PRINT January 2011


Kurt Schwitters, Merzbau, ca. 1923–36, mixed media, 12' 10 3/4“ x 19' 3/8” x 15' 1". Reconstruction by Peter Bissegger, 1981–83/1988. All works by Kurt Schwitters © Estate of Kurt Schwitters/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

AFTER MEETING KURT SCHWITTERS in December 1919, the Berlin Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck famously derided him as a “lower-middle-class Victorian” stuck in a “static, snug, middle-class world”—and, even worse, “the Caspar David Friedrich of the Dadaist revolution,” a retrograde in radical’s clothing.¹ Schwitters, whose first major US exhibition in nearly three decades (curated by Isabel Schulz and Josef Helfenstein) is currently on view at the Menil Collection in Houston, certainly did his part to encourage such opinions. Not only did he reside in Hannover, the provincial German metropolis of his birth (in his parents’ building, no less), until his 1937 exile to Norway, but he remained committed throughout his life to the most idealistic—and ostensibly apolitical—possibilities of art. As Schwitters wrote in his 1931 summary statement “Myself and My Aims,” seemingly to distinguish himself from Huelsenbeck and his Berlin compatriots, “Absorption in art is similar to religious worship in freeing one from everyday worries. It is for exactly this reason that art increases as it distances itself from national and social issues and concerns itself more with the purely human—with absorption, with looking and seeing, with the taking leave of oneself [in aesthetic experience].”²

Yet however distant “national and social issues” may have been from Schwitters’s artistic motivations, questions of the nation and the social—or rather, of the structures of circulation, communication, and assembly that constitute these—remained central to his practice. Indeed, it is the dexterity with which Schwitters navigated between aesthetic idealism and social commentary that makes his work crucial viewing today, when our own national discourse appears similarly caught between withdrawal and stridency, and widespread economic and political crises have once again allowed the most regressive sort of cultural rigidifications to flourish.

Schwitters dubbed his collective aesthetic efforts Merz, a neologism he coined by lopping off the first syllable of the German word Kommerz (commerce), itself, in variant spelling, only a fragment of the bank name that had inspired the term Commerz-und Privat-Bank. The artist inaugurated Merz in 1919, a year of chaos and revolution in the newly formed Weimar Republic—and, for Schwitters, a moment of necessary and seemingly unlimited possibilities for aesthetic reinvention, as indicated by his adoption of the deformed language of trade to signal his new artistic program. Under Merz’s banner, he produced work in typography, design, performance, installation, poetry, and prose both literary and critical—not to mention collage, assemblage, painting, and sculpture. His Merz pictures, Schwitters declared in 1923, functioned as nothing less than studies toward a “collective world form, a general style,” and it is a glimpse of this proposal that the Menil exhibition, with more than one hundred works in collage, assemblage, relief, and sculpture, stunningly presents.³ The exhibition also includes the inaugural US showing of Peter Bissegger’s partial reconstruction of the Merzbau, the seminal room-filling construction of wood, plaster, and carefully chosen detritus that Schwitters worked on for more than a decade and that was ultimately destroyed by Allied bombs in 1943. If Schwitters was a key proponent of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, these endeavors together demonstrate the utter precision of means through which he pursued this project: Each rise of painted wood in his reliefs and assemblages, each layering of paper and fabric within his collages, becomes a fundamental ingredient in the intimate world his individual works create, as well as in the totalized vision they together construct. For Schwitters, the Gesamtkunstwerk was always a matter of the reconstellated fragment, of the severed part from which the whole is made.

SCHWITTERS UNDERSTOOD MERZ to be a dynamic process of leveling. As he wrote in 1919, “the term Merz essentially means combining all conceivable materials for artistic purposes, and in terms of technique treating all of them with equal respect.”⁴ If distinct stylistic strands emerge within the Menil’s presentation—the focus of which is collage as a painterly practice, moving from the tautly constructed fields of circular forms and vectors of force that dominate the early-1920s work on display, through the clean geometric organization evident in the middle part of the decade, to the increasingly open fields and more explicit figurative suggestions visible in the exile production—it would be inaccurate to see any kind of coherent formal progres-sion in these differences. Schwitters absorbed and adapted materials and practices from nearly everything he encountered, from Berlin Dada to international Constructivism, and the resulting set of formal possibilities overlap and inform one another throughout his career. We shouldn’t be surprised that Schwitters, a pioneer of modern abstraction, never wholly abandoned the figurative painting of his youth: He continued to paint portraits and landscapes, without apparent irony, until the end of his life.

In the case of Schwitters’s collages, the particularity of his practice is not just material but experiential. Though Schwitters never embraced photography, its indexical promise is present throughout his collage works, the pasted conglomerations of which constitute richly layered and highly specific indices of his activities and itineraries across three tumultuous decades, up until his 1948 death in Ambleside, UK. This is most evident in the shifting textual bits—product wrappers, newspaper fragments, coat-check stubs, and so on—that fill his surfaces. From German to Dutch to Norwegian to English, these trace a life of peripatetic performance and speechifying, ending with a decade of exile. Schwitters repeatedly claimed that his materials lost what he termed their Eigengift (particular poison) in joining the formal fabric of his collage constructions, but the Menil show evinces the care he in fact paid to the precise origins of his compositional fragments. Chocolate wrappers and tram tickets in particular appear with uncommon frequency, suggesting a concern with circulation both of and within bodies that corresponds to the circulatory structure of collage itself. It is no coincidence that the word Merz comes from Kommerz—for Merz’s primary operations are precisely those of exchange, transfer, and circulation, in all cases rethought and reformed. As the art historian Roger Cardinal has evocatively suggested, Schwitters’s collages “have the character of miniaturized maps, or . . . they could be compared to those rubbish pits that transmit a narrative of daily life to archaeologists concerned with the material culture of a lost society.”⁵

Cover of Kurt Schwitters’s Anna Blume: Dichtungen (Anna Blume: Poetry) (Paul Steegemann, 1919).

Economic tropes animate Schwitters’s copious literary production as well, and not just in such works as “Poem 25 [elemental],” his 1922 lyric built entirely from numerals and ratios (“25 / 25, 25, 26 / 26, 26, 27,” it begins). The 1919 poem “An Anna Blume,” arguably Schwitters’s best-known literary product, takes the reciprocal relations between letters within words and words within statements as its primary focus, mutilating grammatical and semantic rules and evoking the rhetoric of Expressionist-tinged romantic poetry, as well as that of consumer marketing and banal prize competitions. Backed by a scandal-predicated marketing campaign that made it something of a German popular hit, the poem celebrates a heroine among whose chief attributes is the palindromic nature of her first name. It intones: “One can also read you from the back / And you, you most glorious of all, / You are from the back as from the front: / A-N-N-A.”⁶ Just like the two halves of its subject’s first name, parts of the opening and closing lines of “An Anna Blume” mirror one another, each declaring “Ich liebe Dir!”—which Schwitters rendered in English as “I love thine!” but that might more accurately be translated as “I love to you!”—thus situating the poem’s romantic coupling as a grammatical miscoupling, setting love’s urgent necessity against language’s arbitrary rules. It’s fitting that among Schwitters’s projects toward the end of the ’20s was a revision of the German alphabet itself, as he attempted to create a more phonetically precise set of characters that would function—as he wrote on the role of script more generally—as a “written-down picture of the language, the picture of a sound.”⁷ Schwitters’s goal (a nearly impossible one, of course) was not just a typographic redesign of the language but a complete reformulation of its characters and structure—and, by extension, the thinking that takes place within it. As he began his 1927 essay introducing the project, “A systematic script is actually only one element within a greater complex of problems including, among others, systematic language and systematic thought.”⁸

SCHWITTERS HIMSELF was in constant circulation throughout the 1920s, touring and collaborating with such diverse figures as Herwarth Walden, El Lissitzky, Raoul Hausmann, and Theo van Doesburg—and, as these associations suggest, working between Expressionism, Dada, and Constructivism in the process. Hannover’s very peripheral status, its reputation as a bastion of bourgeois propriety, served Schwitters as both aesthetic prod and material: From his marginal perch, he felt all the more compelled to pursue collaborations across the European avant-garde, even as he made Hannover a major figure in his writing, completed graphic-design work for the metropolitan government, and understood his own reputation to be indelibly linked to that of the city (within which, it must be said, other figures and institutions—such as the museum director Alexander Dorner and the Kestnergesellschaft, the city’s young and forward-thinking exhibition space for contemporary art—made up a small but active avant-garde community). Along with words and styles and the found materials of collage, Schwitters took relations of center and periphery—or, more accurately, the cultural opinions and actions from which these are formed—as primary material.

Merz, the seminal avant-garde journal Schwitters produced in varying forms between 1923 and 1932 (in collaboration with Lissitzky, among others), is the best-known embodiment of these efforts. Equally compelling, however, are his numerous public lectures and the invariably biting responses to his critics that he termed “Trans,” which were published in a range of journals, Merz included, during the early 1920s. Schwitters seems to have put equal effort into, and taken equal pleasure in, collage making and artistic battling alike, transforming the Eigengift of opinion into something else entirely by constellating it with alternate views. His uneasy relationship to Dada is particularly relevant in this context. Rejected by and constantly antagonistic toward Huelsenbeck, he remained an intimate friend of such other core members of the Berlin Dada group as Hannah Höch and Hausmann; and just as the label dada was emblazoned across the cover of his 1919 poetry collection Anna Blume, so Schwitters chose just the opposite label—CAUTION: ANTI-DADA—for the cover of his lithographic edition Die Kathedrale the following year.

Kurt Schwitters, Grey and Yellow, 1947, collage, paper, cardboard, tissue paper, canvas on cardboard, 8 1/4 x 6 5/8".

The figure of the cathedral was repeatedly invoked by Schwitters, most crucially in reference to his Merzbau, the core component of which—a massive movable column he began in the early 1920s and that included grottoes filled with media fragments and personal mementos—he termed the Kathedrale des erotischen Elends, or Cathedral of Erotic Misery. It’s thus appropriate that the Menil campus, home to both the Rothko Chapel and the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum, plays host to the first stateside appearance of Bissegger’s Merzbau reconstruction. Built in the 1980s after the limited photographic record of the original structure, the installation facilitates a speculative reimagining of how the Merzbau may have appeared before its 1943 destruction, complete with colored lights and a simulated view of the leafy park outside Schwitters’s Hannover studio. Missing, of course, are the original’s many material peculiarities: its specific smells and surfaces, the personal items (including a lock of Hans Richter’s hair and Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s bra) that Schwitters filched from friends and hammered into its walls, the cup of the artist’s own urine that was reportedly lit up to resemble liquid gold. For all the service Bissegger’s reconstruction performs in facilitating our understanding of Schwitters’s greatest work, it also undoubtedly tames the original creation, its clean walls and clear museological function standing in utter contradiction to what Benjamin H. D. Buchloh has described as the Merzbau’s “total inefficiency, utter dysfunction, [and] complete refusal to subject spatial experience to rationality, transparency, and instrumentalization.”⁹

Like its material form, the exact dates of the Merzbau’s construction have long been subject to speculation. Recent research has positioned it as most likely a product of the early ’30s rather than the mid-’20s as originally thought, with Schwitters’s columnar projects of the earlier decade thus understood as a prelude to its integrated conceptualization and construction (the Menil’s dating of the work as circa 1923–36 thus encompasses the creation of these earlier pieces).¹⁰ This half-decade shift is significant, for it establishes the Merzbau not just as a culmination of Schwitters’s collage aesthetic or an experiment in Expressionist-inflected installation (as it has most often been seen) but as a particular response to the encroaching collapse of democratic as well as avant-garde culture in late Weimar Germany. The Merzbau was an inhabitable and constantly mutating memory trove—a reliquary—realized in the midst of a collapsing world.

JUST BEFORE HIS EXILE, Schwitters desperately attempted to arrange for the opportunity to construct a version of the Merzbau in the United States. Though Alfred H. Barr Jr. had visited him in Hannover in 1935, and the collector Katherine Dreier had both corresponded with and supported him since 1920, the artist’s attempts were unsuccessful. Fleeing to Norway in 1937 and to England three years later, he began Merzbau constructions in each, but in both cases they were left unfinished as war and illness took their toll. Despite the near vanishing of these and other works, though, Schwitters’s importance persisted, particularly for American artists in the postwar period. The Menil installation nods to this history in its final gallery, where objects by John Chamberlain, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly are exhibited together with a selection of collages from Schwitters’s final year. Indeed, the impact of Schwitters’s practice still holds force for younger artists: When the New Museum chose to inaugurate its building on New York’s Bowery with the multichapter exhibition “Unmonumental” in 2007, was there any historical figure whose model echoed more in its selections than Schwitters? From Thomas Hirschhorn to Rachel Harrison to John Bock to Gedi Sibony, Schwitters’s negotiations between waste and redemption, form and reference, material particularity and systematic analysis, all remain strikingly resonant in contemporary practice. Schwitters’s most compelling legacy is the intensity with which he created and interrogated structures for the circulation of matter, bodies, and information alike—from pictures to poems to journals to alphabets—and the way in which these efforts brushed up against, but never fully succumbed to, predefined political and economic programs.

Politics are, in fact, surprisingly present in Schwitters’s published writings, always obliquely related to his artistic practice. His 1924 essay “The Feeling of Nationality,” for instance, describes the nation’s combination of parts into an integrated unit in terms that explicitly evoke his own collage production, concluding, “In the end, there’s much that is coincidental in the living-together of people under the title Nation.”¹¹ This statement remains remarkably relevant—and, for many, remarkably threatening. For it is precisely in our own era of unprecedented global flows of people, information, and goods that jingoistic calls for impenetrable borders and infallible identities have reached a fever pitch, just as the gold standard itself—the gold standard!—is popular once again. This would be familiar territory to Schwitters, of course—our problems don’t hold a candle to those of Germany in the 1920s—and helps to explain the sustained power of his work. Merz’s program of collection and combination, of intimate attention to detail and expansive inclusion of nearly everything, places the operations of separation and integration at the center of aesthetic practice, and makes the materials, structures, and procedures of the social the stuff from which art is made. It is this kernel of Schwitters’s work that subsequent generations of artists have seized on: the desire to make art not about life, but from life. Schwitters lived in a world that was being torn apart; his response was to collect and rearrange its fragments and, in doing so, to rethink the very idea of the whole.

“Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage” is on view at the Menil Collection, Houston, through Jan. 30; travels to the Princeton University Art Museum, NJ, Mar. 26–June 26; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum, Aug. 3–Nov. 27.

Graham Bader’s Hall of Mirrors: Roy Lichtenstein and the Face of Painting in the 1960s was published last year by The MIT Press.


1. Huelsenbeck as cited in John Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters (London: Thames & Hudson, 1985), 40.

2. Kurt Schwitters, “Ich und Meine Ziele” (1931), reprinted in Friedhelm Lach, ed., Kurt Schwitters: Das literarische Werk, vol. 5, Manifeste und Kritische Prosa (Munich: DTV, 1981), 342. Unless otherwise noted, all translations from the German are my own.

3. Schwitters makes his comments on the Merzbilder in his 1923 essay “Die Bedeutung des Merzgedankens in der Welt” (The Meaning of Merz Thinking in the World), in Lach, Kurt Schwitters, 133.

4. Schwitters, “Die Merzmalerei” (Merz Painting, 1919), as cited in Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, 50.

5. Roger Cardinal, “Collecting and Collage-Making: The Case of Kurt Schwitters,” in John Elsner and Roger Cardinal, eds., The Cultures of Collecting (London: Reaktion, 1994), 84–85.

6. The translation is Schwitters’s own, with the exception of the name Anna; in his English version of the text, Schwitters chose to render “Anna Blume” as “Eve Blossom.”

7. Schwitters, “Anregungen zur Erlangung einer Systemschrift” (Suggestions Toward the Obtainment of a Systematic Script, 1927), in Lach, Kurt Schwitters, 274. For a discussion of Schwitters’s attempts to create what he called his “systematic script,” see Ute Brüning, “Die neue plastische Systemschrift,” (The New Plastic Systematic Script) in Typographie kann unter Umständen Kunst Sein: Kurt Schwitters—Typographie und Werbegestaltung (Typography, Under Certain Conditions, Can Be an Art: Kurt Schwitters—Typography and Advertising Design) (Wiesbaden, Germany: Landesmuseum, 1990), 98–107.

8. Schwitters, “Anregungen zur Erlangung einer Systemschrift,” 274.

9. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “1926,” in Hal Foster et al., Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 211. Buchloh rightly discusses the Merzbau as an inversion of the spatial terms of El Lissitzky’s design of the so-called abstract cabinet, commissioned by Alexander Dorner for Hannover’s Landesgalerie and opened in 1928. Recent research that positions the Merzbau’s final conceptualization shortly after Lissitzky’s completion of his Hannover room further demonstrates and complicates the specific dialogue between the two projects.

10. See “Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau,” Gwendolen Webster’s contribution to the Menil catalogue, as well as Webster’s unpublished 2007 Open University dissertation of the same name.

11. Schwitters, “Nationalitätsgefühl” (1924), in Lach, Kurt Schwitters, 197.