The exhibition Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage at the Berkeley Art Museum has a lot of collages. In a lot of colors. And it’s all about Schwitter’s idea of merz and stuff, and oh that one belongs to Ellsworth Kelly, and doesn’t that make sense as it’s minimal and simple and clean. Great.
That is my basic reaction to the main portion of Color and Collage. Lovely. But let’s be honest, I didn’t really come to see the collages. Even though they’re great. And colorful. And influential and important and that one belongs to Ellsworth Kelly, and that one to Jasper Johns. But really, I came to go inside the Merzbau. Okay, I realize it’s not really Schwitters’ Merzbau, as that was destroyed during WWII and was in Hannover, not Berkeley. But, it’s the next best thing, I figure, and as close as I am (or anyone else is for that matter) going to get.
Originally commissioned for Harald Szeeman’s exhibition Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk in 1983, the reconstruction was based on Peter Bissegger’s calculations of the angles and degrees of each element in photographs of the interior of Schwitters’ living space-as-sculpture that the artist built between 1923 and 1933. In the late 80s, Bissegger built a traveling model of the reconstruction which has now made its way to the Berkeley Art Museum as part of this traveling exhibition.
(Image: Kurt Schwitters, Merzbau © DACS 2007, Photo: Wilhelm Redemann, 1933, courtesy of Tate Papers)
Without Bissegger’s reconstruction, the only way to experience Schwitters’ Merzbau is through the flat richness of black-and-white photographs. I have imagined walking through the Merzbau many times; I’ve imagined it cathedral-like, disorienting, immersive. I’ve imagined it in stark, crisp monochrome. I’ve imagined navigating through the structures sharp angles into other, hidden chambers.
My imaginary reconstruction of Schwitters’ masterpiece never featured, however, a Berkeley undergrad standing in the corner marking off visitors on a tiny clipboard. Nor did I imagine it awkwardly plopped, its fabric-covered walls set at odd angles to a much grander interior. I didn’t imagine that it would break down into hollow pieces like the backdrop of a school play. I didn’t imagine being told that no, unfortunately, I couldn’t walk up there—even though the floor’s surface was clearly discolored and worn from use. And I certainly never imagined it to read like a last-minute footnote onto an otherwise artful and thorough exhibition.
I guess some things are left better to the imagination.
(Image at top: Kurt Schwitters: Mz 601, 1923; paint and paper on cardboard; 17 × 15 in.; Sprengel Museum, Hannover, loan from Kurt and Ernst Schwitters Stiftung. © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)