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Merz at the Menil

The Merzbau was likely the first "installation."
Michael Herling / Aline Gwose, Sprengel Museum Hannover © Peter Bisseger

The Dadaists considered German artist Kurt Schwitters too bourgeois. The Nazis included his work in the first "Entartete Kunst" (Degenerate Art) exhibition. Born in 1887 and expelled from the Berliner Akademie der Künste in 1911 as "untalented," Schwitters went on to make groundbreaking work that would birth installation art and deeply influence artists like Robert Rauschenberg. Guest-curated by Isabel Schulz, co-editor of the Kurt Schwitters catalogue raisonné and curator of the Kurt Schwitters Archive at the Sprengel Museum Hannover, in collaboration with Menil Director Josef Helfenstein, "Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage" at The Menil Collection presents more than 100 of the artist's works, including a re-creation of his groundbreaking Merzbau installation.

Schwitters used the term "merz" to encompass work ranging from his assemblages and collages of cast-off objects and paper, to wooden sculptures, to his room-size installations, to his writing. There is a lot of speculation about the term's origins. It's a nonsense word that Schwitters said he took from the end of the German word "kommerz" (commerce). He coined it in 1919, at the beginning of Germany's post-WWI Weimar Republic, on the eve of the hyperinflation that would lead to people buying loaves of bread with wheelbarrows full of marks and ultimately to the rise of National Socialism and Adolph Hitler. Some sources say the word was taken from a text fragment "Commerz Und Privatbank" in a collage. Some believe it is a Germanization of "merde," the French word for "shit." Others have commented on its similarity to "schmerz," the German word for pain. Any and all of these could be true and would certainly reflect the chaos and anguish of the period.

Schwitters began as a painter of the post-Impressionist variety but was gradually consumed with the things that surrounded him. Color would be a constant in his work, with paint making regular appearances. In early pieces like the 1919 Bild mit heller Mitte (Picture with Light Center), a cubist aesthetic permeates the picture, with angled planes of color. But the paint is secondary to the ephemera pasted in, postage stamps and scraps of newspaper with isolated numbers or words like "cigaretten" and "tabake."

In later works, red paper from chocolate packages and blue bus tickets add sparks of color to the yellowed acidic pulp of newspapers, receipts and ticket stubs. Schwitters's collages are gorgeous little gems. Formally seductive, their components evoke the dynamism and angst of early 20th-century German urbanity through the litter of daily life.

Schwitters is legendary for his Merzbau installation, all the more so because the original only survived in reproduction. It began with sculptural columns of assembled objects started in the early '20s; they eventually evolved into room-size installations that Schwitters continued to work on until he left Germany in 1937. These were created in the studio of his Hannover apartment, rather than taking over the living space he shared with his wife and son, as has sometimes been assumed.

From 1981 to 1983, the Swiss stage designer Peter Bessegger created a reconstruction of the first room of the Merz­bau from period wide-angle photographs. It was done for the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, and this is the first time the Merzbau has been shown in the United States. This is a big deal for art geeks.

Walking in the room is like stepping into a cubist painting. The mainly white space is filled with angular shapes, planes and columns that protrude from the walls and extend down from the ceiling. A warm yet cathedral-like feeling fills the space. There is nothing industrial about the white plaster and wood construction. It reveals the hand of the maker, as I'm sure Schwitters's original did.

Niches are lit and sometimes glassed over. Color is used sparingly on the room's forms. There is no suffocating excess of objects, just carefully chosen and carefully placed things. A bright-red stopcock placed high in the room calls your eyes upward. The only figurative object I remember from the room is a tiny plaster head placed atop an irregular column in one niche, like a saint. In the original Merz­bau, the object was a plaster cast, a death mask of Schwitters's first son Gerd, who died in 1916 eight days after he was born. Death masks had been used in the pre-photographic era to memorialize and record the dead. As morbid as it may seem to us today, the original cast was created nearly a century ago (by Schwitters himself?). In a photograph of a 1923/25 Merz column, the head sits atop it. Schwitters is not using this like some broken piece of bric-a-brac. It obviously has deep meaning to him, and it reads like an altar. Schwitters is described as being extremely close to his second son. Could one also read the Merzbau as a shrine for Schwitters's dead son?

The Merzbau was likely the first "installation," and sitting in the reproduction, you imagine how revolutionary it was. Schwitters didn't even have a way to describe it, simply calling it his studio. The Merzbau activates the entire space and encompasses the viewer. He was an inspiration for all the artists who followed who didn't want to only make paintings for walls or sculptures for pedestals, but to bring their art out into the space of the viewer.

The reproduction lacks the patina and aura of age of the other works in the show. It would be great to experience what the original really felt like, but I'll take what I can get. The installation includes a window with a shot of trees like those that would have surrounded Schwitters's suburban home. The lighting in the space changes from day to night as the niches light up. I imagined what the space would have looked like when it was destroyed by an allied bomb in 1943.

Schwitters fled the Nazis in 1937, eventually ending up in England as a near penniless refugee. He made frequent pleas for funding to restore the Merzbau, writing to the eventual funder, "I fight for it in desperation like an animal for its child." MOMA transferred the money to him, but Schwitters was too weak to return to Hannover. He was given permission to use the money to build a new version in England. The piece was only 10 percent completed when Schwitters died in 1948, one day after receiving his British citizenship.

One of his last works, a 1947 collage, points the way to yet another 20th-century art movement, Pop Art. Created in England, EN MORN includes a cut-out of a dewy-eyed blond set against an illustrated landscape, above a snippet of chocolate peppermint wrapper. As far as I can tell, it is the first time the artist used that kind of a colorful advertising image of a person. Across the bottom, he pasted the found text "These are the things we are fighting for." Its sardonic sentiment reminds me very much of Richard Hamilton's seminal Pop collage, the 1956 Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? which includes a bodybuilder holding a giant Tootsie Pop, and a naked woman on a couch in a "suburban" home with a tape player and TV. Schwitters seems amazingly prescient, both in terms of the direction of art and the direction of consumer culture. He died at the age of 60. One can only imagine what he could have made had he lived even a few years longer.


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