When you're a kid, there's at least one inevitable moment where you pick something up off the ground and say "Look what I found!" and the grown-up person whose care you are in says, "Put that down, it's trash." And you are disappointed and perhaps puzzled. It looked good to you! Artists have been working with found "trash" for decades, and at least a hundred years.
The publication Kurt Schwitters mentions that in the 1920s, when Schwitters was in his thirties, he "wandered about Hanover in search of refuse which attracted his eye" and "was obsessed by the human associations of his junk." He sought to "give it a new identity" (14). This desire to provide a new identity, this transformation, is one key to why it is an intentional artwork. He introduced things that had never met, arranged them carefully in a new setting. Another very important part is the worn and handled quality of each piece of paper; each was used and discarded, had another life, was altered by rain or dirt, air or time, and each came in contact, at some point, with a human being.
If you have ever been interested in Schwitters' work, you may also like the collages of Irwin Kremen, now on view at the Berkeley Art Museum. He began making collages in the 1960s, many years after he had attended Black Mountain College with John Cage (who dedicated 4'33" to him), and he cited Italo Valenti as his inspiration. Kremen was a student of Josef Albers, most noted for his theory of color interactions, and he encouraged his students to "make art out of almost anything," something that Robert Rauschenberg, another Albers student, also took to heart with his assemblages.
Kremen's collages are intimately sized. You must go close to see the details. I read only afterward that the pieces are attached to the support and to each other with "extremely thin Japanese-paper hinges." Lawrence Rinder, in the text on the exhibition brochure, writes that this makes the collages seem more sculptural, although I am not sure that the tissue itself would have such an effect on the work. More likely, where the paper was not attached would provide a very slight shadow effect. I will have to go back and look again. The reproductions in the brochure look fairly flat. The technique is a nice one though; it eliminates the warping that can happen with wet paste or glue.
The collages are small and tightly composed, balancing cut and torn edges, placement of spot color, layering, and textures and text in a very pleasing manner. Countdown 3, on the brochure, has several threads at the top edge that even with all the colorful fragmented letters, draws your eye back up to look at them. Balanced, I think. (A source of tension, though, for viewers who like clean edges and may wish to clip them.)
I continue to wonder about what makes some of us like art composed of discarded things. When we are little, we have imagination to make a Popsicle stick into a doll. When we are young we may be scrounging for discarded materials, our paychecks not providing us with the luxury of new sketch paper. Or it may be a moral issue; we may wish to help the planet by recycling or reusing. On the formal side, interesting textures and subtle color variations are built into found materials that may be "unduplicable" as Kremen prefers. When we get older we may recognize the dents, may identify with them as our bodies have been shaped by our environment and human touch as well.
As I have been writing this, I have been conscious that I've only mentioned male artists. I wondered what women made minimalist collages like Schwitters or Kremen. Through a search, I found this article in The New Yorker about Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction, an exhibition from spring 2017 at MOMA (up through August!), which took me to Anne Ryan (1889-1954), who had a show at The Met in 2010. Ryan created intimate collages as well, particularly one shown: Number 7. Her collages were made of both paper and fabric.
The New Yorker article said something particularly interesting, that abstract art "masked personal identity" and therefore opened up the field to women. I'm having trouble with that concept. Women have always created art, we just haven't seen all of it. It also seems curious to me that in 2017 we still have categorized shows with titles that include "Women Artists," making the default that artists without further description are men. But if I had been on my toes earlier, I would have discovered that Kremen's "friend and former writing instructor at Black Mountain College, M.C. Richards, who encouraged him to try making a cloth collage" was a woman. She was a poet and a potter, and founded Black Mountain Press, wrote a book Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person, and is the subject of a documentary. The inspiring trailer for The Fire Within is here. I can see why her students were so fond of her. And I think it interesting that she is mentioned as the one who may be the initial catalyst for Kremen's collages, although in the brochure she is only given that one line.
I am also not so sure that abstract art can mask your personal identity. Your choices show. Your decisions, your preferred colors, shapes, patterns, and materials say something about you even if there is not any subject content that points to a particular race, gender, sex, age, ethnicity and so forth.
Titles are wonderful ways to add to the magic of artwork. I always feel the artist has given up when s/he creates one "Untitled" after another. Kremen titles his collages as identifying marks or perhaps personal jokes, not as literal descriptors. What is "Quimper Pink?" We can only imagine. A search, however, says "quimper" is a commune in northwestern France. Or is it now a word transformed?
The exhibition is showing at the Berkeley Art Museum until August 27, 2017. A catalogue of Irwin Kremen's work from an earlier exhibition, Beyond Black Mountain: Irwin Kremen (1966 to 2006) is still available. You can also see several works from the Berkeley exhibition that range from 1973 to 2007 online at the BAMPFA website.