PRINT October 1962


Harriet Janis and Rudi Blesh’s Collage

Harriet Janis and Rudi Blesh, Collage (Philadelphia: Chilton Co.), 1962. 302 pp., illus.

PITY THE STUDENT, the collector, the ob­server, the artist, trying with pitiful sincerity to find his way in the mad­house of contemporary art history. No sooner does William Seitz clear a cor­ridor with his “assemblage ideas,” than along come Mrs. Janis and Mr. Blesh with their “collage idea,” illustrating their propositions with the same artists and, indeed, the same works. Be­cause the authors of “Collage” are en­thusiasts rather than thinkers, “fans” rather than historians, Seitz is perhaps more convincing, with the result that this, the more recent book, seems to serve no purpose than to further con­fuse an already miserably confused is­sue. That issue has been the attempt to discover in the various new media in which contemporary artists have been working, a cotitinuity which transcends the different “movements” in which the currents of twentieth-century art are usually described.

The fact of the matter is, however, that neither Seitz nor the current au­thors have been able to satisfactorily distinguish such a continuity; all of their examples have their greatest sig­nificance in terms of the various move­ments of which they are a part, and tend to lose their significance as they are isolated as examples of a “collage idea” or an “assemblage idea.” The truest and most meaningful perspective in which to view, for example, Kurt Schwitters, is in the tradition of Dada and Surrealism. To attempt, as both Seitz and the current authors do, to re­late him to Bruce Conner, by emphasiz­ing the peculiarities of media rather than sensibility is to do damage to both.

In discussing possible reasons for the first collage of Picasso and Braque, Clement Greenberg suggests that the bits of paper were placed to explicitly define the picture plane so that greater depth could be suggested in the already dangerously flat cubist canvases. Sabartes ingeniously suggests a reference to a previous non-illusionistic art—that of the medieval artist, who pasted gold­-leaf and other ornaments into the paint­ing. Read suggests, somewhat weakly, an interest in textures. Mrs. Janis and Mr. Blesh, seeking to create a matrix in “the collage idea” broad enough to include junk sculpture, Tinguely ma­chines, Roy de Forest constructions, Rauschenberg combines and last year’s Kaprow-Dine “Happenings,” throw the emphasis in a different direction:

Pasting-up paper fragments is two­-dimensional carpentry; objects merely carry it into three dimen­sions. Implicit in the flattest col­lage and even before it in the cub­ist canvas, is the idea of extension outward from the picture plane.

Whatever truth might be lurking around in this proposition, is immediately trampled to death in a rush of hor­rendous corrollary nonsense:

While this reversal of direction is clearly related to space concepts, psychologically it is, perhaps, even more significant. As materialism, or at least an increasing preoccu­pation with the “practical” pro­gressively increased from the be­ginning of the industrial age, the public became more and more un­concerned with serious art. Exiled in effect, artists sought re-entry. It is this psychological urge to get back into society in a useful sense that most modern art expresses . . . Their pictures reach out physically like tentacles of the spirit into the viewer’s domain.

Get it? There’s all these artists, see? And they all feel rejected by this ma­terialistic society. So their paintings start reaching off the walls, pleading like. Pretty soon they fill a whole room. A Happening! And its all part of this collage idea! See? Physical tentacles of the spirit.

The nonsense, of course, has its roots in a treacherous misplacing of em­phasis. It was not the cubist collage of 1912 that opened Cassandra’s box­––it was Cubism itself, in all its manifes­tations. The fact of the appearance of collage is only a minor fact in the ap­pearance of an art which broke with illusionist perspective for good, and which proceeds, in Read’s words, not from perception to representation, but from perception to imagination. The freedom of imagination which Cubism bestowed gave rise to an astonishing succession of art movements each of which explored further into the pos­sibilities of new media. Neither the “assemblage idea” nor the “collage idea” unites these explorations; only the total movement of twentieth cen­tury art does that.

Philip Leider