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An inspired collector of whatever was at hand

EVERY form is the frozen instantaneous picture of a process,'' Kurt Schwitters wrote. In its various stages this German artist's work was always concerned with ``process.'' It was an art of bringing-together, of forms that grow and develop, of new associations, of synthesis. It developed out of DADA, the movement that began in Zurich in 1915 as a reaction to World War I. Schwitters called his personal version of this movement ``Merz,'' a nonsense word he chose at random from a phrase in one of his early assemblages. The complete phrase was ``Kommerz und Privatbank.'' Virtually everything he did was called ``Merz.''

He lived in Hannover, in his parents' house, from his birth in 1887 until he was compelled to leave Germany under threat of Nazi persecution in 1937. His parents owned a dress shop. To some of the other German DADA artists, who used absurdity and nonsense for political and anti-aesthetic provocation, Schwitters seemed a bourgeois provincial. He, however, felt art was revolutionary by nature without its also having to serve overt political ends. But his attitudes were never simple; in fact they were often ambiguous and deliberately enigmatic.

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He may have been apolitical, but he was certainly affected by the turbulence in Germany after the country's defeat in the war, and this had considerable bearing on his art. ``Everything had broken down,'' he wrote, ``. . . new things had to be made from fragments . . . new art forms out of the remains of a former culture.''

The most recent study of his art, a major new book by John Elderfield (published by Thames & Hudson), explores his complexities to the point where it is clear that he cannot be facilely slotted into any one compartment, and, as an inventive artist, he certainly cannot be dismissed on the mere grounds of social background.

Elderfield even suggests that Schwitters' particular ``brand of provincial innocence'' was a positive factor in the gradual growth of the possibilities of his art. His independence from the hub of DADA activity may explain why he emerges not so much as an artist of primary originality as an inspired collector of whatever was available. And that goes for styles as well as materials.

Stylistically, Schwitters was without doubt influenced by the prewar invention, in Paris, of Cubism. It is the basis of his use of collage and assemblage. But for him it became self-contained and self-sufficient, no longer a means of depicting the world. Discarded ephemera became both the medium and the subject of his art. ``Merz,'' he wrote, denoted ``the combination, for artistic purposes, of all conceivable materials. . . . A perambulator wheel, wire-netting, string and cotton wool are factors having equal rights with paint.''

He adopted and adapted Cubist methods for his own purposes -- he did this with every style he encountered -- and, as Richard Humphries puts it in the catalog to a touring exhibition of his work currently (through April 10) at the Sprengel Museum in Hann-over, he ``was obsessed by the human associations of his junk, its lost history and eventual transformation through choice and distribution in the seclusion of the studio.''

He did not collect just any scraps haphazardly: He had a sense of finding precisely what he needed, using intuition as the basis of a kind of logic he possibly did not completely understand himself. A collage like ``Mz 458'' shows how a new order was found for such selected items of urban litter.

In the early 1920s he came under the influence of the new movement called Constructivism, but he put this Russian-born modernist form of art to his own uses. The Constructivists aimed at ideal relationships of forms and forces, acknowledging positively the significance for art of machines and machine-manufacture. Schwitters, for his part, started to construct his ``Merzbau.''

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For more than 14 years he developed this constructed environment inside his Hannover house, and if he had not been compelled to leave Germany it would certainly have continued to grow and change. Elderfield, though he has made a thorough study of everything known about it, calls it ``a baffling work.'' Schwitters said its literary content was Dadaist, but he also described his concept of it as ``. . . an abstract (Cubist) sculpture into which people can go . . . a composition without boundaries, each individual part . . . at the same time a frame for the neighboring parts, all parts . . . mutually interdependent.''

The compulsion with which he built and persistently developed his ``Merzbau'' suggests he had found a form that precisely met the requirements of his vision. It was apparently, at turns, sinister, recondite, odd, disturbingly intimate (to some shockingly so) but also, to many of the friends he invited to see it, stimulating.

Max Ernst called it ``a huge abstract grotto.'' Carola Giedion-Welcker saw it as ``a little world of branching and building where the imagination is free to climb at will.'' Rudolph Jahns, sitting alone in its silence, ``experienced a strange, enrapturing feeling.''

It changed over the years as Schwitters' sense of form developed. His particular liking of natural forms was sometimes expressed in single sculptures such as ``The Autumn Crocus'' in the Tate Gallery, London. And he progressively clothed his Merzbau with such curvilinear and half-spiraling forms, softening its originally Cubistic elements. But it aimed to be a kind of ``total'' art-work -- Cubist, Dadaist, Surreal, Constructivist, and Expressionist all rolled into one.

After he left Germany, he made two further attempts to start a Merzbau. One in Norway was eventually destroyed by fire. One in a barn in the English Lake District was started in his last years, but never progressed far. His Hannover Merzbau was demolished by Allied bombing in 1943. What remain are some good black and white photographs, descriptions by himself and his visitors, and a detailed analysis of it pieced together by the exhaustive detective work of John Elderfield.

But the direct experience of it is, of course, missing. No amount of art history can re-evoke the feeling people must have had of being literally surrounded by Schwitters' imagination. And the vital element of humor and surprise that must have been part of it can only be guessed at: Later analysis seems to make it terribly solemn.

To the artist himself it was, anyway, unfinished -- a continually developing ``picture of a process.'' Perhaps that's how it would always have been.

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