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Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage

August 3, 2011 - November 27, 2011

Kurt Schwitters: Mz 601, 1923; paint and paper on cardboard; 17 × 15 in.; Sprengel Museum, Hannover, loan from Kurt and Ernst Schwitters Stiftung. © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage examines one of the most daring and innovative figures of the international avant-garde. His art extended to almost every area of avant-garde practice—collage, poetry, sound, painting, sculpture, graphic design, typography, and sculptural environment (prefiguring installation art). The exhibition, organized by the Menil Collection, explores the relationship between collage and painting—as well as color and material—in the artist’s work. In addition to a reconstruction of the first version of his monumental seminal installation, Merzbau, which was destroyed by Allied bombs in 1943, Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage includes approximately eighty assemblages, reliefs, sculptures, and collages made between 1918 and 1947.

Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948) was born in Hannover, Germany and while his upbringing and initial artistic training were fairly conventional, he was radicalized by the tumultuous consequences of the First World War. He became affiliated with the Dada movement, and artists such as Hannah Höch and Hans Arp, and in 1918 began to make collages. In his collages, Schwitters integrated forgotten pieces of urban waste—train tickets, scraps of fabric, candy wrappers, old wire, and fragments of newsprint. In a wet paste of flour and water spread over his paper ground, the artist would move and shuffle scraps of paper, integrating all the parts into a single fluid action. He added color, manipulating tones and harmonies. Exhibition curator Isabel Schulz argues that Schwitters thought of collage as an extension of painting, focusing on the overall structure of the composition and the relational values of the color harmonies.

Schwitters coined the word “Merz” to describe his new artistic process. “The term Merz,” Schwitters wrote, “essentially means combining all conceivable materials for artistic purposes . . . treating all of them with equal respect.” Schwitters directly tied Merz to the upheaval of the war. “In the war, things were in terrible turmoil. What I had learned at the academy was of no use to me and the useful new ideas were still unready. . . . Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments; and this is Merz.” The very term Merz was a fragment, taken from a portion of found text (an advertisement for the Commerz und Privatbank) that Schwitters used in an early collage.

Schwitters applied the term Merz throughout his career and to every aspect of his work. In the early 1920s he began building an abstract sculptural interior environment, which he later called the Merzbau. It came to occupy multiple rooms in the Schwitters’s Hannover home. “I am building an abstract (Cubist) sculpture into which people can go . . . I am building a composition without boundaries; each individual part is at the same time a frame for the neighboring parts, (and) all parts are mutually interdependent.” Under investigation by the Gestapo, Schwitters fled Germany in 1937, emigrating first to Norway and later to England; he worked on re-creations and new versions of Merzbau in both locations, aided by photographs of the original Hannover Merzbau. It is these photographs that have informed the reconstruction included in this exhibition.

In 1923 Schwitters began publishing a periodical, not surprisingly called Merz; each issue had a special focus, such as a portfolio of prints by Hans Arp or typesetting by El Lissitsky. The final issue, in 1932, contained a complete transcription of the final draft of the Ursonate, an early example of sound poetry that had been composed and performed by Schwitters ten years earlier. Ursonate will be performed at BAM/PFA as part of the L@TE series in the fall.

Until his death in 1948, Schwitters continued with utter commitment to the Merz idea, which he saw as a new domain in art. He continued to follow his dictate, “Create connections, if possible between everything in the world.”

Organized by the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, in cooperation with the Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung at the Sprengel Museum, Hannover, Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage marks the first U.S. overview of the artist’s career since the Museum of Modern Art retrospective in 1985. The exhibition is guest curated by Isabel Schulz, co-editor of Schwitters’s catalog raisonné and curator of the Kurt Schwitters Archive and executive director of the Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung at the Sprengel Museum, Hannover, in collaboration with Menil Collection Director Josef Helfenstein. A fully illustrated catalog featuring essays by Schulz and noted scholars Leah Dickerman and Gwendolen Webster accompanies the exhibition.

Lucinda Barnes
Chief Curator and Director of Programs and Collections

Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage is organized by the Menil Collection, Houston. 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; Nina and 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.

The Berkeley presentation is made possible in part by the Simon Karlinsky Fund and by the continued support of the BAM/PFA trustees.