"Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948): Collages, Paintings, Drawings, Objects, Ephemera, Apr. 1-May 23, 2003, at Ubu Gallery, 416 East 59th Street, New York, N.Y. 10022.
"In speaking of Schwitters," wrote the Dada poet Tristan Tzara, "it is difficult to separate his literary activity from his pictorial, the sculptor from the agitator . . . I remember seeing Schwitters pick up in the streets scraps of old iron, broken watch works, bizarre and absurd materials which even junk men would have discarded, to use them in the fabrication of works of art."
Tzara's sense of Schwitters as a kind of alchemist for the modern age is everywhere borne out in this impressive exhibition of over 60 collages, printed books and other material assembled by Ubu gallery director Adam J. Boxer and Berlin dealer Hendrik A. Berinson. A historical figure in the European avant-garde, Schwitters was a pioneer not only in Dada collage and assemblage but also in typographic design, abstract sound art and the architectural "Merz-Bau" constructions.
Like his Dada colleagues, Schwitters adopted his own nonsense word for his production -- "Merz," a term taken from an ad for "Kommerz und Privatebank" and redefined by the artist to mean "creation through destruction," a philosophical dictum borrowed from Nietzsche's The Will to Power. In image and text, Schwitters was concerned with the representation of chaos, dislocation, simultaneity, modes of perception, hidden desires and control.
Born in Hanover, Schwitters studied at the Royal Saxon Academy of Art in Dresden and first publicly exhibited his work in 1911 at the Hanover Kunstverein. Ubu has several examples from this period, including Moonshine Landscape, a romantic tempera on paper from 1906 showing a couple courting under the streetlights, and a pair of Expressionist crayon-on-paper drawings of a house done in 1918.
In 1918 Schwitters left Hanover to visit Berlin and join the burgeoning Club Dada. At the Cafe des Westens, in a chance meeting with collagist Raoul Hausmann, he introduced himself with the phrase that became his motto: "I am a painter, I nail my pictures." By 1920 Schwitters was already celebrated for his book of Dada poems, An Anna Blume (1919), as well as for the collages he exhibited with Der Sturm Gallery.
At this time his pictures consisted primarily of scraps of newspaper, lace, corrugated cardboard and tinfoil, all pasted together and smeared over with paint. The basic components of his newly discovered Merz-pictures were dented wheels, broken hoops, wire and wood nailed together. However absurd the material he utilized, he always integrated the materials into well-balanced compositions.
His collages are his best artwork; they create a magical effect when viewed closely, as if one had suddenly discovered the secrets of a shaman. For example, an oval collage, on closer inspection, is just the upper portion of an oval hand mirror, combined with personal memorabilia such as bus and train tickets from a visit to Amsterdam.
On the "Dada Tour" of 1922-23, Schwitters became friends with artists Theo and Nelly van Doesberg and began to collaborate on Theo's Dada magazine, Mecano. Also on this trip he befriended Vilmos Huszar who, along with Theo and Nelly, often joined him in unusual poetry performances. Always, he carried along suitcases full of found materials such as wood panels, buttons and knobs, postcards, fabric, etc., collected on his nature treks.
The show at Ubu includes a substantial number of collages from the '20s that clearly suggest a Constructivist influence in their clean, architectonic arrangements. The oil-on-cardboard painting Abstraktion 45-Kugelkleid (1922) is a Neo-Plasticist gem of dark composition and sunset color (that in a perfect world would have been better lighted to make its full impact on the retina of the viewer).
Other collages include found objects -- wine labels, a rubber stamp of a kettle, laced elements of magazine printed matter as in collage on paper. Many of the works use letters and printed elements as abstract design elements or as content. The lighthearted Greeting Card Collage from 1944, for instance -- made after Schwitters, a "degenerate" artist, had fled Germany for Norway and then London -- incorporates a black-and-white illustration of a cat with a handwritten holiday note appended to its surface.
Also on hand is a rare leaf from a score for an untitled sound poem, done in typewriter on pink paper and dated to ca. 1922. It begins with repetition of the word "b," crescendos to "bwrtzbp" and ends with "kwiiee" said several times. Schwitters nurtured a persistent dream of "Gesamt Kunstverk," a union of all the arts, a theatrical spectacle in which the spirit of Merz would prevail in a special setting with music.
In the 1920s Schwitters began to build the first of three "Merz-Bau" (as in Bauhaus) constructions, patterned after a tiny church made from a child's construction set. This "Cathedral of Erotic Misery" was a three-story assemblage constructed in the artist's Hannover house. Hidden within a Cubist scaffolding, the cathedral was filled with secret grottos of unholy relics to which Schwitters added objects grouped into themed areas -- Goethe Grotto, Sexual Murder Den, Nibelungen Hoard, Art Exhibit, etc.
The inner passageways were made of glass and punctuated by various enclosures, niches and caves, all of which functioned as a museum for displaying artwork. The structure spanned the gap between organic and inorganic, private and public. Unfortunately, this ongoing project was abandoned in 1937, when Schwitters left Germany (he called the work "unfinished out of principle"). It was destroyed by Allied bombing during the war (1943).
The second Merz-Bau construction was built following Schwitters' immigration to Norway, but it, too, was destroyed -- by fire in 1951. Before that, again fleeing the Nazis, this time to England, Schwitters began a third construction in a shed in Elderwater under the title "Merz Barn." A fragment of this construction was shown this summer at the Stedelijk Museum. In addition, a replica of the artist's first Merz-Bau construction is being assembled in Hannover for the major retrospective in progress. These architectural marvels stand proof that Schwitters made a leap into the fifth dimension -- a universal language, a man-made landscape created from discarded objects.
Schwitters' work is clearly the forerunner of that of Robert Rauschenberg, R.B. Kitaj, concrete poetry, Arte Povera, Joseph Beuys, Georg Baselitz and untold other artists and movements. His legacy is chiefly a matter of freedom in the use of material, texture, rhythms, colors and contrasts. His work expresses humor, irony and also gravity. He enriches avant-garde artists with a subtle spirituality and a cynically luxurious view of the world.