Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage

Oct 22, 2010 – Jan 30, 2011
Main Building

The German artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) remains to this day one of the most influential figures of the international avant-garde. The exhibition presents a representative overview of the Schwitters’s oeuvre, the first in the United States since the 1985 retrospective at The Museum of Modem Art, New York. Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage shows Schwitters as a pioneer of installation art and a champion of total freedom in his choice of materials.

In 1919 he coined the term Merz in reference to his ambition to “make connections, if possible between everything in the world.” The term stands for a new beginning: the notion of an abstract art free of ideology, employing new means of expression appropriate to the revolutionary situation following the First World War. He hoped to realize a “total Merz vision of the world,” to unify life and art by incorporating non-art into his work. He came closest to his ideal with his so-called Merzbau in Hannover, a room-size walk-in sculpture constructed of found material that was completely destroyed in 1943.

Rather than merely rejecting earlier genres, subjects, media, and forms as some Dadaists did, Schwitters exploited them—retaining the old, but presenting it in an entirely new manner. He was more consistent and eclectic than any other modem artist in his use of such found and seemingly worthless objects. He incorporated these objects into his art, nailing or gluing them as compositional elements onto his canvases. In addition to what such detritus implied about the times, its textures, patina, and colors produced the aesthetic and expressive effect of Schwitters’s revolutionary work.

Along with a full-sized reconstruction of the Merzbau, this exhibition includes roughly 100 assemblages, reliefs, sculptures, and collages dating from 1918 to1947, with emphasis on Merz works from the 1920s and 1940s. The selection illuminates Schwitters’s response to the dominant art movements of his time, like Dada and Constructivism, and his unique compositional methods and principles of design. For the first time, the exhibition places a special emphasis on the significance of color and light in Schwitters’s oeuvre. Exploring the relationship between collage and painting provides new insight into Schwitters’s fascinating and largely overlooked late work.

Guest curated by Isabel Schulz, co-editor of the Kurt Schwitters catalogue raisonné and curator of the Kurt Schwitters Archive at the Sprengel Museum Hannover, in collaboration with Menil Director Josef Helfenstein, Color and Collage presents key works from American and European museums and private collections. The exhibition explores how the artist was first received in the United States, as early as the 1920s. Seen against the background of the Menil Collection’s own holdings, Schwitters’s art opens the door to central concepts and working methods of a younger generation of artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, who feature prominently in the museum’s holdings.

Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage is documented in a fully illustrated catalogue featuring essays by Schulz along with noted scholars Leah Dickerman and Gwendolen Webster [now out of print].

Organized by The Menil Collection with guest curator Isabel Schulz, executive director of the Kurt and Ernst Schwitters Foundation and curator of the Kurt Schwitters Archive at the Sprengel Museum Hannover, with Josef Helfenstein, director of the Menil Collection. After its presentation at the Menil Collection, the exhibition travels to the Princeton University Art Museum, March 26–June 26, 2011, and then to the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, August 3–November 27, 2011.

This exhibition is generously supported by gifts from Laura and John Arnold; Houston Endowment Inc.; The Brown Foundation, Inc.; Catherine Morgan; Mrs. Nancy Brown Negley; Karen and Harry Pinson; Louisa Stude Sarofim; Leslie and Shannon Sasser; the Taub Foundation in memory of Ben Taub, Henry J. N. Taub, and Carol J. Taub; Lionstone Group; Allison Sarofim; Marion Barthelme and Jeff Fort; Sissy and Denny Kempner; Northern Trust; Ann and Mathew Wolf; Michael Zilkha; the City of Houston; and by proceeds from the inaugural evening of Men of Menil. Exhibition underwriter Continental Airlines is the Preferred Airline of the Menil Collection.

Photos: Paul Hester