Now that Photoshop has enabled complicated image manipulation with the click of a mouse, few of us still resort to using scissors, glue, and a stack of magazines to meet our collaging needs. Throughout the 20th century, however, the technique of collage was an essential strategy for successive generations of artists, from practitioners of Cubism and Dada to Pop art and beyond. As unique works on paper, they are collected by the Department of Drawings at MoMA, and there are currently two opportunities to see groups of collages from artists in the collection.
At the height of the Vietnam War, Martha Rosler began circulating her series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home. Deftly mining the politicized history specific to the photomontage, she invoked the spirit of John Heartfield with her incisive critiques that contrasted the military conflict abroad with American consumer complacence. The original collages for this series recently went on view in the third-floor Drawings Galleries as part of the exhibition Eyes Closed/Eyes Open: Recent Acquisitions in Drawings.
Yet Rosler didn’t consider these cut-and-pasted versions final until they were reproduced (as photographs taken by her, as printed illustrations in alternative newspapers, or as antiwar fliers) and the artificiality of her constructions was further obscured, to echo even more closely the seamlessness of commercial imagery.
In the work of Austrian artist Franz West, who sadly passed away late last month, mechanically smooth surfaces are foreign territory. For West, the method of collage—amassing and combining disparate objects and materials—was an essential part of his overall process. A selection of his work is now on view in the second-floor Contemporary Galleries. West emerged as an artistic provocateur in the mid-1970s with a body of work called Adaptives (Paßstücke)—vaguely functional looking yet abstract and bizarrely-shaped assemblages of papier mâché, plaster, and other humble materials that are meant to be handled/worn/played with at the whim of the viewer.
The collages are an equally homely bunch, which even West gleefully referred to as ugly. Crudely crafted on rumpled pieces of cardboard, covered with slap-dash coatings of thick, industrial paint, they are sparsely populated with fragmented figures borrowed directly from ads and other commercial sources…including the occasional pornographic magazine. Eroticism was certainly a lodestone for West, who was professedly steeped in the intellectual and cultural history of his hometown of Vienna, where in previous generations Sigmund Freud conceived of psychoanalysis and Gustav Klimt cavorted with nude models in his studio. Yet the figures in West’s collages—even the overtly sexual ones—often appear more ridiculous than titillating.
While the blocks of painted color usually imply a perspectival sense of place, West’s collaged figures are essentially alienated—robbed of the cohesive framework of the ad or magazine spread from which they originally came.
In a slyly Freudian vein, West suggested that the awkward interactions between the human body and an Adaptive encouraged the physical manifestation of neuroses. Much as interacting with the Adaptives often necessitates making awkward (or perhaps neurotic) gestures, West noted that the postures adopted by models for the camera become more bizarre when they are isolated from their intended context.
There are currently many great pieces remembering West online. But be sure to come to MoMA to see his work—and Martha Rosler’s work—for yourself. The Franz West installation is on view through spring 2013, and the exhibition Eyes Closed/Eyes Open: Recent Acquisitions in Drawings is on view through January 7, 2013.