Assemblage often strikes us as a rather contemporary art form—and for good reason. Much of what we view in these works are familiar to us, the objects often reflective of those we might find in our own home, like nylon tights in the work of Senga Nengudi or the paint-covered mattress of the ever-famous “Bed” by Robert Rauschenberg. The term “assemblage” was coined by Jean Debuffet in the 1950’s, however, the origins of the art form date back to the “curiosity cabinets” of the 15th century Italian Renaissance. While curiosity cabinets were popular among wealthier families, the act of placing disparate objects together entered the art historical canon in Carlo Crivelli’s Madonna and Child with Four Saints of 1482, when his painted depiction of Saint Peter held a real gold key on an equally real cord.
In Modern terms, what we now know as assemblage began in the early 20th century with a guy you’ve probably never heard of named Pablo Picasso. In 1912 he started building his “cubist constructions,” which he continued to return to throughout his pretty damn long life (he died 92 years young). Another gentleman who nearly became a centenarian (81), named Marcel Duchamp, coined the term “ready-made” when he screwed a bicycle wheel to a stool and decided to call it art. This is the same guy who submitted an upside down urinal into an art show under the pseudonym “R. Mutt.” Kurt Schwitters, who lived to be 61, dying tragically the day after being granted British citizenship, called his three dimensional collages, beginning in 1917, “Merz.” Russian Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin, created assemblages which he called “counter-reliefs,” inspired by the Russian Orthodoxy. The super popular Dada- inspired Surrealists were also quite into placing disparate objects together, such as Salvador Dali’s Lobster Telephone of 1938. Pop’s Darling Grandfather Robert Rauschenberg, introduced his “combines” in 1954. All could (and would) lead to what we now know and call “assemblage.” So what exactly constitutes assemblage?
The term was excitingly popularized in 1961 with a blockbuster show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City titled “The Art of Assemblage.” The exhibit showed 250 works by 130 different artists. According to the definition supplied by the curator, William C. Seitz:
“An ‘assemblage’ (a more inclusive term than the familiar ‘collage’) is a work of art made by fastening together cut or torn pieces of paper, clippings from newspapers, photographs, bits of cloth, fragments of wood, metal, or other such materials, shells or stones, or even objects such as knives and forks, chairs and tables, parts of dolls and mannequins, and automobile fenders. The symbolic meaning of these objects, not originally intended as art materials, can be as important as their realistic aspects.”
The list reads like the contents of a junkyard. Assemblage, while a form of collage, differs in its dimensionality and materials. Rather than placing two-dimensional materials onto a two dimensional surface to lay (or hang) flat, assemblage is created from a myriad of objects in three and two dimensional form and even the fourth, if we want to consider time— as in the case of Jean Tingluey’s Homage To New York of 1960. The objects used are often found materials, discarded by society and collected by the artist. While many of these works, such as Duchamp’s Fountain appear humorous in their attempts to redefine the boundaries of fine art, others take a much stronger social and political critique. A favorite of this historian’s, is Bettye Saar’s 1972, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, in which a Mammy totes a rifle in one hand and a broom in the other with a photograph of another more “traditional” mammy holding a horrified white child. In France, feminist pioneer Niki De St. Phalle began her long career with her assemblages and “tirs,” or “shooting paintings,” in which she would fire at sculptures filled with paint, literally oozing their way into existence.
A contemporary artist from Mexico City, Abraham Cruzvillegas creates his autoconstruccións to explore the concept of permanent instability. Drawing on indigenous practices by the people of his childhood town, Colonia Ajusco, and inspired by his parents’ clever construction of their home with found materials, the assemblages involve improvisation and impermanence. In the words of Cruzvillegas, “Autoconstrucción is about scarcity, solutions and ingenuity… And how you can conceive a philosophy of life that you can make something out of nothing. That is also a metaphor for identity… we are constantly transforming ourselves.” This idea was also used historically in the assemblage of impoverished Californian artists in the 1960’s, who, according to scholar Thomas Crow in his book, Rise of The Sixties, were excluded from the broad art market and drawn to the “cheap disposability of collage and assemblage.” Crow argues they exploited these materials in order to express their marginality while “recycling the discards of postwar affluence into defiantly deviant reconfigurations.”
A recent mid-career retrospective on Cruzvillegas at the Walker Art Center, in 2013, involved a laundry list similar to that listed by MoMa on the definition of assemblage: “knives, umbrellas, fabric, paint, plants, wood, and cardboard” were all used in the construction, according to critic Julia Bryan-Wilson of Art Forum. Buckets, shopping carts and other detritus of modern life appear in the photograph provided, while a veritable laundry line crosses beyond the two structures. Cruvillegas uses autoconstruccion to build what may to us look like a tree house or other architectural form with no blueprint or plan, returning to the concept of constant improvisation.
Long time Harlem resident and artist Nari Ward creates his assemblages out of similar discarded objects. The vanguard of the urban landscape, the shopping cart, appears in Ward’s Crusader of 2005. Plastic bags, buckets, and a chandelier create an oddly reverent homage to the lost objects of New York’s urban landscape, while topped with bitumen and “trophy elements” in a shape reminiscent of Martin Puryear’s Old Mole of 1985. The Jamaican born artist sources from the broad avenues of New York City, as well as an abandoned firehouse he discovered in the 1990’s and began to use as a studio. His installation piece, Amazing Grace, of 1993, employs 310 strollers, first used by parents to transport their children, and then unhousend residents of the city, to transport their belongings. The strollers, which impose like an army, form an arc in which a walkway composed of countless flattened and nailed firehose lead the viewer through the piece, which is centered by even more strollers, these ones bound by additional firehose and hiding a speaker which reverently plays “Amazing Grace.” The arc feels reminiscent of various historical and biblical structures, such as Noah’s ark, the ships used to transport enslaved Africans to the Americas, or the shape of a womb. The work was initially made and exhibited in his studio-firehouse and is a direct reaction to the AIDS and Crack epidemics of New York City in the 1980’s. These contemporary works by both Cruzvillegas and Ward are extraordinary examples of how identity, history and geography can all play a role in the meanings of present-day assemblage.
The basic tenets of assemblage as an art form are, as we have seen, similar to collage in construction, but differ greatly in their dimensionality. The objects range from the mundane detritus of our urban landscape to brilliantly woven constructions of a myriad of materials. The juxtaposition of these objects, historically and contemporaneously, range from surrealist practices of unlocking our hidden subconscious, to less subtle and rather direct reactions to social and political events or circumstances. The array of materials which form the works allow for a multiplicity of meanings, and often, a sense of relevancy to the viewer who has formed some external connection to materials seen in their everyday lives. Assemblage today is an internationally recognized and consistently utilized art form elevated to the status of “fine art.” While it’s humble beginnings may have gone by a thousand different names and material interventions, we can thank the Modernists (a lot of them) for much of the work that we art viewers confront today.