The exhibition takes a focused look at collages and works indebted to the collage tradition in the Menil Collection. While every artwork is, in a sense, precarious—from a fragile Kazimir Malevich painting to the ancient stone monuments that today suffer purposeful annihilation in parts of the Middle East—collage acknowledges precariousness as a foundational principle.
In the 1910s, the critic and poet Guillaume Apollinaire claimed that this then-novel artistic medium—which frequently includes cut paper, found materials, and the artist’s own marks—was “steeped in humanity.” The implication was that many hands were tacitly responsible for a work’s manufacture. “Precarious” is used to describe something which is uncertain, unstable, or insecure; something that isn’t entirely in one’s control. The exhibition examines a medium that embodies the joy and vulnerability that comes with depending on others.
With two exceptions that serve as geographical and chronological bookends, the artworks included in the exhibition—those by John Chamberlain, Gene Charlton, Sari Dienes, Ellsworth Kelly, Claes Oldenburg, Elizabeth McFadden, Robert Rauschenberg, Anne Ryan, Kurt Schwitters, Richard Tuttle, and Cy Twombly—come out of post–World War II America. By chronologically beginning with the modestly scaled and tenuously constructed collages by German-born artist Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948) and ending with the cardboard constructions of Vietnamese-born artist Danh Vo (b. 1975), the exhibition concentrates on a strain of artistic practice that foregrounds the marginalized as always both an artistic concern and social phenomenon.
Writing in 2009, in the shadow of other wars, the philosopher Judith Butler considered how dependence and fragility give shape to community. “Precariousness,” Butler states, “implies living socially, that is, the fact that one’s life is always in some sense in the hands of the other.” From Rauschenberg’s constructions of humble cardboard to Tuttle’s delicate translation of would-be scrap to something closer to relic, the artworks in the exhibition traffic in the used, lived, and belabored. Like their Cubist, Dadaist, and Surrealist ancestors who came to collage in the World War I period, these later makers of collage complement a concern with picture- and world-making with an attention to material instability.
If these artists who come decades after the advent of collage differ from their predecessors, the difference is not in kind but in amplitude. Chastened by war and informed by material scarcity and the possibility of environmental catastrophe, these artists—and the fragile means and materials they deploy—do not retreat or adopt isolation in the face of these threats. Rather, they embrace the flawed and awkward world and its materials.
The Precarious is curated by David Breslin, John R. Eckel, Jr. Foundation chief curator, Menil Drawing Institute.
This exhibition is generously supported by Architectural Digest; Kathrine G. McGovern / McGovern Foundation; Scott and Judy Nyquist; John R. Eckel, Jr. Foundation; Susanne and William E. Pritchard III; and the City of Houston.