Peter’s Auction Pick of the Day: Assemblage Art

February 22, 2018

During the first half the last century, German artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) began dallying with the incorporation of unorthodox, everyday materials into his practice. After encountering the work of the Dadaists, he began to create his now infamous Merzbilder collages that combined, as he put it, “all conceivable materials.” Using a bricolage technique, Schwitters produced works that juxtaposed a motley crew of diverse materials, both two-dimensional and three-dimensional, culled from a wide variety of unlikely sources to conjure potent new associations not formerly directly connected with the source materials.

Although Schwitters would go on to influence many important artists active during his lifetime—Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and Pablo Picasso’s three-dimensional Cubist constructions each bear a not insignificant debt to Schwitter’s work—it wasn’t until after his death in 1948 that the kind of art he pioneered would be attached to a specific term. In the early 1950s French artist Jean Dubuffet unveiled his stunning, collaged butterfly wings, which he called “assemblages d’empreintes.” From that point assemblage art became the term linked to the specific technique of creating two- and three-dimensional works of art through the fusion of elements derived from natural and manufactured sources, often found objects and fragments of objects, that otherwise were intended to serve a more utilitarian purpose, rather than winding up in a work of art.

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Sandbox), c. 1960
February 25, 2018 Modern Art & Design Auction

Assemblage art hasn’t lost any steam over the years and Los Angeles Modern Auctions is thrilled to include a group of pieces by four important American artists who produced work in the assemblage idiom: Joseph Cornell, Betye Saar, Chris Ferebee, and Louise Nevelson in the February 25, 2018 Modern Art & Design Auction.

The work of American multimedia artist Joseph Cornell is practically synonymous with assemblage art. Cornell approached the idiom with full gusto, integrating fetishized objects such as marbles, seashells, butterflies, postcards, navigational tools, toys, and sundry paper ephemera—which he sourced from antique and junk shops in New York—into highly sophisticated, strikingly organic tableaux. Works such as his c. 1960 Untitled (Sandbox), which will be offered in LAMA’s February 25, 2018 Modern Art & Design Auction, reflect the voracious appetite of an avid collector with an eye for commingling disparate, neglected objects to create new meanings.

Like many of his other works, Untitled (Sandbox) is designed with the intention of being experienced by direct handling, so as to continually shift nuances of meaning with each new encounter. Each new, hands-on interaction is meant to produce variations on the vignettes that the bric-a-brac assemblage has the potential to create. When handled, the individual components in Untitled (Sandbox)—metal rings, balls, and loose sand with a smiling moon face affixed in the corner—collide and disappear in a kaleidoscope-like way to produce endless variations, both visually and audibly, with each interaction.

Betye Saar, Untitled, 1976
February 25, 2018 Modern Art & Design Auction

Taking a cue from Cornell’s assemblages, Los Angeles artist Betye Saar’s surreal, mixed-media assemblages, including her 1976 piece, Untitled, use an array of highly potent found objects and imagery to tackle hefty subjects such as racism and economic inequality. Like many artists who work within the assemblage idiom, Saar brings both personal and collective history to bear on her bricolaged constructions. “I’m the kind of person who recycles materials, but I also recycle emotions and feelings,” as she once put it. Also using objects found in junk shops and estate sales, Saar created a lexicon that reclaimed racist imagery to empower the subjects. The same can be said of American artist Louise Nevelson, whose large, wooden sculptures, such as her 1979 Untitled, incorporate discarded scraps of wood, which were given to her by friends and others, or which she collected on the street herself. Nevelson’s assemblages contain deeply personal references to her own life, while drawing on collective experience as expressed through potent symbols derived from sacred and profane sources.

Louise Nevelson, Untitled, c. 1979
February 25, 2018 Modern Art & Design Auction

In many ways, the work of American artist Chris Ferebee bears something of a debt to each of the other assemblage artists featured in our upcoming auction. His 1994 work Untitled, for instance, has a nod to the unique, updated folk art aesthetic of Saar’s assemblages, along with  the calculated arrangement of objects so characteristic of a Cornell shadow box and the accentuation of the handcrafted and opaque allusions so often associated with an assemblage constructed by Nevelson.

Chris Ferebee, Untitled, 1994
February 25, 2018 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot Information:

Lot 129
Betye Saar
Mixed-media assemblage
Signed and dated to underside
Closed: 3″ x 6″ x 1″; Open: 5.5″ x 6″ x .5″
Provenance:  Private Collection, Los Angeles, California (gifted directly by the artist, c. 1976)

Estimate: $2,000 – 3,000
February 25, 2018 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 101
Chris Ferebee
Wood, copper wire, painted plaster, glass, and paper on wood panel
Signed and dated lower right; signed and dated in graphite and again in ink verso
14.25″ x 32.5″ x 1.625″

Estimate: $2,000 – 3,000
February 25, 2018 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 100
Joseph Cornell
Untitled (Sandbox)
c. 1960
Wood and glass box construction with sand, string, metal balls, and found objects
Signed to paper label on underside
9″ x 15.75″ x 1.5″

Estimate: $40,000 – 60,000
February 25, 2018 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 151
Louise Nevelson
c. 1979
Painted cigar box with wood construction
Retains Louise Nevelson Estate label and inventory label inscribed “S20232/LN” to underside
9.25″ x 7″ x 2.25″ (closed)

Estimate: $8,000 – 12,000
February 25, 2018 Modern Art & Design Auction

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