Ties That Bind

The Menil Collection pulls selected works together for a fresh take on collage art.

By Jenn Nguyen December 11, 2015

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Kurt Schwitters, Mz 371 bacco, 1922. The Menil Collection, Houston. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Some of the Menil Collection’s most sought–after works have been pieced together for The Precarious, a new exhibition showcasing the Montrose museum’s extensive set of contemporary collaged art on display from Wednesday, Dec. 16 through May 1.

Precarious is Chief Curator David Breslin’s first project since joining Menil this past March from the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass. The exhibition features post-World War II modernist collages from American and European artists, including Robert Rauschenberg, Anne Ryan, and Kurt Schwitters.

Breslin took notice of 20th-century artists who used media to comment on their homes country’s social and political situations. WWII left many western countries in a dire state, which pushed artists to use whatever scraps they could find to construct their art, from cardboard boxes to tobacco wrappers. The exhibition’s collages allude to how the nations recuperated from the war: by putting everything they had together, piece by piece.

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Gene Charlton, Untitled, 1959. Collage on academy board, 11 3/4 × 9 7/8 in. (29.8 × 25.1 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston. © Gene Charlton

“The artwork tells a story about how we’re all connected by its material,” Breslin says. “I wanted to show a way things need to be rebuilt and put back in order. If something is destroyed, it needs to be put back together.”

One caveat that was essential to putting together Precarious was that there needed to be a consistent and egalitarian quality to the exhibit—Breslin didn’t want one piece to overpower the others. All the works are meant to come together harmoniously.

“That’s the most important thing about curating—to have it all come together in an equal way as if this is the way it has always existed,” he reasons.

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Robert Rauschenberg, National Spinning / Red / Spring (Cardboard), 1971. Cardboard and string, 100 x 98 1/2 x 8 1/2 in. (254 x 250.2 x 21.6 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston,

The chosen collages also give insight into each artists’ personal stories of adversity and how war impacted his or her life. One of Precarious’ featured artists, Danh Vo, settled in Copenhagen after leaving Vietnam in 1979 as the country was recovering from its civil war. Although Vo’s art comes decades after WWII, his collages prove how the art form can still tell a tale of history and personal identity.

Precarious itself is an expansive collage—each narrative comes together to create an exhibition that tells a larger parable of recreating life using whatever resources are available. And although the collection features a hefty number of visual compositions, Breslin believes that there is a vulnerability to the individual pieces that make them, well, precarious.

“The works are made of small pieces of papers or cloth, and they seem fragile, almost [like they’re] hanging together by the skin of their teeth,” Breslin explains. “I like how these things seem like they’re almost ‘willed’ together. I like this balance between something fragile and the idea that it’s still here. And that while they’re fragile, they’re still with us. You know that each piece comes from somewhere.”

Dec 16–May 1. Free. Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross St. 713-525-9400.