"I called Merz this new process whose principle was the use of any material."
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Kurt Schwitters Signature
"The word Merz essentially denotes the combination of all conceivable materials, and in principle the equal evaluation of all materials.... It is unimportant if the material was already formed for some other purpose. The artist creates through the distribution of materials."
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Kurt Schwitters Signature
"The work of art is created by an artistic evaluation of its elements. I know only how I do it; I know only my material, from which I derive, to what end I know not."
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Kurt Schwitters Signature
"Since the tubes of paint used by the artist are manufactured and ready made products we must conclude that all the paintings in the world are 'readymades aided' and also works of assemblage."
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Marcel Duchamp Signature
"Every notion is born along with its form. I make reality of ideas as they come into my head."
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Meret Oppenheim Signature
"I think a picture is more like the real world when it's made out of the real world."
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Robert Rauschenberg Signature
"I have a very simple theory. I have always pretended that objects themselves formed a self-composition. My composition consisted of allowing them to compose themselves."
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Arman Signature
"Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it. [Repeat.]"
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Jasper Johns Signature
"I am intrigued with combining the remnant of memories, fragments of relics and ordinary objects, with the components of technology. It's a way of delving into the past and reaching into the future simultaneously."
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Betye Saar

Summary of Assemblage

In the early 20th century, many artists increasingly began incorporating everyday objects into their paintings and sculptures, blurring the lines between art and life. Ranging across styles, avant-garde artists created three-dimensional, mixed-media assemblages that questioned the very definition of art as it had come to be known. Using mass-produced objects and junk, artists like Marcel Duchamp often made satirical and biting critiques of modern, commercial culture. In the 1950s, Jean Dubuffet coined the term Assemblage for this hybrid art form, and while other artists used terms like Combines or Accumulations, the trend took off in the second half of the 20th century.

Artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Arman, and Martha Rosler pushed the boundaries of Assemblage into the realm of Installation and Performance, creating immersive environments and experiential events. More contemporary artists such as David Hammons and Tracy Emin engage Assemblage techniques to create works that confront viewers in challenging ways.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Assemblage art combines mundane objects in new and surprising ways, requiring the viewer to question their relation to the world of objects around them. Sometimes used as social critique or as an exploration of the fantastical and dream worlds, Assemblage art gives objects new meanings, makes creative connections between disparate elements, and elevates non-art materials into the realm of art.
  • In combining readymade or found objects with varying degrees of modifications, Assemblage art challenges the medium specificity that formalist critics insisted structured the progress of modern art. Blurring the distinctions between painting, sculpture, and theater, Assemblage art is not just an optical experiences but engages multiple senses and often requires more physical interaction on the viewer's part.
  • Because it usually incorporates manufactured items and non-art materials, much Assemblage art aims to question notions of authorship and originality that have been so important to traditional concepts of the artist. In choosing the objects instead of hand-crafting them, the Assemblage artist subverts the traditional notion of the artist as a creator. Additionally, because Assemblage art is often a characteristic of folk art traditions, who can be considered an "artist" has greatly expanded over the decades, incorporating untrained and self-taught artists outside of the mainstream.

Overview of Assemblage

Assemblage Photo

The avant-garde development of Assemblage drew upon long-standing cultural and artistic trends, dating back to the Renaissance. By the late 1500s, curiosity cabinets were popular among the aristocratic class, as shown by Gabriel Kaltemarckt's advice that a collection should include "curious items from home or abroad" and "antlers, horns, claws, feathers...belonging to strange and curious animals." Some collectors went so far as to combine taxidermied animal parts to create fantastical creatures. Such collections, essentially containing found objects and readymades, became de rigeur symbols of intellectual and cultural distinction. Curiosity cabinets, often on a more intimate scale, subsequently became popular among the middle class and were often found in Victorian homes.

Key Artists

  • Kurt Schwitters was a German artist who was particularly influential in the development of Dada movement and his own offshoot of Dada that he called Merz. Schwitters was heavily involved in the international avant-garde, with artists like El Lissitzky, Hans Arp, and Tristan Tzara.
  • The French artist Marcel Duchamp was an instrumental figure in the avant-garde art worlds of Paris and New York. Moving through Dada, Surrealism, readymades, sculpture, and installation, his work involves conceptual play and an implicit attack on bourgeois art sensibilities.
  • One of the founders of Berlin Dada, Hausmann is credited with formulating the technique of photomontage with his companion Hannah Höch.
  • Vladimir Tatlin was a prominent Russian avant-garde artist and architect. He was one of the key figures of the Constructivist movement.
  • Meret Oppenheim was a Swiss artist best-known for her work in Surrealism. A decade into the start of this movement, Oppenheim was invited to join the surrealist exhibition, "Salon des Surindependants" by Hans Arp and Alberto Giacometti, who were impressed by her work after visiting her studio. After this first appearance, Oppenheim had many solo exhibitions throughout and after her career, in Europe and in the United States. The artist's most famous work is the surrealist sculpture, Object (Le Dejeuner en fourrure), which consists of a teacup covered in fur.
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Do Not Miss

  • Collage was first employed in fine art in the context of Cubism, and involved the introduction of pre-existing materials into new designs, often to produce a playful ambiguity between art and reality. It has since been enormously influential, impacting not only drawing and painting but also attitudes to sculpture.
  • Photomontage is essentially a single artwork combined of two or more original or existing photos, produced to encourage audiences to consider the relationship between the grouped images.
  • Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
  • Young British Artists is the name given to a group of conceptual artist, painters, sculptors and installation artists based in the United Kingdon, most of whom attended Goldsmiths College in London. The title is derived from shows of that name staged at the Saatchi Gallery from 1992 onwards, which brought the artists to fame.

The Important Artists and Works of Assemblage

Bicycle Wheel (1913)

Artist: Marcel Duchamp

While Picasso and Braque invented modern collage by incorporating real objects into their paintings, Marcel Duchamp's creation of a sculpture from only mundane objects was the spark that eventually led to Assemblage art. The first of its kind, the work consists of a bicycle wheel mounted on a four-legged stool. Both elements, immediately recognizable, are transformed into something new as their everyday functions are disrupted. Rather than meeting the ground, the bicycle wheel rotates freely and continuously through the air, its circular shape and radiating spokes creating a geometric contrast to the triangular stool, and with the seat of the stool occupied, it is no longer available for a sitter and instead becomes a makeshift pedestal. Duchamp wrote, "The Bicycle Wheel is my first Readymade, so much so that at first it wasn't even called a Readymade. It still had little to do with the idea of the Readymade. Rather it had more to do with the idea of chance." As he further defined his concept of the readymade, he called this work, an "assisted readymade," indicating the alteration or combination of various found objects, a technique that greatly informed the development of Assemblage as a distinctive genre.

The work is also considered a pioneering example of Kinetic Art, a trend that emphasized movement in the artwork, and is closely aligned with Assemblage. It was the bicycle wheel's potential for movement that attracted Duchamp, as he said, "To set the wheel turning was very soothing, very comforting, a sort of opening of avenues on other things than material life of every day." In many ways, the heart of Assemblage can be traced back to Duchamp's questioning of definitions of art, originality, and our relation - in ways both good and bad - to the modern, physical world.

Mechanischer Kopf (Der Geist Unserer Zeit) (The Mechanical Head (The Spirit of Our Time)) (c. 1920)

Artist: Raoul Hausmann

Various items, including a wooden ruler, a tape measure, a watch mechanism, a tin cup, are attached to a wooden model of a head, once used for making wigs. The work, the only existing Assemblage by Hausmann, conveys Hausmann's caustic assessment of the state of his country: "The German wants only his order, his king, his Sunday sermon, and his easy chair...has no more capabilities than those which chance has glued on the outside of his skull; his brain remains empty." In addition to being a commentary on the state of the German people, the subtitle The Spirit of Our Time alludes to the influential German philosopher Friedrich Hegel, who thought everything was mind. But art critic Jonathan Jones notes, the "sculpture might be seen as an aggressively Marxist reversal of Hegel: this is a head whose 'thoughts' are materially determined by objects literally fixed to it... a head that is penetrated and governed by brute external forces."

A leader of Berlin Dada, Hausmann's innovative use of Assemblage creates a sculpture that, by presenting a kind of robotic dummy, challenges the expressivity of the face that one sees in more realistic sculpture. At the same time, the work speaks to the fragmentation of identity and life that the artist and others experienced in the aftermath of World War I.

While Hausmann was known for his innovative photomontage, Mechanical Head has become his most famous work and is an important touchstone for the contemporary discourse on the cyborg. As art historian Matthew Biro wrote, Hasumann established "the cyborg as a figure of modern human identity: the cyborg to represent the new hybrid human: a half-organic, half-mechanized figure that he believed was appearing with ever greater frequency."

Merzbau (Merz Building) (1923-37)

Artist: Kurt Schwitters

This photograph depicts a partial view of Schwitter's most ambitious project - his living space in Hanover, transformed by Assemblage into an installation. A vertical and angular column rises toward a cluster of planes and cubes on the ceiling, while on both sides of the image a profusion of forms both invite and reject a rational reading of the architectural space. Destroyed during the Second World War, only accounts and a few photographs testify to the original construction. Following her 1924 visit to the site, Dada artist and art historian Kate Steinitz described it as a "three-dimensional collage of wood, cardboard, iron scraps, broken furniture and picture frames."

Merzbau was a forerunner of what we today call installation, as Schwitters conceived of the space as an immersive environment where interactivity was a fundamental factor. As art historian Jaleh Mansoor wrote, Merzbau was "a continuous project altered daily, the small apertures were often sliced out of a larger mass, or covered over and buried under the agglomeration of objects, wood or plaster." Fellow Dada artists, including Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Hoch, Hans Richter, and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, contributed pieces to the installation, which Schwitters originally called the Cathedral of Erotic Misery.

For Schwitters, the work was meant to be the all-consuming culmination of what he called Merz. In 1918, Schwitters began creating the over 2,000 abstract collages, paintings, and drawings that he called Merz. He connected its origins to the traumatic effects of World War I, explaining, "Things were in terrible turmoil... Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments; and this is Merz." Including detritus, such as movie tickets, broken pipes, chicken wire, and metal scraps, he said Merz was "the combination of all conceivable materials for artistic purposes. And technically the principle of equal evaluation of the individual materials... A perambulator wheel, wire-netting, string and cotton wool are factors having equal rights with paint."

Forced to relocate several times during World War II, Schwitters created multiple Merzbaus, which were destroyed, and he left an unfinished one in England before his death. Based upon the surviving photographs, a reconstruction of the Merzbau was subsequently built in Hanover. Contemporary art critic Rachel Cook described visiting the site, "The walls have disappeared behind constructions which comprise a series of grottoes, columns, shelves and cubes.... The effect of all this strange geometry is disorienting and paradoxical. Even as you're beset by a sense that the floor is shrinking and the ceiling growing ever lower, the structure itself seems somehow to be infinite." Instead of creating a simple sculpture, Schwitters created a built environment, pushing Assemblage art beyond sculpture and into installation. Here was an art form that had to be physically experienced - walked through - in order to be comprehended.

Schwitters became foundational to later artists, including Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Hamilton who, as a student, helped move and restore part of the third Merzbau in England, and subsequent art movements, including Neo-Dada, Pop Art, and Arte Povera.

Useful Resources on Assemblage

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Assemblage Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 15 Apr 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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