The New York Times

ART; The Deceptively Simple Collage


Published: September 19, 1999

COLLAGE might the most important development in art of the 20th century. But since the technique is so pervasive, and essentially so discreet, it gets taken for granted. But it has developed and flowered since its beginning in France, when the Cubists began to add pieces of newsprint to their paintings.

At the Whitney Museum branch in Stamford, "Collage in America" is a broad survey of work taken from the Whitney's permanent collection. Americans embraced the technique eagerly, in part because it mirrored a changing, dynamic society where disparate and sometimes incongruous elements were increasingly juxtaposed and mixed together in all areas of life. Moreover, collage is simple and also practical: why bother to reproduce, for instance, an intricate postage stamp, when one can just be stuck on the surface?

The show displays myriad uses of collage. The body of Arthur Dove's eponymous character in "The Critic" from 1925 is a newspaper review extolling traditional landscape, the kind Dove didn't do. The figure is equipped with roller skates and a vacuum cleaner, perhaps for making sweeping generalizations. This work demonstrates the tonic dose of reality that collage can give to an idea. A yellowed newspaper carrying the stock market tables is the backdrop of Minna Citron's "Measure of Fate" from 1953. Giving the collage a fateful aura is a thick and ominous black shape commanding the center.

The American regarded as the master of the application of paper with words on it is Robert Motherwell. If his collages are ultimately too elegant, there is the pleasure of seeing the rare papers he uses, often product advertisements mostly in French. Louise Nevelson's collages are more mute as far as printed words go, but match Motherwell's in stateliness.

An especially stimulating part of the show is seeing well-known artists, not usually associated with collage, applying it as an extension of their familiar styles. Edward Hopper is represented by ephemera, Christmas cards he made in 1928, 1929 and 1931. His holiday motifs are commonplace, but the firm scissored edges of the mosaic-like pieces of paper he used, have the sturdy quality of the elements in his familiar paintings.

Alex Katz's paintings are characterized by flatly painted shapes, and he has even made cut-outs, figures freed from the canvas, so it's not surprising he tried collage. Two works from the late 1950's feature expansive landscapes and rather small but prominently placed figures. The Roy Lichtenstein work is sort of a conundrum because it is difficult at first for the viewer to figure out the collage parts in his "Study for Figures in Landscape," and then why he decided to use collage. Possibly, constructing with collage is a challenge that requires a different way of approaching one's work.

John Chamberlain's untitled collage tries to duplicate the shocking force of his sculptures, which are crushed automobile bodies. In his collage he uses sheer fabrics, balled and knotted.

Sometimes collage is used for abstract purposes, to ruffle the surface a bit. The most extreme example of this is Gene Hedge's all-over collage of building paper on composition board. The paper is torn up wildly, but in a pattern, so that it summons up a ruffled angel's wing. This is an example of collage as alchemy: a sublime kind of beauty emerges from inglorious material.

Artists like Burgoyne Diller, John McLaughlin, Ad Reinhardt and Ann Ryan build compositions with rectangular shapes of varying dimensions. Collage lets the artist play with and test out a composition, to move elements around, whereas painting fixes them. The versatile Ad Reinhardt is also represented by some of the elaborate and witty cartoons with borrowed images he did in the 1940's. They show his impatience with a public that doesn't understand art.

Collage can also impart mystery when certain incongruent elements are brought close together.

The California collage artist known simply as Jess packs his paintings with images that put the classical world and the contemporary one in a simultaneous existence. In "Young People in Particular Will Find It," the viewer can never grasp what the ‘it' is. Jess's intensely animated surfaces work against finding the answer. What stands out, though, is a corner of the painting reserved for the image of a small boy holding a flower, the equivalent of the riot of forms of the rest of the work.

The lone sculpture in the show, an untitled sphere by Tom Friedman, is coated with what from a distance looks like abstract marbleization. Close inspection reveals that it is tanned bodies with sculptured pecs, abs, deltoids and such. When the viewer learn's this, Friedman's sphere gets weightier.

The show includes a couple of montages, which are not exactly collages, for there is no separate surface on which elements are applied. Jared Bark and Lucas Samaras acknowledge the primary role of scissors. Mr. Bark made montage of strips of pictures from a photo-booth resulting in "Horse-Man," a centaur that is almost all human but which moves on all fours.

Mr. Samaras's "March 6, 1983 Panorama" is a sweeping photograph of the artist in his kitchen that has been cut into strips and reassembled. It is in the rebuilding that the picture acquired a jangled, anxious quality, abetted by the multiple appearances of sharp scissors throughout the work. "Collage in America" is at the Whitney Museum at Champion in Stamford through Nov. 3.