Known as the Merzbau, or Merz Construction, the room-size structure takes its title from the second syllable in Kommerz, the German word for commerce. Schwitters made Merz his own term, using it as shorthand for his practice of "combining all conceivable materials for artistic purposes, and in terms of technique treating all of them with equal respect."
Schwitters' collages manifest that philosophy on 2-D surfaces. His Merzbau extends it into an environment that "incorporates many branches of fine art, from architecture to assemblage, from collage to painting, transforming biographical and historical material into an abstract form," as Menil director Josef Helfenstein and guest curator Isabel Schulz write in the catalog.
Schwitters spent a decade and a half working on the Merzbau, which he described as a studio he worked on rather than in, pronouncing it finished in 1933 — just in time for the Nazis to drive what remained of the German avant garde into exile or underground. He built a second version in Oslo, Norway, where he lived from 1937 to 1940. In 1940 he fled to England, where he learned in 1943 that the Merzbau left behind in Hanover was destroyed by a bomb. Poor health prevented him from completing a third version before his death in 1948, and a fire destroyed the Norwegian Merzbau less than three years later.
Menil visitors will see and enter a reconstruction of the Merzbau's first room, which Swiss stage designer Peter Bissenger completed in 1983 using wide-angle black-and-white photos taken of the tight space in 1933.
"As the realization of what can, at best, be hinted at in the photos' limited field and monochrome two-dimensionality, the reconstruction allows us to experience firsthand some sense of the very first sculpture 'in which one can go for a walk,' " catalog contributor Gwendolen Webster writes. It's fitting that this partial re-creation of Schwitters' seminal work should make its first U.S. appearance in Houston, which is home to the only U.S. university museum devoted solely to the art form the Merzbau anticipated. Since 1995 artists have transformed the Rice University Art Gallery space several times a year with installations that immerse viewers into new, strange worlds.
Like the Hanover Merzbau, which Schwitters hired a carpenter, a glazier and an electrician to help him complete, Rice Gallery installations typically require artists to tap the expertise of others. Take the current installation, Sarah Oppenheimer's D-17, a 65-foot, aluminum-sheathed white structure that appears to pass through two glass walls - except when part of the structure seems to disappear and leave a whole segment floating in space. Oppenheimer realized it with the help of Rice architecture students, wood and metal fabricators, structural engineers, architects, a fire and safety inspector, a construction team and Rice Gallery director Kim Davenport and assistant curator Josh Fischer.
At times, other Rice Gallery installations have followed the Merzbau's precedent in using accumulated detritus or unlikely materials to create new spaces - some claustrophobic, others expansive; some serene, others obsessive, even trippy.
Like the Merzbau, the Rice Gallery installations are fleeting experiments with lasting impacts on artists' practices and visitors' memories. But they disappear not because of fascist persecution, war and personal tragedy, but to make way for brand-new creations.
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