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RATE OF EXCHANGE: THE ART OF KURT SCHWITTERS

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

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