A Defense of Collage... and other rambings

"Sonnet for Emily" 2003

"He draws his scraps and fragments
one by one;
And scanned them with a fixed
and serious look
Of idle contemplation..."

-William Wordsworth

"Beauty is always dying, he sighs..."

-Charles Simic

"She dwells with beauty--
Beauty that must die;
And joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding Adieu..."

-John Keats

"Elam, Nineveh, Babylon were but beautiful vague names, and the total ruin of those worlds had as little significance for us as their existence. But France, England, Russia...these too would be beautiful names...And we see now that the abyss of history is deep enough to hold us all. We are aware that a civilization has the same fragility as life. The circumstances that could send the works of Keats and Baudelaire to join those of Menander are no longer inconceivable--they are in the newspapers."

-Paul Valery, "La Crisis de l'espirit"

"What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images...

"He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying...

"These fragments I have shored against my ruins..."

T.S. Eliot, "The Wasteland"

"To see a world in a grain of sand
and a heaven in a wild flower
to hold infinity in the palm of your hand
and eternity in an hour..."

-William Blake

"I loved maudlin pictures, the painted panes over doors, stage sets, the backdrops of mountebanks, old inn signs, popular prints, antiquated literature, church Latin, erotic books innocent of all spelling, the novels of our grandfathers, fairytales, children's storybooks, old operas, inane refrains, and artless rhythms."


"Only trust the fragments."

-Donald Barthleme

"For good or ill... these fragments piled up here by time are all that I am."

-Jorge Luis Borges

Anytime I am cornered and obliged to offer up something by way of an artist's statement, I immediately put forward one of these favorite quotes. After all, it must be admitted that I have been just as much influenced by books and reading (and especially by poetry), as I have by art. As anyone who knows me will attest, I am an incurable bibliophile. The walls of my modest home are lined with book shelves. To the eternal chagrin of my wife, piles of books tower and teeter in nearly every room, frequently spilling out onto the floor. Undoubtedly it has been this obsession with books that has been the biggest influence in my attraction to collage. I accept that collage is an art of fragments... an art that seeks to see the world in trivialities...or in "a grain of sand". Frequently, these fragments are drawn from books... both literally, as the very material from which I construct my art, and as a source of inspiration.
Like Jorge Luis Borges, I might also say, "Few things have happened to me, and I have read a great many."

Recently a question was put forth to me, challenging the continued relevancy of collage. "Was not collage," it was asked, "with its collected bits and pieces of bric-a-brac, an inherently sentimental medium?" Originally educated/trained as a painter, I often had similar doubts about the relevancy of such a dated, slow medium as painting, in this age of computers, film and PhotoShop. Still, I don't believe that either painting or collage can be quite so easily pigeon-holed as to being no more than media of the past.

The very nature of collage/assemblage constructed...as it were... from fragments of diverse imagery and materials, is open to a plethora of interpretations: It might stand as a metaphor for the speed of our modern world and the impossibility of a single linear narrative. It might stand for the fragmentation and collapse of our society... our culture... of art itself. There is something of a spiritual quality to collage in the manner in which it is an art that sifts through the debris and strives to make something from nothing... to give form to the wreckage and refuse of life. At the same time, it is an art that accepts the inevitability of fragmentation... of mortality... or of rebirth... physical or spiritual (through recycling?). Still further, collage may play with anachronism: the absurd combination of the new and the old. It might represent the urge to preserve the past as a diary or reliquary of memory. It might reveal through its very form the cacophony of our world. It might even speak of other art forms: of toys, books, furniture, the theater, architecture, and more. All of this I am aware of and intrigued by.

At the same time, it must be admitted that there is a cultural history with assemblage and collage. Collage and assemblage seem to have been perfectly tailored to the United States. America, after all, is a country of melded and recycled cultures, constructed of fragments of older beliefs, systems, and values. What could be a better metaphor of this than an art equally composed of merged fragments? Beyond this , there's an argument to be made for creating art from one's native resources. Thus, the Italians frequently use the marble quarried in Carrara , while the Germans prefer wood cut from the Black Forest. The United States is a country overflowing with refuse... the remains of our consumer culture... the idyllic(?) resource for the American artist. Can we imagine the art of Robert Rauschenberg as having been born from any other culture than that of urban America? It also must be admitted that the methods of the collage/assemblage artist have much more to do with American culture (the work of artisans and craftsmen: woodworkers, carpenters, builders, limners, engineers, and architects) than the virtuoso fine art of oil or fresco painting or sculpted marble. I think here of the still-life paintings of William Harnett and John Peto who fetishized the mundane in a manner that stands as the spiritual precursors to Joseph Cornell, H.C. Westerman and Robert Rauschenberg.

Undoubtedly, it must be admitted that certain approaches to collage... those which consciously utilize the aged, weathered materials and precious objects, flirt with sentimentality... yet is not collage by its very nature... in the manner in which fragments of refuse... of abandoned, discarded, and cast off images, materials and objects are miraculously transformed into new works of great beauty and poetic resonance, a "romantic" endeavor? Yes, there's a danger of "sentimentality" in collage, but there's always a "danger" in art. For the big painter, there's a danger of pretentiousness. For the artists utilizing the latest technologies and images, there's the danger that merely a few short years later such works will be no more than embarrassing "period pieces."

Personally, I find that collage and assemblage allow me to explore a vast range of interests. Yes, I have to admit that there is something of an attempt to capture memory... the past... history in my work. There is also something of a meditation upon the transitory nature of life... of mortality. But there is a lot more, as well. I must declare that my own work in the genre draws inspiration from numerous other sources. The structure of my assemblage works often owe quite a bit to architecture and furniture. I have long studied buildings (especially the ecclesiastical) from various eras: Gothic , Romanesque , Renaissance and Victorian. My works also owe something to medieval reliquaries and icons. I also draw inspiration from the structures and the mood or atmosphere of music... I am always imagining Bach's "geometry" given concrete form. In theme and concept my assemblage and collage owes as much (if not more) to books and literature as it does to anything else. Like the surrealist poets ,T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Marinetti, I often draw together fragments of language and text. In fact I am profoundly fascinated by the possibilities of an art form which combines the visual arts with text or paint. If there is a predecessor to collage in my mind, it is clearly the Gothic cathedral in which so many arts were wed in the service of a single (spiritual) goal.

Just recently I was at a conference given to public art school teachers which dealt with the issue of collage. I was surprised that a good number of art teachers started to ask questions about the legality and even the ethics of using someone else's images. Hadn't they ever seen Kurt Schwitter's or Joseph Cornell's work, I wondered. Collage, it seems to me, is not a medium trapped in the past, but rather it is at the edge of current technologies (Photoshop editing, music "sampling") as well as current legal/ethical controversies (for better or worse) involving "intellectual property".

There's a truly intriguing , beautifully written (and very slim) book by the contemporary poet, Charles Simic, entitled, "Dimestore Alchemy." The book is a elegant series of meditations upon the work of Joseph Cornell, whom Simic sites as inspiring his own approach to poetry. In one meditation, Simic suggests that the use of collage/assemblage/ montage... fragments of pre-existing imagery... might just be THE most important innovation of modern art. Hermann Hesse's "Glass Bead Game" prophesied a future in which new art, as once created, would cease to exist. Instead, what we would have was a "game" of reassembling fragments from the past. Of course, this "game," I would argue, has led to some of the most beautiful "original" art of the last century.


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