Although the very first examples of assemblage art come from the oeuvre of one Pablo Picasso circa 1912-1914, and of course in form of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, the word in relation to arts wasn’t introduced until the early 1950s, when one of the first “official” assemblage artists, Jean Dubuffet, created a series of collages of butterfly wings. Floating between painting and sculpture, this form of expression had to create its own definition, and so it became the art of assembling, of making artistic compositions using all kinds of found materials and objects, from junk and scraps to paper, wood, stone and much more. In fact, assemblage art is often described as collage taken one step further - although it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between a richly composed collage and an assemblage that is modest in quantity of its elements.
The technique of assemblage found many practitioners across several significant avant-garde movements of the 20th century, such as Cubism, through the aforementioned Picasso constructions, Dadaism, through Kurt Schwitters’ “merz”, Surrealism in the three-dimensional works of Man Ray, and of course Neo-Dada and Arte Povera win the 1950s and 60s, the period of its peek, with the groundbreaking pieces by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. In 1961, assemblage creators were put in the spotlight at the Museum of Modern Art and The Art of Assemblage exhibit curated by William C. Seitz. The show helped establish assemblages as a proper art form by putting on display the works of many great names that you will also find on this list.
Editors’ Tip: Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust
A landmark publication examining the remarkable work of this artist, Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust brings together some of Cornell’s most compelling assemblages and box constructions (including Medici slot machines, soap-bubble sets, and animal habitats). The contributors raise questions about Cornell’s artistic processes while drawing parallels with historical modes of inquiry such as connoisseurship, exploration, and classification. A connoisseur of an astonishing array of subjects, Cornell’s captivation with bygone imagery encompassed astronomical charts and geographical maps, Italian and Spanish Old Master paintings, historical ballet, early film, literature, poetry, and ornithology. Most iconic among his works are his box constructions—microcosmic curiosity cabinets—filled with once-precious fragments that he collected in thrift shops in his native New York.
As a member of several movements, such as Dada, Constructivism and Surrealism, and a quite versatile artist who produced poetry, sound, paintings, sculptures, graphic design, and typography works as well as installations, Kurt Schwitters was a prominent member of the art scene in Germany and Europe. But perhaps his most famous works were his Merz Pictures, deriving from the German word “Kommerz”, which included both collages and assemblage art pieces made of all conceivable materials, such as perambulator wheel, wire-netting, string, and cotton wool. Many of his works were also based on appropriated imagery and text but without an apparent context or activism tendencies.
Featured images: Kurt Schwitters, image via indexgrafik.fr; Kurt Schwitters - Broad Schmurchel (Breite Schmurchel), 1924. Image via arthistory.com.
Standing against anything that is expressed abstractly, Robert Rauschenberg was a prolific innovator of mediums and techniques who used unconventional materials like trash and objects picked up from the streets of New York City, in order to turn them into art. His greatest contribution to Assemblage art are the Combines, a series of works created between 1954 and 1962 that blur the line between art and life. Possibly the most famous artwork from this portfolio is Monogram, which is made of clothing, a tyre, other urban debris, paint and even stuffed animals - in this case an angora goat. His other works incorporate doors, bed quilts and electric light fixtures, among other things, often changing their order or appearance within the artwork itself.
Featured images: Robert Rauschenberg, image via tate.org; Robert Rauschenberg - Monogram, 1955-59, image via rauschenbergfoundation.org.
Among the greatest assemblage artists we have Louise Nevelson, whose monumental wooden works are among the most famous works ever produced with this technique. Monochromatic and usually black, these room-sized pieces are formed from discarded pieces of wood the artist would receive or find. As such, they help create extraordinary reliefs, providing an insight into her own personal and physical history. In her works, we often see the influence of the Mayan ruins and the stelae of Guatemala, resulting from her trip to the country in the 1940s. During the 1950s, she also created large-scale wooden sculptures in white and gold, accompanied by smaller pieces in wooden boxes, spanning the movements like Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism and Cubism.
Featured images: Louise Nevelson, image via pbs.org; Louise Nevelson - Tropical Garden II, 1957, image via tumblr.
Jean Tinguely was a Swiss painter and sculptor. His works mostly belong to the Dada movement, although he is also considered one of the founders of Kinetic art, as well as Nouveau réalisme. The artist often satirizes industrial society’s overproduction of materials by using those very materials, such as machinery and metal, usually very large in scale too, conveniently. His assemblage art often included music recordings and performances, for which many of his giant sculptures were designed to self-destruct. One of his most notable works is the art installation entitled Hon-en-Katedrall at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, created together with his wife, fellow artist Niki de Saint Phalle in 1966.
Featured images: Jean Tinguely, image via metamekanix; Jean Tinguely - The Final Collaboration with Yves Klein, 1988, image via kunsthal.nl.
His urinal and bicycle wheel were radical, to the point where they changed the way we understand art-making, art display, and art in general. Of course, we are talking about Marcel Duchamp, the arrogant inventor and one of the greatest assemblage artists in the art history, an integral part of the past century’s art and beyond, the father of readymades as the new, indisputable artworks. The very first such work was the infamous Bicycle Wheel - an actual bicycle wheel put on a stool upside down and proclaimed art just because he said so. Unfortunately, since it was never submitted for any art exhibition, the piece was eventually lost. But Marcel Duchamp’s motto, Craftsmanship over aesthetics, was widely accepted as the basis for many movements to follow, including Fluxus, Arte Povera, Neo-Dada.
Featured images: Marcel Duchamp, image via jakeorr.co.uk; Marcel Duchamp - Bicycle Wheel, 1913, image via imageobjecttext.com.
Born Armand Pierre Fernandez, Arman was famous for his artworks made of accumulation and scatter, among which we have the “poubelles”, or “trash bins”. Like Jean Tinguely, he was a fan of destruction, but for him it also meant the creation of something new. And so, the artist often burned, sliced and smashed his own assemblage art and objects, bronze statues and musical instruments, only to mount them on a canvas later, most notably in his Coupes and Colères works. The “Poubelles”, however, were collections of common and identical objects arranged within polyester castings or Plexiglas cases. Arman had a very good relationship with Andy Warhol, for instance, having appeared in his Dinner at Daley’s documentary, while the Pop icon owned two of his “Poubelles”, that were sold in an auction in 1988.
Featured images: Arman, image via gettyimages.de; Arman - Poubelle van Jim Dine, 1961, image via rudedo.be.
Art critic Brian Sewell described Edward Kienholz as ”the least known, most neglected and forgotten American artist of Jack Kerouac's Beat Generation of the 1950s”, and called his art grim, gritty, sordid and depressing.” What it really was is a critique on modern society, including issues of race and sexuality. His early paintings were rough-hewn wooden reliefs that he painted with a broom, and later his art evolved into proper assemblages made of, you’ll guess, objects found on the streets, but this time of Los Angeles, where he lived and worked. Among the most controversial works is the 1934 Back Seat Dodge ‘38, which caused an entire exhibition to close because it depicted two youths copulating on the back seat of a car.
Featured images: Edward Kienholz, image via Rolling Stone; Edward Kienholz - Back Seat Dodge '38, 1934, image via flickr.
Arguably the most prominent out of all assemblage artists, Joseph Cornell left an incredible legacy for the future masters of the technique. He is probably best known for his “shadow boxes”, artworks made from found materials like photographs, seashells, toys, marbles and other Victorian bric-a-brac he would get from souvenir shops or trash heaps, all of which is usually fronted with a glass pane. An avid fan of poetry, ballet and Roman literature of the 19th century, Joseph Cornell often incorporated traces of them in his work, fused with the fascination for the discarded and the abandoned. He was also influenced by Surrealism and the concept of irrational juxtaposition, both in meaning and physical order of elements within his artworks.
Featured images: Joseph Cornell, image via news.virginia.edu; Joseph Cornell - A Parrot for Juan Gris, 1953-54, image via artblart.com.
Mixing folk art aesthetic with symbolic, surreal imagery, Betye Saar fight prejudice, racism and stereotypes through her distinct collages and assemblages that reference the African tribal mysticism, history, memory and nostalgia. She was a prominent member of the Black Arts Movement in the 1970s, through her exploration of the imagery of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom and Little Black Sambo, among others. Her early works were typically made of found objects arranged within boxes and windows, addressing her mixed ancestry and making a general statement at the same time. Her later works include large-scale and site-specific installations which also include altar-line shrines the mix technology and spirituality, as well as mysticism and Voodoo.
Featured images: Betye Saar, image via latimes.com; Betye Saar - The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972, image via laweekly.com.
As a contemporary representative of assemblage artists, Isa Genzken draws inspiration from everyday life, design, consumer goods, the media, architecture, urban environment, as well as the legacies of movements like Constructivism and Minimalism. Although she is working primarily in installation and sculpture, Isa Genzken is also known for her assemblages, for which she also uses a variety of materials and other media, including photography and collage. These works are often quite disquieting, as they include pieces of mannequins, dolls and an array of eerie found objects. Exploring the tension between transience and permanence, the German artist addresses the issues and events of the modern-day society and its members.
Featured images: Isa Genzken, image via hoolawhoop.blogspot.com; Isa Genzken - Schauspieler 2014, image via danjumacollection.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.