San Francisco

“The Art of Assemblage”

San Francisco Museum of Art

William Seitz, one of the Museum of Modern Art’s perpetual category makers, has assembled a huge, lavishly catalogued exhibition, only part of which is shown here. Seitz’ purpose seems to be to relabel what is neo-dada as “assemblage.” Presumably his intentions are of the best and meant to rebut such pundits as Canaday and other odd characters such as Dr. Longman, Chairman of the U.C.L.A. Art Department, both of whom are considered as jokes by artists. Longman, in fact, is thought to be anti-art. The catalogue describes the objects as: 1. predominantly assembled rather than painted, drawn, modeled or carved. 2. Entirely or in part, their constituent elements are preformed natural or manufactured materials, objects, or fragments not intended as art materials. There follows, in support, a spate of tendentious conclusions concerning the sociological, political and metaphysical origin and value of these works. Irving Sandler, in an article entitled Ash Can Revisited, better describes this movement: “neo dadas prefer to use found materials of city origin, thus contributing a particular urban character to their imagery,” “the line between painting and sculpture becomes so blurred that Neo Dada construction-collages are most fittingly called ‘objects’” and “unlike the Dadas who carried on an organized insulting of modern civilization and who used art as part of their ‘shock treatment,’ the Neo Dadas are accepting their condition and are primarily interested in expressing a heightened sensitivity to it.” This exhibition brings Schwitters, until lately a neglected and somewhat oddball figure, amongst the ranks of the most original and mysterious innovators of the 20th Century. In the same way it forces one to re-evaluate many contemporary artists. One responds to Stankiewicz’s incredibly beautiful sculpture not just for its junk overtures or the Neo Dada context it is placed in, but its sheer quality as a work of art. Colla’s totemic construction of agricultural wheels falls flat by comparison. Bruce Conner has an exquisite and overpowering sense of Dada nostalgia in his work, whereas Latham’s “libraries,” bulky discarded books, the very emblems of civilization, are transformed into images recalling the ancient, candle smoked altar of some Spanish chapel. Gwyther Irwin uses the same material as Getman, Rotella and Haines, billboard posters, but he transforms it beyond its junk origins into a mysterious image, rather than a raw and novel experience. These comparisons are part of the intense enjoyment of the exhibition and the real criteria of its content. One criticism of the exhibition is that Seitz has been too concerned with proving his theory rather than concentrating on sheer quality.

But acceptance by important museums is liable to kill the vigor of a movement by making it too self-conscious. Final note: Let it be said that this exhibition is a marvelous and exciting feast compared with the San Francisco Museum’s usual fare. In a country that deifies packaging a presentation, the San Francisco Museum, starved of money and adequate support in a culturally pretentious town, is like some decayed nineteenth century institution struggling to keep up with the times. But for this exhibition the staff has made an unusual effort, to obvious effect, it is beautifully hung and arranged.

John Coplans