Interview: Josef Helfenstein

by Wendy Vogel

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      Peter Bissegger
      Reconstruction of Kurt Schwitters's Merzbau, original Merzbau ca. 1930-37, destroyed 1943, reconstruction 1981-83
      154-3/4 x 228-3/8 x 181 inches
      Sprengel Museum Hannover
      Photo: Michael Herling / Aline Gwose, Sprengel Museum Hannover (c) Peter Bisseger

      Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage opened at the Menil Collection on October 22nd to great acclaim. The first major solo exhibition in the U.S. devoted to the artist’s work in 25 years, Color and Collage comprises nearly 100 objects and includes a remarkable reconstruction of Schwitters’ legendary Merzbau. …might be good spoke with Josef Helfenstein, Director of the Menil Collection and the organizing curator of the show, about the show’s presentation and Schwitters’ legacy.

      ...might be good […mbg]: Kurt Schwitters’ works became widely known in the U.S. through their inclusion in two stylistically disparate shows at The Museum of Modern Art curated by Alfred Barr: Cubism and Abstract Art (1936) and Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism (1937). Schwitters’ last major presentation in the U.S. was his inclusion in the recent Dada exhibition, which traveled to the Pompidou, National Gallery of Art and MoMA. In the Menil’s collection galleries, Schwitters’ works are often displayed near works by Dada and Surrealist artists. Is this juxtaposition intentional?

      Josef Helfenstein [JH]: The Schwitters exhibition, Color and Collage, is in our special exhibition space, but you’re right that we often show our Schwitters holdings in the small Dada room within the Menil’s Surrealism galleries. In the Dada space right now, however, we are presenting a very interesting companion to the Schwitters show. We are highlighting the work of a young artist, David McGee, with his 2006 portfolio, Ready-Made Africans—five portraits of hip-hop artists, each bearing the name of a figure associated with Dada, including Schwitters. David relates his work in a critical way to the Surrealists and the Dada artists, by blurring the line and drawing connections between the theories and principles of Dada and hip-hop.

      …mbg: Would you say that the Merzbau (ca. 1926-1936, destroyed 1943), the architectural intervention-cum-installation that Schwitters spent years creating, emphasizes the mystical, romantic, fantastic side of his practice more, or that of the unified formal idiom?

      JH: If you were to choose one work that summarizes Schwitters’ life and philosophy as an artist, it would be the Merzbau. That becomes even more true if you look at his biography and the history of the work, as he had kind of a tragic fate. The destruction of the Merzbau can be seen as a symbol of the crushing of modernism in Germany. The work is a condensation of the stylistic aspects he was concerned with, but it’s also situated very much in the tradition of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art. The Gesamtkunstwerk has a lot to do with German Romanticism, and also very much to do with music and synaesthesia and the synergy between all the arts. The idea hearkens back to Kandinsky and Schönberg, and before them, to Wagner. So the romantic, utopian aspect is there, too.

      …mbg: One installation that I always visit at the Menil is Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision. I love the way that the installation brings alive, curatorially, the methods and the processes of the Surrealist artists. Is there any relationship for you between the Merzbau’s presentation contextualizing Schwitters’ collages on view, and the Witnesses installation contextualizing the Surrealist work in the collection galleries?

      JH: I had not thought about it before, but I think it’s a brilliant idea. Schwitters really did not interact with the Surrealists in any way. He had no active interest, as far as we know, in collecting these cultures as the Surrealists did (like African and Oceanic art.) But I think your idea about making a connection between these two installations—and expanding the European-centered vision—is a good one. Both the Merzbau and the Menil’s Witnesses installation can be seen and experienced as Wunderkammers, as rooms of memory and inspiration.

      …mbg: How did the idea for the show’s conclusion come about, in the gallery where Schwitters’ late collages from (1946-47) were juxtaposed with collection works by American artists Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and John Chamberlain, all of whom were deeply influenced by Schwitters?

      JH: The curator Isabel Schulz and I had initially thought about presenting those works, but we did not reserve a space for them. At the last moment, I convinced her to condense the show, devoting the last room to creating the dialogue with those artists. We have great work in our collection by them, and we also excavated some works that had been rarely shown. The Chamberlain collage (Untitled, 1961) had not been on view in at least ten years, and the Twombly sculpture (Untitled, 1954) had also never been shown in the space before—at least since I have been working at the Menil. It’s a very Menil-specific dialogue, but it also shows the enormous impact that Schwitters had on other artists.

      …mbg: In her catalogue essay on the Merzbau, Leah Dickerman describes the work as a site of exchange. It occasionally included small exhibitions of work by other artists, a guestbook where visitors could offer suggestions, and a space where Schwitters’ friends could even create their own grottoes. Is this practice echoed for you not only in contemporary avant-garde design and exhibition-making practices, but in the realm of artist-run spaces and discursive models, like that of relational aesthetics?

      JH: Yes, I think you can relate it to all of these contemporary and postmodern practices. But what touches me the most is that this was a laboratory on a very private basis. In the 1930s, due to political pressure, Schwitters was very cautious and careful about the Merzbau’s promotion. He showed it to very few people at that time, even though it was actually at its most advanced stage. Some of its last few visitors were from America, a fact that became very important for Schwitters’ artistic afterlife. Alfred Barr, Director of the MoMA, came to visit in 1935 with Philip Johnson and Katherine Dreier, who saw it more than once.

      …mbg: What does a contemporary Merzbau look like to you? Are there any contemporary artists engaged in sculptural practices that resonate with it?

      JH: A German artist, Gregor Schneider, comes to mind. He creates these very disturbing, very confusing spaces, where he transforms your experience of the architecture into an experience of getting lost in a building. Much like Schwitters, he created his interventions in his parents’ home in Düsseldorf. He is not shown much in the United States, but his work is very interesting in this regard.

      …mbg: What about artists like Isa Genzken, or Thomas Hirschhorn?

      JH: Thomas Hirschhorn would be the second artist that I would mention—though he has a slightly different, more socially critical take on Schwitters. I think Isa Genzken’s work is interesting in this respect too.

      Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage is on view through January 30, 2011.

      Wendy Vogel is Editor of ...might be good.

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