PRINT May 1965

Kurt Schwitters: Retrospective at UCLA

KURT SCHWITTERS IS A FOCAL REPOSITORY of the revolutionary developments of this century’s first two decades. In his own right he is a free and indomitable contributing spirit, and, as well, a generative resource for recent contemporary developments. The retrospective of 163 entries at the UCLA Art Galleries, drawn primarily from the artist’s estate and Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, points up the first two roles; the third is now more clear.

The paintings executed before 1918 set an acute background. The first, an academic still life (1910) would be dismissed as an ordinary school study did it not relate to the heavily laden, Impressionistic head and landscape, and subtly to the five Cubist-Expressionist abstractions (1916–18). At first, light is a visible concentrated source. Then it is moved outside the frame as a revealer of planes, and in the last series, tipped behind the forms and embedded in the structure’s patterned substance. Such contrasts subsequently reappear.

All are constructed of impasto arcs and lozenges turning about recesses of space. The rotation of forms and directionally stroked surfaces break in prismatic vignettes tied close to the surface. Though this activation may conveniently be seen to reflect the depressing, short-circuited activity of a disturbed, wartime atmosphere, we find it time and again as a salient characteristic in stressful times.

The period is also evoked by a monochromatic palette which unites these early, searching works. Schwitters, from the beginning of his career, may be considered a tonal painter, particularly emphasizing contrasts. His vocations as an academic portraitist, draftsman, and typographer tend to underscore this graphic propensity. Black, white, grays, and intense dark blue dominate, the range filled out by suggestions of yellow, tan, pink-rose, and green. With the few additions of accents––bright blue, red, orange, and maroon, added a short time later––Schwitters’ entire oeuvre is controlled by tonalities of his initial scheme.

At the Armistice, the collapse of Germany provoked dichotomous attitudes concerning the future. On one hand, positive hope and optimism in the prospect of the emergence of a new world. On the other, bitter irony and a telling reappraisal of values in which art might become an attack on society and a weapon for self-defense against the void. Schwitters, with his typically enormous breadth, encompassed and assimilated both extremes. In 1917 Richard Hulsenbeck arrived in Berlin from the Dada center of Zurich and attracted such political activists as Grosz with his “Dadaist Manifesto.” Schwitters joined, then later broke because of mutual disagreement over the aims of Art, he choosing to develop and follow the all-encompassing world-scope views and activities which he called MERZ.

A short sequence of charcoal drawings of symbolic cityscape abstractions (1918) is most instructive. For now Schwitters can be more firmly linked to international events. His immediate situation supposes a knowledge of the Expressionists, as well as the independents, Die Brucke, Der Blaue Reiter, and of course Dada. A fundamental role was played by Herworth Walden’s Berlin magazine and gallery, “Der Sturm,” by providing a showcase and stimulus for modern European art in Germany. Schwitters’ first poems appeared in this publication (in 1917) and a number of his paintings were displayed in the gallery in 1918. Despite the war conditions, this “Der Sturm” association may have provided him with the opportunity to become acquainted with Picasso’s guitar constructions, the scrap reliefs of 1912–14 which were to influence his own change of direction.

The drawings, and their subsequent, logical execution in an assemblage of materials and paint, exhibit interpenetration of planes, sharp angles, waves, arches, and circles given a gradually vertical orientation. Diagonals rise to sharp triangles intersecting circles. This potent construction is strongly adhered to as a basic scaffold for the next two critical years and returned to with regularity and variety through a lifetime of production.

This composition becomes a motif, for Schwitters’ versions stand at the end of a long and celebrated line. The tent-like radiance of diagonals and arcs may be traced back to the Cubist “portraits” of Picasso and Braque (1909–12), and continued by Delaunay’s “Windows” and “Eiffel Towers” (1910–14). The motif appears in Futurist works: Balla’s “Mercury Passing Before the Sun,” Carra’s “Free-Word” (“Patriotic Celebration”), and Marc’s “Tyrol,” all of 1914. It appears in various disguises through the war in the works of Heckel, Grosz, even Stella, Rolfs, and Feininger.

Schwitters takes their form further, beginning in 1919, through a logical process of reduction and substitution; linear elements are constructed of cord, paper or board, the circular ones of wheel hubs, can lids, hoops, coins, cardboard, or paper. In most of the early assemblages and collages, discards establish the composition and textural or scumbled layers of pigment reinforce directions and bring edges into relief. Outstanding among these first constructions are the simplified “Weltenkreise” and the radiantly central “Merzbild 9b. Das Grosse Ichbild.”

The activities of 1919 and subsequent few years unfold with intoxicating speed: numerous works are reproduced and exhibited, poems, writings, and critical appreciations are published, and fruitful contacts are established with other Dadaists and abstractionists such as Hans Arp, Raoul Hausmann, Theo Van Doesburg, the Bauhaus faculty, L. Moholy-Nagy, and El Lissitsky. Such choice examples as “Mz 600 Moholy” and “Mz RE” stem from this association with the purist tendencies of De Stijl and Constructivism whose Apollonian influence will alternate with his more usual Dionysian mode. The reliefs of this period display a close connection with the Merzbau or interior architectural constructions, on which he worked all his life. They are formed of rather sound (but still scrap) wood or panel, atop which geometric designs are painted in oil. Usually an extraneous material or sharply projecting element ironically denies the tidy surface and asserts its presence into our space. “Fur Tilly,” the strict Bauhausian “Merz 1924, 1. Relief mit Kreuz und Kugel,” “Weisses Relief,” the majestic “Merz 1926, 3 Cicero,” “Merz bild mit grunem Ring. Bild 1926, 14,” and “Albert Finslerbild” all achieve a remarkably eminent level. The latter examples enforce the observation that 1926 was Schwitters’ vintage year, the height of his powers in both the areas of relief and collage.

The recurrence of particular arrangements, color limitations, and selections of specific collage sources may permit a tentative and general categorizing of his body of work into formal types.

To the triangular, radial, and architectonic compositions, the diagonal must be added. When disintegrated the result is randomness, or when more tightly controlled, bridges dark against light or vice versa across the page as in several of his most successful, “Mz 334 Verburgt Rein,” for example.

His collages abound in public business documents and forms, address and shipping labels (autobiographical notations confirming his existence), and transportation tickets. Magazine and newspaper illustrations, reproductions, and photographs provide the rare opportunities to form humorous montages. “Mz 151 Wenzel Kind” (1921) and “This was before H.R.H. The Late Duke of Clarence & Avondale. Now it is a Merzpicture. Sorry!” (1947) are unfamiliar classics of this Dada genre.

A number of the purist statements are made of plain colored stock; many of the random are held together by restricted and pale tonalities of tan, pink, or pale blue. Most intriguing found, often unassisted, materials are the various examples of chance lithographic waste (including samples from Schwitters’ own prints and his irregular publication, “MERZ”) with their multiple overlaps, soft gradations of tone, and negative reversals. The imperfect products of the machine are transposed directly to the high plane of art. The most inherently beautiful color is supplied by camera film, chocolate, and candy wrappers. Highly unusual are papers which in themselves might be considered exotic souvenirs. This sort of preciosity for its own sake was strictly avoided. All of everyday reality was grist for the merz mill. The paramount consideration is sensitive expression through the appropriateness and/or remarkableness of a relationship of qualities. The juxtaposition and orchestration of colors, lines, shapes, textures, patterns, values, surfaces, glazes, and transparencies are his means.

The usual small scale of the collage format (an affinity he shares with Klee and Bissier) is determined by the size of the fragments and demands a fatiguingly close, one-to-one work-viewer relationship. Presented for our detailed examination is a layered, minute and swirling world, a tense and abundant microcosm which, through its pictorially realistic and verbal elements brings together art and emphatic references to the banality of public consumption, transaction, transportation, and disposal.

The typographic elements assume, then, utmost importance. No other artist except Stuart Davis so relates the vital and robust experience of active participation and examination of the urban landscape. And, as with a landscape, the sure, abstract nature of the collages becomes apparent only with a distant reading.

Schwitters’ entire Merz activity is just now coming, under careful scrutiny, and in its emerging and profound extent will aid in his ascending evaluation. His involvements included painting, drawing, collage, sculpture, prints, theater, architecture, typography, and poetry.

He called our attention to the subtle, to the previously unnoticed, to the discarded, but always to the possibilities of using the obvious selections of reality to mold images incapable of precise definition. By utilizing the real, daily encountered, he transformed scraps into his vision of a heightened poetic reality. He gives substance and meaning to the techniques and theories of his generation, and passes them to ours. He followed his compulsions for thirty years and left an unassertive body of work in which life and art become one.

––Fidel A. Danieli