5 in Collage

by Lee Siegel

“The true artist,” wrote John Marin, one of the first American abstractionists, “must perforce go from time to time… to sort of re-true himself up.” When in 1912 Picasso created the first collage by gluing a piece of oil-cloth, one bearing a pattern of wood caning, onto an analytic cubist painting, he was re-truing himself up by driving his art down to its origins. Collage shattered—desublimated, one might say—the musical grid of analytic cubism back into its sources in the world’s disorder.

If history’s great paintings dreamed at night, they would dream in the particles of their beginnings. They would travel through detached planes of color, fragments of glass and wood and cloth, floating eyeballs and disaffiliated noses. Whether composed of paper cut-outs or mundane objects, collage is, in one of its dimensions, art’s subconscious. It seemed inevitable that after the cool harmonic dissonances of Picasso and Braque, collage would reach another perfection in the psychic delvings of dadaists and surrealists like Jean Arp, Max Ernst and, especially Kurt Schwitters.

In these artists’ fantastical hands, repressed thoughts joined forces with abandoned objects to remind ”high art” and “culture” where they came from. William Butler Yeats wrote famously of renewing his poetry with its rudiments: “I must lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” Collage makes its bed down in the sensual detritus of our days. Amid colorful ticket stubs and discarded newspapers and faded postmarks and chipped buttons and oddly shaped wire and just plain old pieces of colored paper—that is where collage rescues the huddled masses of neglected things, where the seeming child’s play of paper cut-outs frees color and form from the chains of utility.

Collage’s resources can achieve just about any kind of effect short of the heroic and the sublime (in its blatant or subtle discordances, every collage, no matter how violently yoked together, is a little bit funny) but the advent of collage also solved formal problems for painters. Papier collé—cut and pasted strips of paper—allowed Picasso and Braque to keep color both representational and autonomous, both a reference to visible reality and a private gift to the eye in an increasingly fabricated world. Papier dechiré—paper that is torn rather than cut—was a specialty of the dadaists and surrealists, who used the ragged evidence of the human hand to stage encounters between chance, human will and the buried mental forces that shape both.

Collage distinguishes itself from these two other forms by its embrace of materials extraneous to painting: wood, plastic, wire, newspaper, etc. Formally, collage comments on the relationship between painting and sculpture and sculptural relief; conceptually, it meets modernity head on. Collage preserves the primacy of material in the flood of a materialistic epoch’s reproductions and fakes. Along with its cousin, montage, it keeps art viable in the age of photography and film. And at a time of art’s doubts about itself in the face of new experiences that defy the imagination, collage brings experience directly into art’s arena.

This gradual melding of art and life—from the cubists through the surrealists up to the combines of Robert Rauschenberg and the international Assemblage movement in the late 1950s—throws an interesting light on collage in America . Collage presents a utopian democracy in which the humblest scrap has a status equal to the most majestic form. It is one of art’s more startling developments that the pieces of life the cubists threw into the context of art evolved into the dadaists’ found objects, and then reappeared as the assemblagists’ three-dimensional heaps of everyday things, and finally became the human figures in the sixties’ Happenings and today’s Performance Art—figures who enact pieces of life in the context of art, or who make themselves pieces of art in the context of life. That inversion of art and life is an essential aspect of American existence.

Because of its easy relationship with experience, collage is more steadfast than the other visual arts. Unlike painting and sculpture, which both have passed through upheaval after upheaval, collage has never been in crisis. Instead, it has “re-trued” painting at critical junctures. Papier collé supplied the catalyst for the transition from analytic to synthetic cubism; Matisse’s cut-outs inspired Ellsworth Kelly’s fusions of color and form; Robert Rauschenberg’s combines led Jasper Johns to make his enigmatic painted combinations.

The five American artists represented in this show are masters of collage, and their work runs the gamut of the form, incorporating historical influences and surpassing them, each in his or her own way. One, Joseph Stella (1877-1946), is closer to history than the others, probably having seen the first cubist collages in Paris , and later meeting pioneers in collage such as Duchamp and Picabia.

Stella’s collages are like the primal stage of collage; they are, to extend the image, what the other collages in this show might dream of. The viewer looks at “Untitled,” with the raw materiality of its cracked and crumbling fragment of black paper, and recalls Yeats’s lines about beginning again from art’s origins. Stella himself, born in a mountain village near Naples , called his collages “macchine naturali,” but gazing at these sensuous works, you feel that the “macchine” was merely a nod to the surrealists’ fascination with technology. It was the natural aspect of collage that attracted Stella, who limbered up with collage from his teens until his death, all the while painting in wildly different styles.
Stella was a religious man, and his collages make one think of Michelangelo’s renunciation of art as an impious endeavor. The starkly disintegrating black paper in “Untitled,” is set on a bland white background, which itself is positioned on a field of red paper. It is as if the drama of decomposition were the self-annulling point of Stella’s composition. The red is so artistic, so esthetical; the black’s candid materiality strikes the respectable red dumb. Stella seems to want physically to make art disappear into the natural elements from which it came.

Perhaps an ambivalence about art is why Stella’s paintings swing so unstably from style to style, from the wonderful “The Port” and the deservedly famous “ Brooklyn Bridge ,” both done in original variations on cubism, to kitschy, Pre-Raphaelite versions of virgins and flowers. In the collage “Etablissement Thermal,” Stella has taken advertisements for medicine and for Pyrex and scribbled paint over them with wide, furious brushstrokes. Here, too, he wants to send artificiality to oblivion—Pyrex may make glass resistant to heat, he seems to be saying, but it cannot resist the hot creative will! Yet he applies the paint not as an artistic gesture, but as a visceral act that gestures to a natural force even beyond art.

In the magnificent “Serenado”’s corroding theater ticket and decaying product-label, “serenado”—was it a cigar?—Stella very pointedly wants to send back to the elements not just art, not just artificiality, but civilization itself. In this collage, however, something else is happening. Stella’s devout physicality converges with his tactile spirituality. He is not just powerfully celebrating the unique tangible presence of things now lost in a modern sea of fabrication; he is pushing into an age of materialism the theme of vanitas, the subject of still lifes and religious art. Beside the ticket and the label is a paper with no civilized lettering at all, and beside that are two stripped pieces of paper, the remnants of something that had been stuck to them and then torn off. Attend to the fate of these forgotten objects: mortal glue comes undone, too.

Like Stella, Janet Malcolm also replies to space with scissors and glue, but for encounters with time, she cherishes the pocket and the drawer. If Stella wants to reach some primal matter beyond history, beyond even time, Malcolm wants to save the material emblems of our days from the destructions of both. Addressed and postmarked envelopes, the page of a family bible noting names and dates of birth from the early 1800’s, a receipt, a list of expenses, pages of old books—these are the small replenishing motions of life that Malcolm gently cuts and rescues from obscurity, consecrating them in her collages.

Malcolm’s esthetic choices have a fatality to them: she combines her colors and textures so unerringly that the harmony of her collages seems to be a condition that she discovered rather than an illusion that she brought into being. The result is to make you feel that the small replenishing motions of life have more reality than the large depleting disruptions of life. A goodness wells up from Malcolm’s beauty.

Sometimes the goodness tears itself from a terrible beauty. Just about every one of the collages Malcolm has chosen for this show bears a red strip of paper—russet, really—and a black strip of paper. Sometimes one color is evocatively absent: in “October 15, 1908,” the red appears alone alongside the page from the family bible, as if the early nineteenth-century dates of birth spoke enough of black finality.

Malcolm’s red and black are destiny’s antipodes, casting their consequences differently from collage to collage, but she presents them as being always casually underfoot. They are more polished and groomed, more lyrical and yet also much less imposing than Stella’s ruined black and dumbstruck red. Nietzsche located the “birth of tragedy” in the Bacchantes’ tearing apart of Dionysus. Malcolm’s collages roll their eyes at such idealizing of pain. Rather than tragic dismemberments of the familiar, they are elegiacal or witty re-memberments of the obscure. If red and black are Malcolm’s Alpha and Omega, they are also her Vladimir and Estragon.

Malcom’s fragments heal the world’s fractures, but many of her collages quietly and humorously ache with fracture. “Censura,” where you find the characteristic red and black, is typically rich. The censor’s mark on a foreign envelope appears next to a yellow label with the words, “Damaged in Handling in the Postal Service.” Across from the label, and lower down, you see a New York City address; then your eye finds a scrap of paper bearing typewritten Czech words.

Patient looking yields some partially obscured words on the black paper that spell out “Mozart: Le Nozze de Figaro.” Hanging from the black is a rectangular piece of pink paper; if you turn your head to the side, you can read the word, running vertically, “Kantwerk.” This, surely, is a reference to the great German philosopher’s writing. Yet is it also a pun—“can’t work”—that refers to marriage? To a particular marriage? Perhaps to the dream of fulfillment in a new place, or to the struggle to keep living in the dangerous old place, or to the censor’s attempt to stifle and destroy? But only a censor pretends to absolute certitude. Kant, after all, believed that reality was all in our heads. “Censura” becomes a gorgeously ordered perplexity. Like Malcolm’s other collages, it will never satisfy the viewer’s curiosity, and it will never stop rewarding the viewer’s curiosity.

Each of Malcolm’s collages is a modest miracle of entwined music and meaning. In “Lieber Pepik,” a feast for the eye, the artist juxtaposes references to Schwitters—the father of modern collage—and Cezanne—the father of modernism—with the salutation from a letter. But who is the mysterious Pepik? A father-figure himself? A text about Schwitters ends with the half-hidden words “life’s traces.” Further down is the scrap of a recipe for matzoh brye.

One has to wonder about the personal import of such a tantalizingly disjunctive importation. A person’s particular life, almost certainly the artist’s, is hinted at here but not disclosed. What is disclosed is the ultimate unknowability of a person. This unknowability Malcolm embeds, throughout all of her collages, in what might be her own “life’s traces” She does this so teasingly and palpably and expressively that experiencing Malcolm’s collages is, ultimately, like experiencing the enigma of another personality, but one that has surrendered its ego to its intuition of larger patterns of existence.

Henry Rothman is the perfect counterpoint to Malcolm, and to Stella. Where Malcolm exquisitely preserves the tension between small forgotten things and art, Rothman sweeps life up into the supremacy of art. Where Stella returns art to its origins in pure matter, Rothman returns materials to their origins in art’s animistic spirit.

Rothman, a framemaker who died in 1990 at the age of eighty, spent his life making collages at his studio in Provincetown in relative obscurity, just as Emily Dickinson wrote her poems in relative obscurity. Though still barely known, he should be to American art what Dickinson is to American poetry. Years after abstract expressionism lost the battle against decoration, Rothman invented an original idiom in which abstraction flourished and advanced into another phase.

Consider “Untitled (Puppa),” in which Rothman does for jagged Clifford Styll-like streaks what Stella did for a theater ticket. Rothman redeems this iconic creation of abstract expressionism from the triteness and redundancy that waits for a famous image. He collagifies the abstract style by displacing it into an environment of layered paper, mixing childish letters scrawled in pencil with big orange letters right out of a circus handbill.

Rothman presents Styll’s streaks themselves as flagrantly three-dimensional: frayed, ripped, peeling. He turns a style into an object that you might see lying on the sidewalk. The collage’s primary layer, a fragment of which appears in the upper right-hand corner, reveals the printed bottom of a circle and part of an unreadable word. The contrast between the abstract image and the tame design-feeling of the printed circle and letters transforms the former into a living organism, something feral for the eye. Indeed, the image’s powerful appeal to the viewer’s intuition also lends its power to the unreadable word. The abstract image pulls the nonsensical letters into the circle of intuition as an abstract image themselves, making irrelevant the rational comprehension of what they actually spell. A broken word becomes a complete enchantment.

Rothman has a shaman’s touch. Oval-shaped, like a portal on a ship, the masterpiece “ Casablanca ” is composed of tickets and banknotes and handbills and unrecognizable pieces of paper from North Africa , many with Arabic writing, some with only Arabic writing. Textured in overlapping layers, like an owl’s wing, it stirs associations with the magical transports of night, with dreams. Rothman’s objects have no meaning in themselves. They inhabit a world wholly translated into a plastic idiom of fantastic displacement. For uncomprehending Western eyes, these Arabic letters, shorn of connotation, so mesmerizing in their aspect, prove the imaginative vitality locked in quotidian conventions like speech.

The same aura of delicious disorientation encircles “Quest’s Italian words in big playful red letters, which appear on several torn and folded pieces of white paper that have been placed against a blue background. A delicate struggle unfolds between the letters and their color, and then between the floating, dislocated words and the scraps of paper. Meaning is jostled, jumbled and humbled by the higher, freer clarity of form.

This is not just collage, but the quiddity of collage. As you move among
Rothman’s work here, you realize that their seemingly different styles are facets of a single, and singular plasticity. The juxtaposition of corroded paper and faded paper and textured paper in “S,” its combinations of printed lines and reproduced drawn lines and of letters and numbers and the half of another big orange “O” -these elements might just as well be the oversized words in “Quest,” or the North African artifacts in “Casablanca”, or the strips of varied width in “O.” Rothman’s individual collages are themselves pieces of his unifying imagination. They are the dialects of a single creative language, in which forms refresh themselves by shifting into other, stranger forms. There are no disconnected differences for Rothman, as there seem to be in our literal world, only the inflections of a wholeness.

Varujan Boghosian, too, works in disparate styles that are really phases of a bountiful vision. A visitor to the retrospective of Boghosian’s work, held at the Hood Museum of Art in 1989, would have seen the New Hampshire-based artist fluently at home in mediums and materials from ink and watercolor and paper collage to steel, stone blocks, linen, wood, tin, string, cloth and bronze. The European dadaists and surrealists, whose influence Boghosian has deftly assimilated, alluded to the polymorphous nature of the imagination. Boghosian, at the literal level of material, enacts polymorphousness.

What Boghosian hasn’t assimilated, he has purposefully debunked. Unlike the arid mental puzzles of Duchamp and Picabia and Magritte, Boghosian’s alluring bewilderments are puzzles that ride on feeling rather than thought. The sudden shifts and disjunctions of collage allow him to shift the ground from underneath the viewer’s heart, not his or her mind.

In the marvelous “From an Italian Sketchbook,” Boghosian has torn in half the drawing—the artist’s own? by another hand?—of a young woman seated in a chair to reveal the naked breast and bare arm of another drawing underneath—the same woman? someone else? On the left side of the collage, he parts these two layers to reveal yet another one, a scrap of printed text, partially obscured, whose fragments read “problema dei corpi basta trova la”—roughly translated, “problems of the body enough found her.” One envisions the artist drawing from life, enraptured by his subject, suddenly throwing away his sketchpad as he dispenses with the problems of representing her body and simply succumbs to her body. That the printed text is in the shape of the female pubic triangle strengthens the impression of thought submitting to feeling. As the artist surrenders to his subject, we surrender to the gravitational pull of the artist’s eros.

The collages of European dada and surrealism often alienated the viewer even as they pulled him or her into their bizarre universes. Boghosian’s imagined worlds are no less bizarre, but they are far more wondrously inviting. He seems to want to impart to the viewer his own creative capacity. The masterly collages on display here share a tone of off-white or light brown, an atmosphere of somber banality, in which Boghosian allows his dreamlike puzzles to unfold. The artist has thus constructed a fantastical proof of art’s efficacy in the mundane world. If my illusions can rise from such lugubrious precincts, he seems to be saying, then your imagination can lift you from the drab worldly environment in which you, at this very minute, stand.

“Page 88” crystallizes this moment of artistic grace. The top of the collage is the drawing of a man lying on his stomach and peering over the edge of a cliff. Below and underneath the drawing, Boghosian has glued another layer, an old photograph depicting two blimps in the air and a part of one that is still on the ground. And so just as the man looks down to see a blimp soaring above him, the viewer looks down the page and is transported to a higher world. It is a stunning living metaphor for the relationship between the reader and a book, one that Boghosian openly and generously allows the viewer to help create. Collage’s spirit, especially American collage, of utopian democracy is nowhere as strongly represented as in this artist’s work.

With the art of Ken Kewley, American collage both returns to its European precursors and stands them on their heads. Though Kewley, who lives in Pennsylvania and exhibits in galleries from New York to San Francisco , is the youngest of the artists represented here, he is the most deeply engaged with his precedents. He has achieved a remarkable synthesis of historical insight and pure esthetic pleasure.

After experimenting with papier collé and collage, Picasso and Braque used what they had learned from those forms and turned to synthetic cubism. They painted with the illusion of three-dimensionality, conjuring a kind of simulacrum of collage’s pieced-together and overlapping planes. It is impossible at first glance to make out from synthetic cubism’s most famous example, Picasso’s “The Three Musicians” whether the picture is the product of paint or paper cut-outs. Throughout the history of modern art, collage has impelled painting into more advanced incarnations in just such a way.

Kewley, working at a time when painting is neither dominant nor besieged but wandering aimlessly amid myriad possibilities, uses references to painting to breathe fresh air into collage. “Sitting Woman” is a sly breaking down of synthetic cubism into its origins in collage, and at the same time a breaking up, as it were, of collage into the elementary language of painting. Though Kewley cuts his bright squares of color with scissors, he so explicitly and physically glues them one on top of the other that the evidence of his hand is everywhere. This is collage that translates painterly brushstrokes into its own idiom. Kewley has invented something new: gestural collage. It is as like Stuart Davis meeting Jackson Pollock.

Using collage to create the illusion of painting, as well as to comment on the grammar of painterliness, Kewley surprises the senses. By intensifying an element, he brings out its counter-effect. His brightness, rather being fulsome, gives his pictures a clean Nordic austerity; the chaos of colors in “Landscape” produces a musical serenity. Kewley does not only employ collage to retrue painting, and vice versa. He creates pictures in which retruement is the first and last principle. In Kewley’s hands, collage both comes full circle and it seems always to have done, cuts a new line straight into the future.