The Important Artists and Works of Assemblage

Progression of Art
Marcel Duchamp: Bicycle Wheel (1913)

Bicycle Wheel

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.

Wooden stool, metal bicycle wheel - Israel Museum, Jerusalem

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

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

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."

Hairdresser's wigmaking dummy, crocodile wallet, ruler, pocket watch mechanism and case, bronze segment of old camera, typewriter cylinder, segment of measuring tape, collapsible cup, the number "22", nails, and bolt - Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France

Kurt Schwitters: Merzbau (Merz Building) (1923-37)

Merzbau (Merz Building)

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.

Paint, paper, cardboard, plaster, glass, mirror, metal, wood, electric lighting, and other materials - Destroyed in 1943

Meret Oppenheim: Object (1936)


Artist: Meret Oppenheim

This iconic Surrealist work presents an ordinary cup, saucer, and spoon lined with fur from a Chinese gazelle, which has been placed so that fur emphasizes the round shape of the cup and the spoon. The work confounds sensual pleasure, as the tactile nature of the fur both attracts the touch of the hand and repeals the mouth, the pleasure of drinking from the cup stymied. Following the Museum of Modern Art's 1936-37 exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Alfred H. Barr Jr., the director, noted, "Few works of art in recent years have so captured the popular imagination... The 'fur-lined tea set' makes concretely real the most extreme, the most bizarre improbability."

Oppenheim first unveiled this work at the Exposition surréaliste d'objets in 1936, and it was subsequently shown in London and later New York. Breton saw the work as exemplifying Surrealism's aim to "hound the made beast of function," and Max Ernst noted the work's significance with a tone of wry rivalry, "Who covers a soup spoon with precious fur? Who has outpaced us? Little Meret." Subsequently, as art critic Alexxa Gotthardt wrote, the pioneering work "began to assume its position as a tantalizing expression of Surrealist ideals: a sculpture that joined incongruous parts to create an impossible, uncanny object."

When the Museum of Modern Art purchased this work in 1936, it marked the first time the museum had purchased a work by a female artist. In addition to being an important example of Surrealism, the work is also a significant precursor of the Feminist Art movement.

Fur-covered cup, saucer, and spoon - The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York


Untitled (Soap Bubble Set)

Artist: Joseph Cornell

This shadow box, Cornell's first effort in the signature Assemblage for which he is famous, combines a bird's egg, a doll's head, a fluted glass, a soap bubble pipe, and four cups, displayed against a print of the moon's geography. The wood and glass planes dividing the box create a sense of geometric order, framing the soap bubble pipe and the moon, images of elevation and flight, within the box's confined space. As art critic Olivia Laing noted of Cornell, "In his own artwork, which he didn't begin until he was almost 30, he made obsessive, ingenious versions of the same story: a multitude of found objects representing expansiveness and flight, penned inside glass-fronted cases."

Influenced by Max Ernst's La Femme 100 Têtes (1929), Cornell began to make collages in the early 1930s. He associated with the leading Surrealists and exhibited in the 1932 Surréalisme show. This work was made for MoMA's 1936 Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism. As art critic Jonathan Jones wrote, "From his collections of glass swans, Baedeker guidebooks, clay pipes, compasses and other suggestive souvenirs of the day before yesterday he invented a new kind of art." Cornell's boxes are at once thoroughly avant-garde, with their connections to the then-current Dada and Surrealism, as well as nostalgic memories of the past, with their allusions to old film actresses, dove cotes, and children's pastimes.

While he was well-known among New York avant-garde artists in the 1930s and 1940s, Cornell's work was only fully recognized in the 1960s, when the Guggenheim Museum held a retrospective in 1967. As Laing noted, "Cornell is seldom given his due in art-history textbooks, which tend to repeat the familiar post-war narrative in which Robert Rauschenberg and his 'Combines' (Monogram, 1955-59) launched the junk-into-art aesthetic in America.... Yet Cornell directly inspired Rauschenberg's early use of found objects.... 'The only difference between me and Cornell,' Rauschenberg once told me, 'is that he put his work behind glass, and mine is out in the world.'"

Wood, glass, plastic, paper, box construction - Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut

Robert Rauschenberg: Monogram (1955-59)


Artist: Robert Rauschenberg

This famous Assemblage improbably combines a taxidermied Angora goat, wearing a tire around its mid-section, with an abstract painting that includes a tennis ball and strips of wood. The work was prompted by Rauschenberg's discovery of the goat in a used furniture store, though he spent four years working out the possible combinations before deciding to attach the goat to the horizontal painting as if it were a pasture. The work evokes surprise and incongruity, as Rauschenberg said, "I wanted to use the surprise.... So the object itself was changed by its context and therefore it became a new thing." The effect of the surprising combination is made more compelling by its use of undeniably real materials, as the artist said, "I think a picture is more like the real world when it's made out of the real world."

The work is a culmination of Assemblage's early history, with its combination of readymades, evoking Duchamp, and its wooden platform painting, evoking Schwitters' Merz. As Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern said, "Rauschenberg is one of those artists who, in the decade after the second world war, truly transformed the nature of artistic practice, smashing through the boundaries of different media." A leader of what was later dubbed Neo-Dada, Rauschenberg called such works "combines," hybrids of sculpture and painting. His work influenced subsequent movements, including Conceptual Art, Performance Art, and the 1980s Young British Artists, including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.

Oil paint, paper, fabric, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe-heel, and tennis ball on two conjoined canvases with oil on taxidermied Angora goat with brass plaque and rubber tire on wood platform mounted on four casters - Moderna Museet, Stockholm


Sky Cathedral

Artist: Louise Nevelson

Nevelson's Assemblage made of boxes and three-dimensional objects towers against a wall and is painted monochromatically black, giving it a pictorial quality. The allover color minimizes the depth of the objects, but the curving and geometric shapes both extend outward and recede inward, creating inky black entrances and crevices as if the work were the improbable edifice its title indicates. Nevelson salvaged these boxes, pieces of wood, spindles, dowels, architectural ornaments, and moldings from various construction sites in New York City before gluing and nailing them together. Nevelson said, "When I look at the city from my point of view, I see New York City as a great big sculpture." But as much as the Assemblage recalls New York architecture, the monumental work also evokes other mysterious spatial and spiritual realms. By painting the piece black, she unified the individual components and erased their past histories, as she described, black "is the total color. It means totality. It means: contains all."

It is clear that Nevelson carefully arranged the items in each of the smaller boxes creating intuitive and suggestive compositions, but she later denied being interested in the individual boxes. Initially, the boxes were not nailed together, and the arrangement of the stacked boxes was variable, changing each time it was installed, although eventually Nevelson became more particular about fixed arrangements.

With its scale, monochromatic color, and allover composition, Nevelson's work can be seen as a sculptural response to Abstract Expressionist painting that dominated her era, but it also challenges Clement Greenberg, champion of Abstract Expressionism, who emphasized flatness and media specificity, as the work's three dimensionality blurs the distinction between sculpture, painting, and installation. While she eschewed feminists labels, Nevelson's work was a primary influence upon subsequent artists, such as Eva Hesse and later feminists, and also influenced the development of Installation Art in the late 1960s.

Painted Wood - The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York


Homage to New York

Artist: Jean Tinguely

This mechanical and kinetic Assemblage is composed of various found objects, including a piano, a go-cart, and a bathtub, along with autonomous motors, scrap metal, and mechanical wheels. The monumental work, standing twenty-seven feet tall and originally painted white, was meant to be set into clanking angular motion, providing a spectacle for the audience, before self-destructing in an explosion, triggered by a control button. According to the Museum of Modern Art, "During its brief operation, a meteorological trial balloon inflated and burst, colored smoke was discharged, paintings were made and destroyed, and bottles crashed to the ground. A player piano, metal drums, a radio broadcast, a recording of the artist explaining his work, and a competing shrill voice correcting him provided the cacophonic sound track to the machine's self-destruction - until it was stopped short by the fire department." Indeed, a mechanical misfire, 27 minutes into the performance, sparked a fire that destroyed the machine except for a fragment, now in the Museum of Modern Art's collection.

Tinguely pioneered mechanized kinetic Assemblage. As he wrote, "Everything moves continuously. Immobility does not exist. Don't be subject to the influence of out-of-date concepts. Forget hours, seconds, and minutes. Accept instability. Live in time. Be static - with movement." The innovative work also emphasized collaboration, as he worked with engineers, most notably Billy Klüver, and artists, including Robert Rauschenberg who contributed his Money Thrower, which threw silver dollars into the crowd at one point in the performance.

Tinguely's concepts have become fundamental to contemporary art, as his influence can be seen in the works of Joep van Lieshout and Jordan Wolfson, as well as popular events, such as the Burning Man Festival, and art projects created by Survival Research Laboratories in San Francisco.

Found objects, motorized elements - The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York


The Liberation of Aunt Jemima

Artist: Betye Saar

In this Assemblage, an Aunt Jemima figurine, commonly sold as a pencil and notepad holder to housewives, transformed into a revolutionary, as she holds a rifle in her hand in addition to a broom and stands amidst a carpet of cotton. The "mammy" figure emerged in the United States in the late 1800s and was a grotesque stereotype of black women that was used to sell home goods to women who worked in the home. Standing in front of wallpaper displaying ads for Aunt Jemima syrup, the figure holds a postcard in front of her. As Saar described, "In front of her, I placed a little postcard, of a mammy with a mulatto child, which is another way black women were exploited during slavery. I used the derogatory image to empower the black woman by making her a revolutionary, like she was rebelling against her past enslavement."

The glass vitrine, recalls Joseph Cornell's surrealist shadow boxes, which she encountered in a 1967 Pasadena Art Museum exhibition, as well as Andy Warhol's gridded, Pop Art screen prints of Marilyn Monroe and other celebrities. In this early work, she turns her influencers into a work of social and political protest. Subsequently, she began collecting racist and derogatory items at local yard sales, and noted, "My work started to become politicized after the death of Martin Luther King in 1968. But The Liberation of Aunt Jemima...was the first piece that was politically explicit. There was a community center in Berkeley, on the edge of Black Panther territory in Oakland, called the Rainbow Sign. They issued an open invitation to black artists to be in a show about black heroes, so I decided to make a black heroine." In 1960s Los Angeles, a number of African American artists turned to Assemblage, including David Hammons and John Outterbridge. They saw in it a way to bridge not only art and life, but the personal and the political, appropriating (and re-appropriating) racist images and objects and giving them new meanings. As art historian Caroline A. Miranda writes, "In Saar's hands...these notorious artifacts became something mighty," and the noted activist Angela Davis credits this work as the beginning of the black women's movement. Saar's work continues to attract contemporary attention, as seen in her 2019 solo exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Mixed media - University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, California


Long Term Parking

Artist: Arman

This monumental work, standing 50 feet high, is an Assemblage of 60 cars embedded in concrete. Made of 40,000 pounds of concrete, the work, as art critic Nessia Pope writes, "makes evident the undeniable mass of objects and our relationship to them by underlining the proportions of the cars and of the column they composed with that of a human being."

In 1960, Arman began developing Assemblages that he called "accumulations," which according to Pope, transformed the objects "into a new amalgamated object - a unique kind of sculpture." His works ranged from a collection of gas masks in a Plexiglas case to his famous and controversial Full Up (1960), where he filled the Galerie Iris Clert with trash collected from the Paris streets. With Long Term Parking, he also pioneered the use of Assemblage as public art. As he noted, "The perfect knowledge of the visual impact of objects is a part of my work. 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."

To make this work he selected the various cars, almost all by French auto makers, by noting particular cars he saw driving by and then finding the same model in a junkyard. Before embedding the cars in concrete, they were restored and painted to enhance their visual effect. Over time, the pigments have faded, and exposed elements have begun to suffer some corrosion, reflecting Arman's view that over a long period of time, the cars would eventually began to collapse, leaving their empty space in the concrete as a wry comment on the disposable nature of consumer culture. His accumulations profoundly influenced subsequent artists, including Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Martha Rosler.

Automobiles in concrete - Chateau de Montcel, Jouy-en-Josas, France


Meta-Monumental Garage Sale

Artist: Martha Rosler

Ordered for the flow of traffic, this "garage sale" at New York's Museum of Modern Art includes neat rows of used furniture, display tables, two tents housing other items, a car, and a multitude of objects hung on the walls, from clothing to prints. A large flag and a sign reading "SAVE MONEY $" with an arrow painting down hang from the upper floor. Here, the Assemblage of disparate elements are not composed into a single work of art, but instead arranged separately in a large space, creating more of an installation to walk through than a sculpture to behold. Rosler supervised the event, for which she had also hired performance artists and actors to work the floor, and produced two issues of a pamphlet, including fake coupons made to resemble a newspaper. As Rosler noted, "The garage sale is about social and economic relations. It is a performance with an accompanying 'soundtrack.' Most visitors don't look beyond the fun and the bargains. That is why we needed this publication to function as it did, to offer news, history, notes, and critique. The themes of the two issues were The Social Lives of Objects and Work, Value, and Waste."

Rosler held her first garage sale, the Monumental Garage Sale, in 1973, and said it "was prompted by my interest in commodity fetishism in the suburban world I was now inhabiting.... [It]... was as much about social transactions as about the exchange of money for goods." Reprised frequently, and also reconfigured as her Traveling Garage Sales, Rosler's use of Assemblage masterfully challenges aesthetic categories and assumed boundaries between art and life. As art critic Randy Kennedy noted, the Meta-Monumental Garage Sale was not a usual garage sale, but "a piece of performance art in which a garage sale is enacted." But the items are sold, making the event, as Rosler said, "...not symbolic activity. It's real activity. Like most things, it has symbolic dimensions. But it is what it is."

Various items

Tracey Emin: My Bed (1998)

My Bed

Artist: Tracey Emin

This controversial and iconic work consists of the artist's bed, linens strewn and stained, along with various items, including empty liquor bottles, used condoms, old newspapers, slippers, and underwear. Conveying an emotional rawness and plucked from real life, here Assemblage takes on a confessional quality in an installation that also shocks. As art critic Jonathan Jones wrote, Emin's works "remain flat, unredeemed; she transfigures nothing. But in many ways Emin's achievement is the same as Caravaggio's: she rubs our noses in reality, in a way that subverts all our illusions, fantasies, snobberies and repressions, those barriers we put up between us and death." In assembling these items, Emin does not transfigure them into something more aesthetic or artful but insists that the viewer confront them for what they are and how that might make for discomfort.

Emin said the work was "a self-portrait, but not one that people would like to see." She explained the origins of the work: "I had a kind of mini nervous breakdown in my very small flat and didn't get out of bed for four days." When she was finally able to crawl out of bed, she described, "And then I thought, 'What if here wasn't here? What if I took out this bed...and placed it into a white space? How would it look then?' And at that moment I saw it, and it looked fucking brilliant. And I thought, this wouldn't be the worst place for me to die; this is a beautiful place that's kept me alive."

Noting how the work evokes Rauschenberg's Bed (1955), Jonathan Jones described Emin's innovation: "By lucky chance I saw Rauschenberg's Bed again in New York a few weeks ago. In fact, the comparison helped me understand Emin's originality. Rauschenberg's bed is splattered with paint and...hangs on the wall.... Rauschenberg makes it quite clear that a transformation has taken place. Emin's bed, by contrast, has no aesthetic additions... it is just there, a messy fact, and a decade on, refuses to be anything else. It now looks like one of the truly great readymades."

Shown at the Sagacho Exhibition Space in Tokyo in 1998, this work became iconic and exemplary of Young British Artists's emphasis on shock and spectacle, and later led to her being shortlisted for the Turner Prize. Emphasizing a messy and autobiographical reality, her work has redefined Assemblage for contemporary artists such as Song Dong and Tokomo Takahashi, whose installations include accumulations of autobiographical objects, displayed in their original chaos.

Box frame, mattress, linens, pillows and various objects - Tate Modern, London

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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]. .
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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