Even for those who speak German, the word Merz may be difficult to translate. Coined in 1919 by the avant-garde artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), Merz is more of an idea than an object; more of an approach to art than art itself. A truncated version of the German word for “commerce”, Merz describes an artistic ambition to “make connections, preferably between everything in the world.” Epitomized by the collage, the art form that Schwitters helped develop in the first half of the 20th century, Merz involves appropriating supposedly meaningless everyday objects and imbuing them with artistic value. This is accomplished by wrenching them from their conventional contexts, thus stripping them of all previous functions and associations, and focusing instead on their aesthetic properties: form, texture, shape and color.
The new exhibition Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage, at the Menil Collection, is the first American retrospective since 1985 on this seminal member of the avant-garde. Including roughly 100 assemblages, reliefs, sculptures and collages, the exhibition focuses upon Schwitters’ Merz productions from the 1920s and 1940s. Organized by Isabel Schulz, editor of the accompanying catalog, executive director of the Kurt and Ernst Schwitters collection and the curator of the Kurt Schwitters Archive at the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, this collection offers the first opportunity in 25 years for Americans to focus on the works of the man who inspired such modern greats as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. As Schulz writes in a catalog essay on Schwitters’ Merz technique, once these objects have been removed from the context of the world and replaced in the context of art, their sole remaining function becomes their color value within the picture itself. Thus newspaper clippings and advertisements are denuded of their social connotations and subsequently re-presented as a collection of colors, a compilation of different textures and materials.
One of the centerpieces of this travelling exhibition is a fully reconstructed version of the Merzbau, a free-standing structure assembled according to the Merz aesthetic. A lifelong project of Schwitters, representing the culmination of the artist’s attempts to unify the artistic and the mundane, the Merzbau is a room-size walk-in sculpture constructed of found materials. As Schwitters describes it,
I do by no means construct an interior for people to live in…I am building an abstract (cubist) sculpture into which people can go…I am building a composition without boundaries; each individual part is at the same time a frame for the neighboring parts, [and] all parts are mutually interdependent.
Although the original Merzbau was destroyed during the bombings of Hanover during World War II, this replica presents a unique opportunity to see and experience Merz art in its fullest embrace.
Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage will be at the Menil Collection until January 30, 2011. The collection will then travel to the Princeton University Art Museum for the spring of 2011 before heading out west to the Berkeley Art Museum in August.