Abstraction and Collage: "The Precarious" at The Menil
Jan 19, 2016
Collage is a form of artistic expression that has been around for hundreds of years. The concept is one of assemblage. An artist curates an assortment of pre-existing images and assembles them into a new amalgamation on a surface, perhaps adding new marks and original imagery to the mix as well.
The practice was elevated into a serious art form by two of the 20th Century's biggest names in art: Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, who explored the form deeply, creating cubist collages that have inspired generations of artists since.
Out of Many, One
To use fragments of existing images in order to construct a new image is an undeniable way of adding depth to a work of art. The artist's hand is obvious in a collage, yet so are the hands of others. When collage is used to create an abstract work, additional interpretive worlds open up. Items that were once representational, and perhaps purely functional, are appropriated, edited, and used not to enhance meaning but to challenge it, or even obfuscate it.
In Houston, the Menil Collection is currently featuring an extraordinary exhibition of collage works by some of the most important names in modern art. The exhibition, titled "The Precarious," features collage works by Ellsworth Kelly, Claes Oldenburg, Elizabeth McFadden, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Tuttle, Cy Twombly and Danh Vo, among several others.
Meaning, Space and Time
A large number of the works on display in "The Precarious" express abstract imagery, taking familiar materials and everyday visual relics and repurposing them into works exploring shape, color, geometry and space in subtle and suggestive ways. In context with this particular exhibit, precarious may refer to the inherent delicacy of collage works. Often created with fragile paper and glue, there is some question as to how well these works can resist the ravages of time. But the word takes on additional meaning as it relates to abstraction. Precarious implies something unknown, or at least uncertain, or perhaps even frightening.
Gene Charlton's Untitled, from 1959, is an assemblage of cool colored torn paper that creates a geometric criss-cross of blue, black, grey and white. The black elements in the work appear to be taken from printed text, partial bits of bold face capital letters. In the lower corner is a lone yellow triangle. The hint of type invites viewers to interpret some message perhaps hidden in the alleged text. The yellow triangle suggests feelings of solitude, or perhaps alienation. The torn edges reassembled into a new whole pose unclear questions about a landscape ripped apart and put back together again.
The artist Richard Tuttle is known for creating minimalist assemblages that perpetually challenge viewers to reduce their perspective, asking us to focus more closely on less, perhaps in hopes of receiving more. In "The Precarious," Tuttle's II, 3, from 1977, is on display. The work is an assemblage of two watercolored scraps of paper glued atop a sheet of drawing paper. The scraps, painted red, white and green, create a form that resembles an elongated Arabic number 2. Something mathematical takes place when considering the title, II, 3, and the apparent image of a three-colored number 2. Something else takes place when contemplating the geometry of a curved line meeting a straight line, or a red crescent confronting a green horizon. This piece flirts with the unmapped space between abstraction, representation and conceptualism, the delicacy of its materials adding to its evanescence.
Ask Good Questions
The ideas brought to mind by the work in "The Precarious" conjure feelings of transience, multiplicity, and the sense that many forces came together in the creation of these works of art. The abstract works in particular ask exciting questions. Do individual elements of a larger image carry their own meaning? Can meaning be separated from materials, colors, shapes and forms? The process of collage is to take apart something whole, keep what works, discard what doesn't then add what's uniquely your own. Is that also a description of how to relate to an abstract work of art?
Whether to delve into the depths of the questions asked by this show or simply to enjoy this rare glimpse of modern masterpieces of collage, a visit to "The Precarious" at Houston's Menil Collection is well worth the trip. The show runs through May 1, 2016.
Featured image: Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. Photo: George Hixson