary work on view in Princeton shows just how forward-looking Schwitters was, when he demonstrated that painting could extend forward from a flat plane and become objectlike; that environments filling a room could be called art (we now know this as installation art); that there could be a loose interplay between artistic mediums. Here’s hoping a new generation of New York artists makes the trip to see it.