In 1984, while preparing for the great Kurt Schwitters retrospective that MoMA was to mount the next year, a member of the museum’s curatorial staff noticed a discrepancy between one of its Schwitters assemblages, The Cherry Picture (Merzbild 32A. Das Kirschbild), from 1921, and a photograph taken of the structure in 1954, when it entered the collection: a cork attached to the surface of the piece had somehow migrated to a different spot altogether. Worse still, a photograph of The Cherry Picture published in 1924 shows no cork at all. Was the wayward bottle stop a belated addition by Schwitters, an artist known to have kept fiddling with his works when he could? And if so, where does it really belong? Or did someone else add the cork and yet another person unknown move it? After reviewing the evidence, MoMA conservator Antoinette King (in an essay published in 1992) found it to be inconclusive. The prominence of the cork “creates a particular formal unity in the assemblage elements,” she noted, “entirely changing Schwitters’s original work, if it is indeed not his own addition”—going on to cite the artist’s conviction that “all that matters in a work of art is that all parts should be interrelated and evaluated against each other.” But what if the parts tend to drift? I was sorry not to find The Cherry Picture in “Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage,” the first American museum show devoted to the artist since the one at MoMA twenty-five years ago, now on view at the Menil Collection in Houston through January 30. (The show also tours the Princeton University Art Museum, March 26–June 26, and the Berkeley Art Museum at the University of California, August 3–November 27.) It would have been nice to see whether that little cork has continued to bob around as a reminder that even now there is something very difficult to pin down in Schwitters’s art—which, it’s been said, “was never about the object itself, but the dynamic of relations that appeared in the course of its making.” If so, that’s a problem for museums: all we have left are the objects.
more from Barry Schwabsky at The Nation here.