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About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Art form in which natural and manufactured, traditionally non-artistic, materials and objets trouvés are assembled into three-dimensional structures. As such it is closely related to Collage, and like collage it is associated with Cubism, although its origins can be traced back beyond this. As much as by the materials used, it can be characterized by the way in which they are treated. In an assemblage the banal, often tawdry materials retain their individual physical and functional identity, despite artistic manipulation. The term was coined by Jean Dubuffet in 1953 to refer to his series of butterfly-wing collages and series of lithographs based on paper collages, which date from that year. Although these were in fact collages, he felt that that term ought to be reserved for the collage works of Braque, Picasso and the Dadaists of the period between 1910 and 1920. By 1954 Dubuffet had extended the term to cover a series of three-dimensional works made from primarily natural materials and objects. The concept of assemblage was given wide public currency by the exhibition The Art of Assemblage at MOMA, New York, in 1961. This included works by nearly 140 international artists, including Braque, Joseph Cornell, Dubuffet, Marcel Duchamp, Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, Man Ray and Kurt Schwitters. Several of the works shown were in fact collages, but the breadth of styles and artists included reflects the wide application of the term and the sometimes fine distinction between assemblage and collage. The ‘combine paintings’ of Rauschenberg, for example, fall awkwardly between the two, being essentially planar but with often extensive protrusions of objects. The inclusion of real objects and materials both expanded the range of artistic possibilities and attempted to bridge the gap between art and life.

The ancestry of the assemblage can be traced back to the artistic and literary environment of late 19th-century France. In his later poetry, especially Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1897), Stéphane Mallarmé adopted a technique in which poetic fragments were pieced together in unusual semantic and typographic arrangements. Guillaume Apollinaire later extended this method in his Calligrammes (1918). By emphasizing the visual appearance of words their traditional role of signification was both enhanced and expanded. In the same manner assemblage emphasizes the visual or tactile qualities of formerly utilitarian objects while nevertheless exploiting the perception of the banality of such objects. In the visual arts, one of the most notable early attempts to use non-artistic materials can be found in Edgar Degas’s Little Dancer Aged 14 (1880–81; bronze version, London, Tate). In an attempt to achieve greater realism, Degas included a real muslin skirt and hair ribbon in the bronze version, and the original clay and wax version also included a horse-hair wig.

The assemblages that emerged from Cubism include such pieces as Picasso’s Still-life (1914; London, Tate), composed of carved wood elements and an upholstery fringe, and intended to be hung on the wall. His painted bronze Glass of Absinthe (1914; version, New York, MOMA) includes a real spoon and is free-standing. This development expressed a dissatisfaction with the deceptive illusionism of painting and sculpture that was overcome by the use of real objects. Another equally important pioneer of assemblage was Kurt Schwitters, who used the technique in his Merz works. Merz Construction (1921; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.), for example, was made from pieces of wood, wire mesh, paper and cardboard to create a deliberately ugly, shabby work characteristic of Schwitters’s Dadaist aesthetic. The ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp showed a similar anti-artistic intent, and little if any actual assembly was required for their production. The works of the Russian Constructivists also occasionally embodied the aesthetic of the assemblage but were better described as constructions, the materials used being more aesthetically pleasing in themselves and more malleable, and the separate elements being transformed and absorbed into a unified work.

The facility with which objects could be juxtaposed in assemblage made the medium ideally suited to the Surrealists in their quest for the marvellous. The Surrealist object thus became an important part of the movement’s output, allowing a material equivalent to the juxtaposition of distant entities embodied in the Surrealist image, as in Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined cup and saucer, Object (1936; New York, MOMA). From the 1950s worthless or discarded materials were used in assemblage to various effect by Robert Rauschenberg and other American artists. Richard Stankiewicz used junk metal in such welded assemblages as Kabuki Dancer (1954; New York, Whitney), in which the parts assume a menacing quality that can be seen as a comment on technological society. The exponents of Nouveau Réalisme also produced a range of assemblage works. For example Daniel Spoerri’s tableaux pièges, such as Table City Galerie (1965; Amsterdam, Stedel. Mus.), were often made from the refuse of meals, illustrating human consumption and, more broadly, the consumer society. This theme was developed more consistently in Pop art, which emphasized the synthetic, brash nature of mass-produced consumer products. The assemblage proved an effective way of realizing this aim, as shown, for example, by Tom Wesselmann’s Still Life #40 (1964; Saint-Etienne, Mus. A. & Indust.), which used brightly coloured synthetic materials. The environmental works of Edward Kienholz, such as The Beanery (1965; Amsterdam, Stedel. Mus.), used assemblage on a much larger scale and broke radically with the residual sculptural connotations of assemblage by literally surrounding the viewer and recreating reality in a distorted form. The continued use of the assemblage into the 1990s showed it to be a medium almost as flexible and important in modern art as painting or the traditional technique of sculpture.

Philip Cooper
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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