Recently a question was put forth by a fellow artist challenging the continued relevancy of collage. “Was not collage,” it was asked, “with its collected bits and pieces and bric-a-brac, an inherently sentimental medium?” Originally educated/trained as a painter, I often had similar doubts about the relevancy of such a dated, slow medium as painting in this age of computers and PhotoShop. Still, I don’t believe that either painting, nor collage can be quite so easily pigeon-holed as to being no more than media of the past.
The very nature of collage/assemblage… constructed , as it were , from fragments of diverse imagery and materials , is open to a plethora of interpretations: It might stand as a metaphor for the speed of our modern world and the impossibility of a single linear narrative. It might stand for the fragmentation and collapse of our society… our culture… of art itself. It might exist as a metaphor of mortality… or of rebirth… physical or spiritual (through recycling?). It might be used anachronistically: the absurd combination of the new and the old. It might represent the urge to preserve the past… as a diary or reliquary of memory. It might reveal through its very form the cacophony of our world. It might speak of other art forms: of toys, books, furniture, the theater, architecture, and more…
All of this I am aware of and intrigued by. At the same time, it must be admitted that there’s a cultural history with assemblage and collage. Collage and assemblage seem to have been perfectly tailored to the United States. America, after all, is a country of melded and recycled cultures, constructed of fragments of older beliefs, systems, and values. What could be a better metaphor of this than an art equally composed of merged fragments? Beyond this , there’s an argument to be made for creating art from one’s native resources. Thus, the Italians frequently use the marble quarried in Carrara , while the Germans prefer wood cut from the Black Forest. The United States is a country overflowing with refuse… remains of our consumer culture… the idyllic(?) resource for the American artist. Can we imagine the art of Robert Rauschenberg as having been born from any other culture than that of urban America? It also must be admitted that the methods of the collage/assemblage artist have much more to do with American culture (the work of artisans and craftsmen: woodworkers , carpenters , builders ,limners , engineers , and architects) than the virtuoso “fine art” of painting or sculpted marble. I think here of the still-life paintings of William Harnett and John Peto who fetishized the mundane in a manner that stands as the spiritual precursors to Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenberg.
Undoubtedly, it must be admitted that certain approaches to collage… those which consciously utilize the aged, weathered materials, flirt with sentimentality… yet is not collage by its very nature, in the manner in which fragments of refuse… of abandoned, discarded, and cast off images, materials and objects are miraculously transformed into new works of great beauty and poetic resonance, a “romantic” endeavor? Yes, there’s a danger of “sentimentality” in collage, but there’s always a “danger” in art. For the big painter, there’s a danger of pretentiousness. For the artists utilizing the latest technologies and images, there’s the danger that years later such works will be no more than embarrassing “period pieces.”
Personally, I find that collage and assemblage allow me to explore a vast range of interests. Yes, I have to admit that there is something of an attempt to capture memory… the past… history in my work. There is also something of a meditation upon the transitory nature of life… of mortality. But there is a lot more, as well. I must declare that my own work in the genre draws inspiration from numerous other sources. The structure of my assemblage works often owe quite a bit to architecture and furniture. I have long studied buildings (especially the ecclesiastical) from various eras: Gothic , Romanesque , Renaissance and Victorian. My works also owe something to medieval reliquaries and icons. I also draw inspiration from the structures and the mood or atmosphere of music… I am always imagining Bach’s “geometry” given concrete form. In theme and concept my assemblage and collage owes as much (if not more) to books and literature as it does to anything else. Like the surrealist poets ,T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Marinetti, I often draw together fragments of language and text. In fact I am profoundly fascinated by the possibilities of an art form which combines the visual arts with text or paint. If there is a predecessor to collage in my mind, it is clearly the Gothic cathedral in which so many arts were wed in the service of a single (spiritual) goal.
Just recently I was at a conference given to public art school teachers which dealt with the issue of collage. I was surprised that a good number of art teachers started to ask questions about the legality and even the ethics of using someone else’s images. Hadn’t they ever seen Kurt Schwitter’s or Joseph Cornell’s work, I wondered. More shocking, was the response. The lecturer stated that such appropriation of imagery (if the original was not one’s own) was open to use by educators, for educational uses… but if it was to be sold or published proper permission should be acquired. Collage, it seems to me, is not a medium trapped in the past, but rather it is at the edge of current technologies (Photoshop editing, music “sampling”) as well as current controversies (for better or worse).
There’s a truly intriguing and beautifully written (and very slim) book by the contemporary poet, Charles Simic, entitled, “Dimestore Alchemy.” The book is a beautiful series of meditations upon the work of Joseph Cornell, whom Simic sites as inspiring his own approach to poetry. In one meditation, Simic suggests that the use of collage/assemblage/ montage… fragments of pre-existing imagery… might just be THE most important innovation of modern art. In a similar literary manner, Hermann Hesse’s “Glass Bead Game” or “Magister Ludi“, prophesied a future in which new art, as once created, would cease to exist. Instead, what we would have was a “game” of reassembling fragments from the past. Of course, this “game,” I would argue, has led to some of the most beautiful “original” art of the last century.
I loved maudlin pictures, the painted panes over doors, stage sets, the backdrops of mountebanks, old inn signs, popular prints, antiquated literature, church Latin, erotic books innocent of all spelling, the novels of our grandfathers, fairy tales, children’s storybooks, old operas, inane refrains,and artless rhythms.”-Rimbaud

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