Dieter Roth, Olivetti-Yamaha-Grundig Combo (1965/1982), mixed media, typewriter, organ, 66.93 x 78.74 x 47.24″; courtesy Zwirner & Wirth
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New York Times art critic Ken Johnson recently offered a recommendation to teachers, “a perfect assignment for a college seminar in the history of modern art”: It’s an exhibition called Assemblage at Zwirner and Wirth. Following Mr. Johnson’s advice, I accompanied a group of graduate art students to the Upper East Side to take a look at what the gallery touts as “one of the two most important innovations in modern art.” (The other important innovation is abstraction.)
The assemblage artist assembles his work using objects that suit his purpose: window frames, cigarette butts, cans of Pepsi, discarded typewriters, A.M. radios blaring classic rock- -whatever . All of the aforementioned objects are included in the work on display at Zwirner and Wirth. An abbreviated though surprisingly comprehensive overview, Assemblage begins with “founding fathers” Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters and ends with the work of contemporary figures like Christo, Edward Kienholz, Dieter Roth and Richard Tuttle. My students found the names impressive. They were less impressed with the aesthetic trajectory: from one-liners about high art and loving arrangements of everyday ephemera to (as one student had it) “the rampant abuse of baby dolls.”
That’s not quite fair: All sorts of material is abused in assemblage. Has any other medium done as much to stifle artistic possibility and individual expression? William Seitz, who organized a 1961 MoMA exhibition called The Art of Assemblage, defined assemblage as “setting one thing beside another without a connective”–and that’s precisely the problem. When a medium jettisons the “connective,” form takes a hike, metaphor flies out the window, literalism takes over and galleries stuffed with avant-decoration become the norm.
Instead of breaking barriers, assemblage–along with its bullying descendants, conceptualism and installation–has merely exempted artists from the arduous task of shaping and extracting meaning from form. The promise of assemblage is unfettered creativity; the actual result is a numbing homogeneity. The critic Robert Pincus-Witten, writing in 1984, noted that “there is really very little in [assemblage] which is original, despite the fact that the mode itself flashes the signal reading ‘original.’” The legacy of assemblage is a contemporary scene so “original” that it can’t distinguish between absolute freedom and unremitting conformity.
There are a few artists who have made compelling work from assemblage, chief among them Joseph Cornell, who produced a tender and somewhat sinister poetry by gingerly placing bric-a-brac inside boxes. Still, his achievement is singular–the exception that proves the rule. The Times‘ “perfect assignment” was indeed valuable. Though not the lesson Mr. Johnson, or Zwirner and Wirth. had in mind, this is what we learned: Innovation, in and of itself, guarantees bupkes. Assemblage has been a bust.
© 2004 Mario Naves
A version of this article was originally published in the January 12, 2004 edition of The New York Observer.