Assemblage is an artistic form or medium usually created on a defined substrate that consists of three-dimensional elements projecting out of or from the substrate. It is similar to collage, a two-dimensional medium. It is part of the visual arts, and it typically uses found objects, but is not limited to these materials.
The assemblage is obtained by incorporating into a work of art not specifically artistic three-dimensional materials and “found objects”, ie everyday objects that, elevated to the state of the art, allow artists to challenge the traditional idea of art itself. Initially it takes inspiration from the collage.
“Space, in the assemblage, does not exert any ‘syntax’, does not impose any principle of order”: “no point of view” is “privileged”, since “every trait” wants to “be equally impressive”. Furthermore there are no rules for its realization: “the cluster of heterogeneous materials can proliferate at will”.
Assemblage is one of the most used expressive techniques in the 20th century and presents numerous affinities with the mechanisms of the collection, which it uses to achieve formal and semantic coherence. In fact, the faculty to unite freely and in the same place the materials of nature, from different eras and countries, has long been the exclusive prerogative of collectors; the collection itself can be considered as “the greatest possible assemblage”.
The awareness that objects, once assembled, can acquire great strength, derives from the idea of collection and assemblage. In the collection the object is given new roots, a new semantic depth in contact with everything that surrounds it.
The origin of the art form dates to the cubist constructions of Pablo Picasso c. 1912–1914. The origin of the word (in its artistic sense) can be traced back to the early 1950s, when Jean Dubuffet created a series of collages of butterfly wings, which he titled assemblages d’empreintes. However, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso and others had been working with found objects for many years prior to Dubuffet. Russian artist Vladimir Tatlin created his “counter-reliefs” in the mid 1910s. Alongside Tatlin, the earliest woman artist to try her hand at assemblage was Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the Dada Baroness. In Paris in the 1920s Alexander Calder, Jose De Creeft, Picasso and others began making fully 3-dimensional works from metal scraps, found metal objects and wire. In the U.S., one of the earliest and most prolific assemblage artists was Louise Nevelson, who began creating her sculptures from found pieces of wood in the late 1930s.
The painter Armando Reverón is one of the first to use this technique when using disposable materials such as bamboo, wires, or kraft paper. In the thirties he made a skeleton with wings of mucilage, adopting this style years before other artists. Later, Reverón made instruments and set pieces such as a telephone, a sofa, a sewing machine, a piano and even music books with their scores.
Later the assemblage was used by Duchamp, with the ready-made, and by Dadaists and Surrealists, who based their works on unusual combinations of objects and images.
Kurt Schwitters collects fragments and debris from the new urban landscape: train and tram tickets, cranks, wheels, bolts. In the Merz painting, which the artist opposes to Dadaism, the waste saved from destruction is subjected to a transformation process that integrates the objects inside the work through collage or assemblage or sculpture. The extreme sensitivity to materials is the basis of Schwitters’ aesthetic experience, which influenced the Bauhaus.
The pages of the surrealist magazine Minotaure often reproduce paintings and drawings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to the point of inducing some critics to find a parallel in mannerism to the use of assemblage in surrealist creations. Theorizing, for example, by Francisco de Hollanda, who in 1548 assessed the inclusion of chimeric beings in works of art as positive, supports this hypothesis for the critics who support it. The construction of a set of parts that are very different from each other, the raison d’être of the assemblage, disorients and creates a short circuit effect of the senses, which constitutes the irreplaceable part of the novelty and of thesurrealist objects.
In the fifties the technique becomes particularly popular, and involves the use of the most disparate materials, including food. The assemblage is a common thread between the avant-gardes of the early twentieth century and the figurative art of the sixties.
The representatives of the conceptual art of the sixties and seventies take up the metaphor of the museum, rearranging the windows, the shelves, the classification tools. Mechanisms of reflection on art as a tool come into play; the need to hoard and preserve exceeds the need to show. The objects and their physical form, their material and their color are reduced to mere containers.
Since the 1950s, artists have also increasingly used the environment as an alternative way of using the assemblage. The works are characterized by an accumulation unplanned, by dilation of matter beyond the usual limits, in analogy with the installation of Duchamp, the surrealist experience, with the artists’ studios – places of chaos and chance. The case is invoked systematically as an inspirational element and a working technique. Examples are the works of Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Alexander Calder, some Japanese artists of the mid-fifties and Happening Americans of the sixties.
In 1961, the exhibition “The Art of Assemblage” was featured at the New York Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition showcased the work of early 20th-century European artists such as Braque, Dubuffet, Marcel Duchamp, Picasso, and Kurt Schwitters alongside Americans Man Ray, Joseph Cornell, Robert Mallary and Robert Rauschenberg, and also included less well known American West Coast assemblage artists such as George Herms, Bruce Conner and Edward Kienholz. William C Seitz, the curator of the exhibition, described assemblages as being made up of preformed natural or manufactured materials, objects, or fragments not intended as art materials.
The sum of these experiences, germinated from the concept of accumulation and assemblage, lead some artists to search for a new concept of space and a more refined approach. The first signs are manifested in Italy, in particular in the work of Alberto Burri, to whom Arte povera owes, albeit to a lesser extent than that of Piero Manzoni and the use of the latter of the modern object, fruit of the revisiting of the Dadaist, Surrealist and Neorealist examples. The new assemblages are set in the spaces of art galleries.
Since the mid-sixties, several Italian artists have been practicing installation and transforming the object, gradually abandoning the essence of ready-made or objet trouvé. The assemblage is stripped of every constructive characteristic: the empty space remains the fundamental reference, but the work in it highlights first of all the material, the gesture, the idea. These are isolated examples, since outside of Italy the expression is often still tied to the Dadaist spirit, as in the case of Joseph Beuys, and to the concept of the collection, to the idea of accumulation.
In Italy there are also artists who collect the legacy of De Chirico and Savinio, that is the way of assembling objects in painting through an intellectual suggestion, creating new links between objects. The latter are thus connected to each other from the symbolic point of view: an example is Claudio Parmiggiani, in whose works one feels the same tendency to change present in the Dadaist and Surrealist tradition.
Artists primarily known for assemblage
Arman (1928–2007), French artist, sculptor and painter.
Hans Bellmer (1902–1975), a German artist known for his life-sized female dolls, produced in the 1930s.
Wallace Berman (1926–1976), an American artist known for his verifax collages.
André Breton (1896–1966), a French artist, regarded as a principal founder of Surrealism.
John Chamberlain (1927–2011), a Chicago artist known for his sculptures of welded pieces of wrecked automobiles.
Greg Colson (born 1956), an American artist known for his wall sculptures of stick maps, constructed paintings, solar systems, directionals, and intersections.
Joseph Cornell (1903–1972), Cornell, who lived in New York City, is known for his delicate boxes, usually glass-fronted, in which he arranged surprising collections of objects, images of renaissance paintings and old photographs. Many of his boxes, such as the famous Medici Slot Machine boxes, are interactive and are meant to be handled.
Rosalie Gascoigne (1917–1999), a New Zealand-born Australian sculptor.
Raoul Hausmann (1886–1971), an Austrian artist and writer and a key figure in Berlin Dada, his most famous work is the assemblage Der Geist Unserer Zeit – Mechanischer Kopf (Mechanical Head [The Spirit of Our Age]), c. 1920.
Romuald Hazoumé (born 1962), a contemporary artist from the Republic of Bénin, who exhibits widely in Europe and the U.K.
George Herms (born 1935), an American artist known for his assemblages, works on papers, and theater pieces.
Louis Hirshman (1905–1986), a Philadelphia artist known for his use of 3D materials on flat substrates for caricatures of the famous, as well as for collages and assemblages of everyday life, archetypes and surreal scenes.
Robert H. Hudson (born 1938), an American artist.
Jasper Johns (born 1930), an American Pop artist, painter, printmaker and sculptor.
Edward Kienholz (1927–1994), an American artist who collaborated with his wife, Nancy Reddin Kienholz, creating free-standing, large-scale “tableaux” or scenes of modern life such as the Beanery, complete with models of persons, made of discarded objects.
Lubo Kristek (born 1943), a Czech artist known for his critical assemblages of bones, traps, material cast out by the sea, waste and mobile phones (destructed in a happening).
Jean-Jacques Lebel (born 1936), in 1994 installed a large assemblage entitled Monument à Félix Guattari in the Forum of the Centre Pompidou.
Janice Lowry (1946–2009), American artist known for biographical art in the form of assemblage, artist books, and journals, which combined found objects and materials with writings and sketches.
Ondrej Mares (1949–2008), a Czech-Australian artist and sculptor best known for his ‘Kachina’ figures – a series of works.
Markus Meurer (born 1959), a German artist, known for his sculptures from found objects
Louise Nevelson (1899–1988), an American artist, known for her abstract expressionist “boxes” grouped together to form a new creation. She used found objects or everyday discarded things in her “assemblages” or assemblies, one of which was three stories high.
Minoru Ohira (born 1950), a Japanese-born artist.
Meret Oppenheim (1913–1985), a German-born Swiss artist, identified with the Surrealist movement.
Wolfgang Paalen (1905–1959), an Austrian-German-Mexican surrealist artist and theorist, founder of the magazine DYN and known for several assembled objects, f.e. Nuage articulé
Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), painter and collagist known for his mixed media works during six decades.
Fred H. Roster (born 1944), an American sculptor.
Betye Saar (born 1926), American visual artist primarily known for her assemblages with family memorabilia, stereotyped African American figures from folk culture and advertising, mystical amulets and charms, and ritual and tribal objects.
Alexis Smith (born 1949) is an American artist best known for assemblages and installations.
Daniel Spoerri (born 1930), a Swiss artist, known for his “snare pictures” in which he captures a group of objects, such as the remains of meals eaten by individuals, including the plates, silverware and glasses, all of which are fixed to the table or board, which is then displayed on a wall.
Vladimir Tatlin (1885–1953), a Russian artist known for his counter-reliefs—structures made of wood and iron for hanging in wall corners in the 1910s.
Wolf Vostell (1932–1998), known for his use of concrete in his work. In his environments video installations and paintings he used television sets and concrete as well as telephones real cars and pieces of cars.
Gordon Wagner (1915–1987), was a pioneer in American assemblage art, who was known for his bazaar art, painting, poetry and writing.
Jeff Wassmann (born 1958), an American-born contemporary artist who works in Australia under the nom de plume of the pioneering German modernist Johann Dieter Wassmann (1841–1898).
Tom Wesselmann (1931–2004), an American Pop artist, painter, sculptor and printmaker.
H. C. Westermann (1922–1981), an American sculptor and printmaker.