Comparing Schwitter's Merzpicture to Rauschenberg's Dirt Painting Term Paper

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Schwitters & Rauschenberg

Schwitters's Merzpicture & Rauschenberg's Dirt Painting: A Comparative Analysis

Both Kurt Schwitters and Robert Rauschenberg are notable in the history of art for being artists who worked "against the grain" of the art establishment. It is highly unlikely, however, that Rauschenberg's work would have ever evolved in the direction it did without the influence of Schwitters. As an artist loosely associated with the Dada movement, Schwitters was among the first to use non-art materials, such as garbage and refuse, in the creation of works of art. Rauschenberg would follow suit with many of his early paintings in the 1950s, decades after Schwitters's famous Merz paintings. The use of non-art materials by both artists was a means of subtly critiquing the art establishment of the early (in Schwitters's case) and mid (in Rauschenberg's case) 20th century. In addition to their unconventional choice of materials, both Schwitters and Rauschenberg relied heavily on chance in determining the final composition of their pictures - albeit not in the same way. This is not to say that these artists were making "anti-art." Rather, by using such materials that had traditionally been discarded by artists in the search for some sacred, universal truth of art, they managed to create forms of art that were radically different from anything that had come before.

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Early on in his career, Schwitters experienced tremendous difficulty developing his own style. For a while, he fell under the influence of Jean Arp, and began making collages that were largely derivative of Arp's style. It was only with the creation of his initial Merzbild, an assemblage made out of refuge scraps, that Schwitters began to come into his own as an artist. After the first Merzbild came into being, Schwitters began referring to all of his work as "Merz."

The Merz paintings are considered to be landmarks in the history of collage. In a catalogue for one of Schwitters's early London exhibitions, Herbert Read would posit the work of Schwitters as a visual corollary to the writings of James Joyce.

Term Paper on Comparing Schwitter's Merzpicture to Rauschenberg's Dirt Painting Assignment

But whereas Joyce utilized collage in a purely literary vein, Schwitters's form of collage embraced the utilization of a diverse array of materials in paintings that were richly textured and dense with possible strains of interpretation. Merz Picture 25A: The Star Picture, a painting from 1920, is indicative of Schwitters at his best. Newspaper, wood, rope, oil paint, scraps of paper and other light debris are deployed in a series of sharp lines and geometric patterns that seem to harmonize with the efforts of Constructivist artists of this era. With its dark blue and green hues and weathered texture, the picture simultaneously seems to defy its own logic as a static object, hinting at the turbulence of time in its very rootedness in a historical present, as the bits of German text from a contemporaneous newspaper in the upper left hand corner of the painting hint at. Considering this painting in relationship to history - particularly, the art that would emerge after it - makes the work appear all the more poignant, as an emblem of an early sign of decay in civilization - a decay that would culminate in the barbarities of the Second World War.

Robert Rauschenberg was similar in his working process to Schwitters - but largely out of necessity. His early days as an artist in New York were riddled with poverty, which forced him to make do with whatever he could find. At the same time, Rauschenberg was able to make use of the resourcefulness one finds in poverty in order to hunt out materials for his work; thus, he was always inspired. As Rauschenberg stated about these early years in an interview in 1965, "Some people need more trouble to operate and some people need less. And I felt very rich in being able to pick up Con Edison lumber from the streets and whatever the day would lay out for me to use in my work."

One of the pivotal works of Rauschenberg's early period was his Dirt Painting from the 1950s.

As the curator of Rauschenberg's first show in New York in 1951 recalled, "Bob decided he was going to make work out of very basic materials. He made some paper pieces and some out of dirt. He also did ones of gold leaf and said that everybody would want one. It was interesting that [John] Cage chose [to buy] a dirt painting [instead]."

As Larson would go on to note in her article on Cage's early interactions with the budding artist, the dirt painting (which is dedicated to Cage) could actually be seen as a witty commentary on Abstract Expressionism, which at the time was still the most popular art movement in New York City. While the painting is certainly reminiscent of the works of Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, it actually links Rauschenberg to the experimentation of an earlier milieu - namely, the European Dadaists, a movement that Schwitters was also affiliated with. As such, it points to the artist's unique historical position - as a post-Abstract Expressionism struggling to find a personal means of expression. Furthermore, Rauschenberg's choice of material - dirt and mud - certainly put him in line with Schwitters's refusal to utilize traditional materials, although Rauschenberg takes this one step further than Schwitters by fully absenting these materials from the work (whereas the Schwitters Merz painting analyzed in this paper, for instance, also included oil paint.)

Dirt Painting is a far cry from Schwitters's considered compositionality in Merz Picture 25A: The Star Picture. Whereas the latter is comprised of sharp, jutting angles and shapes that provide some coherent structure to the overall image, nothing of the sort can be discerned in the painting by Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg has foregone the considered approach of his predecessor in allowing chaos to reign free on the canvas, ultimately giving rise to a "captured" panel of earthiness that suggests a new, highly minute form of realism. Schwitters's work, no matter what context it is seen in, will naturally be viewed as a work of art. If one were to put Rauschenberg's painting in the middle of a crowded street, however, people would likely walk over it, thinking that they are merely stepping on a dirty patch of pavement, rather than a completed work of art.

The Merz image under consideration here differs from Rauschenberg's dirt painting in that the former seems to rely less on chance. While the origin of the image may indeed be rooted in the anarchy of the materials coming together on the canvas, the Merz painting is inevitably a very "constructed" image, in that all the constituent elements seem to be placed on the canvas with a final composition in mind.

In the dirt painting of Rauschenberg, on the other hand, the artist seems to have relinquished much of his control over the materials, allowing the dirt and mud to coalesce into a final formation outside of any compositional destination. As one critic has noted,

Rauschenberg was attempting to explore the complexity of the material world - the colours and surfaces are very varied and intricate - without relying on a rhetoric of self-expression. That is, these colours and materials should not have to rely on some account of the artist's biography or emotional state in order to be interesting - they could carry their own interest as themselves, not as signs of something else.

This perhaps can be seen as one answer to the riddle we posited above - that is, Rauschenberg's means of escaping the trappings of Abstract Expressionism. Rather than making a heroic gesture as a means of self-expression, which the Abstract Expressionists typically built their aesthetic upon, Rauschenberg was attempting to go beyond all expression by letting chance take over.

Thus, Robert… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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"Comparing Schwitter's Merzpicture to Rauschenberg's Dirt Painting."  March 30, 2008.  Accessed October 28, 2020.