Directly affected by the depressed state of Germany following World War I, and the modernist ethos of the Dada movement, Kurt Schwitters began to collect garbage from the streets and incorporate it directly into his art work. The resulting collages were characterized by their especially harmonious, sentimental arrangements and their incorporation of printed media. He actively produced artistic journals, illustrated works, and advertisements, as well as founding his own Merz journal. He wrote poems and musical works that played with letters, lacing them together in unusual combinations, as he’d done in the collages, in the hope of encouraging his audience to find their own meanings. His multiple avant-garde efforts culminated in his large merzbau creations. These works, collaborations with other avant-garde artists, would start with one object to which others were added, causing the whole piece to change and evolve over time, growing to great proportions that forced the viewer to actually experience, rather than simply view, the art.
German Painter, Collagist, and Writer
Schwitters gained the attention of other artists in postwar Berlin with his first one-person exhibition at Der Sturm Gallery. He created a non-sensical Dada-influenced poem, “An Anna Blume,” for the event and displayed his first collage works. Through the use of items that others would consider garbage, Schwitters illustrated his idea that art could emerge from destruction.
In 1923, Kurt Schwitters began the construction of the Merzbau, one of the most ambitious of his Merz projects. He ultimately transformed six rooms of his family’s house in Hanover. The process was a gradual one and involved contributions of art and objects from Schwitters‘ ever-expanding network of friends. He completed the first room in 1933 and expanded from there into other parts of the house until fleeing to Norway in 1937. A bombing raid destroyed the building in 1943.
Schwitters spent the last one-and-half years of the war working as a drafter in a factory just outside Hanover. He was conscripted into the 73rd Hanoverian Regiment in March 1917, but exempted on medical grounds in June of the same year. By his own account, his time as a draftsman influenced his later work, and inspired him to depict machines as metaphors of human activity.
Thanks to Schwitters‘ lifelong patron and friend Katherine Dreier, his work was exhibited regularly in the US from 1920 onwards. In the late 1920s he became a well-known typographer; his best-known work was the catalogue for the Dammerstocksiedlung in Karlsruhe. After the demise of Der Sturm Gallery in 1924 he ran an advertising agency called Merzwerbe, which held the accounts for Pelikan inks and Bahlsen biscuits, amongst others, and became the official typographer for Hanover town council between 1929 and 1934.  Many of these designs, as well as test prints and proof sheets, were to crop up in contemporary Merz pictures.  In a manner similar to the typographic experimentation by Herbert Bayer at the Bauhaus, and Jan Tschichold’s Die neue Typographie, Schwitters experimented with the creation of a new more phonetic alphabet in 1927. Some of his types were cast and used in his work.  In the late 1920s Schwitters joined the Deutscher Werkbund (German Work Federation).
A catalogue produced in conjunction with the exhibition is available for purchase at the Ubu Gallery shop.
April 1 — May 23, 2003
The collages of Kurt Schwitters—layered arrays of newsprint, packaging labels, advertisement fragments, train schedules, ticket stubs, envelopes, receipts, and even candy wrappers, all tacked down and anchored by expressionist paint—are surprisingly prescient for the postwar period, even proleptic. Although produced between 1918 and 1947, they nonetheless register a communications environment familiar to the second half of the twentieth century; their readymade accumulations of word and image suggest a relentless media barrage and advertising assault, a constant flow of data and information. Schwitters called these collage works “Merz”—a neologism he coined from the second syllable of the German word Kommerz, or commerce—to explain their reflection of and intervention into the logic of capitalist exchange. As the story goes, the artist first cut the nonsense word out of an advertisement for the “KOMMERZ- UND PRIVATBANK” and glued it upon a now lost collage. For Schwitters, this Merz label became an ironic “brand name” for a practice that aimed to collapse consumer and media culture into a total work of art.
Together, both exhibition and catalogue present Schwitters as media artist, recovering his critical interrogation of mass communications in the prewar period; but they do so in part to indicate his lasting influence upon a postwar generation of U.S. artists. Viewed through the lens of his posthumous reception, Schwitters comes into focus as an unlikely progenitor for the assemblage practice of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, among others. In fact, the exhibition presents this argument in no uncertain terms: Schwitters “strongly influenced a generation of post-World War II artists,” explains the show’s opening wall text. Johns actually loaned two Schwitters collages from his personal collection to the exhibition—a detail the catalogue’s introduction highlights (8–9). The catalogue even dedicates the show to none other than Walter Hopps, an early champion of Pop art, for the curator’s “engagement of Schwitters in America” (9). Hopps presented a pioneering retrospective of Schwitters’s work at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1962. All of this temporal and locational repositioning begs the salient question: Where do we locate Schwitters in art-historical time and space? Schwitters died in 1948, never visited the United States, and gained fame as the singular spokesperson behind Hanover Dada—so can we actually find his afterlife in the “neo-Dada” of postwar U.S. art? Succinctly put: Is Schwitters best understood as preface to and even part of the neo-avant-garde?