Sunday, May 22, 2011

Manipulating the Elements

Betye Saar from the exhibition last December at
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, "Cage"
(See my post about this show in Art in the Studio here.)

In my initial post I spoke about the difference--as I defined it--between bricolage and assemblage. Assemblage is the bringing together of various objects or pieces of materials as they are found, without much changing or manipulating of them. In this way, they retain their distinct identity as separate pieces although they become part of the whole.

I think the above work by Betye Saar is a good example of assemblage. You can see that she has brought together an old chair, washboard and cage together with other elements placed inside the cage. I see no evidence of paint or other manipulation of any of the parts. It looks like the pieces were incorporated into the work as she found them.

This work makes me very aware of the uniqueness of each of the objects and I wonder where they came from. That is, does Betye Saar go to flea markets or antique stores, does she have pickers working for her and so on. I think about the source of these elements because they appear to have survived over time and are more self-referential than otherwise. As I looked at the work, I understood that the combination of parts alluded to black slavery and got the evocative feel of the elements, but for me the work lacked the unique hand of the artist in its making. I thought the emphasis was more on the "found" than the "art."

Betye Saar, The Liberation of Jemima, 1972, 11 3/4"x8"x2 3/4"

The Liberation of Jemima is probably Betye Saar's most famous work. Her intention was to "transform a negative, demeaning figure into a positive, empowered woman..., a warrior ready to combat servitude and racism." (quote from Betye Saar). Here Saar has not just assembled found objects but transformed them by painting and attaching them to each other. She has made a Black Power fist from wood or some other painted material and set it in front of the found print of a black "mammy" with white infant. She has probably painted a found doll and painted found syrup labels, then set all the elements into a painted shadow box with fluffs of cotton in the foreground. This is a unified work that clearly speaks its meaning: Jemima has given up her broom for a gun and raised her fist in a Black Power salute. I would define this as bricolage.

Leonardo Drew, section of No. 75 at the DeCordova Museum
(See my post about this show in Art in the Studio here.)

Leonardo Drew is one of my favorite artists, as you may know from Art in the Studio. I saw this work in person at the DeCordova last September. It is choc full of found objects that have been assembled in a grid and painted with rust. What brings together the disparate shapes of the objects is the regularity of the small square blocks within each of the larger squares. This is grid upon grid organization. When the objects break the grid format because of their size and shape, the viewer's eye snaps right back to the grid with the appearance of the next block. Painting just about everything with rust has the effect of pushing everything back, toning it down so that it loses some of its original color and becomes part of the whole. That also gives it more of an old, decayed look. I would define this as bricolage.

When you see a collection of objects like this, is there any question about the meaning of it all?

Another piece by Leonardo Drew, this one hung in the grand staircase at DeCordova

This is a lovely little piece, maybe 2' by 2' or so. Here is a broken grid that still reads as a total grid, but look at how many ways he has disturbed the regularity of the format. 

Suppose you had a series of objects, not all the same shape and/or size, but a few the same, and you brought them together on a panel with a similar organization. Perhaps you would overlap other objects on some of them as Drew has done with things inside the little boxes. Inside=3D and Overlap=2D if you see what I mean. You could unify all the objects by painting them a similar color or colors, maybe hot pink or blue instead of rust. You would be manipulating the elements. You would be making bricolage.

Do I have to think about meaning?, you might ask. You will find your meaning from the objects, I would answer.

Found Object Art 
Yes, bricolage is "found object art," but if you google "found object art," you will get things that look like this:

Fear by Karen Hatzigeorgiou

Work by unidentified artist from Style Hive

Broken Family by Anthony Heywood, from My Modern Met

Found Object Art by Brad (age 5), from Barbara Bianchi

People who are not used to making art mostly tend to make animals, robots or doll scenarios from found objects. This is part of the folk art tradition, but this is not what we are aiming for.

Examples of bricolage from current exhibitions in New York galleries

Lisa Hoke at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, "Love, American Style", April 28-June 11
(thanks to Joanne Mattera for the link)

Love, American Style, Black and Gold, 2011, cardboard, paper, rivets, glue, 144 x  109 x 20 inches

Detail of above work

Panorama of the exhibition

Older work by Lisa Hoke:

Blue, 2007, plastic, paint and hardware, 25 x 27 x 3.5 inches

Zig, 2008, matchsticks, tissue paper, glue on cardboard, 5 1/4 x 6 x 3 1/4 inches

Boxed Sets, 2008, match boxes, paint and rivets, 14 x 12 x 10 inches

Louise Bourgeois at Cheim & Read, "The Fabric Works", May 12-June 25

While it may be stretching it to claim that some of these works are bricolage, look at the way she uses fabric to look like paint. The fabric elements of her compositions have certainly been manipulated, and compositions such as these would easily translate into more dimensional materials. Note the simplicity and clarity of her compositions, the balance between figure and ground and the breathing space in her work.

Addendum: By the way, I read on Altoon Sultan's blog that Bourgeois "found" these fabrics in her own closets, cutting them from clothing and household items. Read the excellent post about the show and see the more intimate photos of the show taken in person.

Eugenie Grandet, 2009, mixed media on cloth, suite of 16, 11 1/4 x 8 1/2 inches each

Untitled, 2006, fabric and fabric collage, 11 x 18 1/4 x 2 inches

Dawn, 2006, fabric book, 12 pages, 12 1/4 x 9 3/4 inches

Untitled, 2003, woven fabric, 34 x 44 inches

The last one is my personal favorite, probably because it has something African-looking about it.


By the way, if you Google "bricolage," you will get a lot of things in French, such as:

This is because the word "bricolage" is apparently used in French to mean "do-it-yourself."


Next and last post before the conference: the wrap up, with emphasis on color, space, line, value, form and the rest of the components to consider in making fine art.


  1. Love these... I still laugh when I think of me running all over France and seeing all the Mr. Bricolage signs...finally figured out it is a French Home Depot.

  2. I enjoyed your conversation about Bricolage/assemblage here and the imagery you found to show examples of your ideas. Am I correct that"assemblage" as you have defined it, is a piece made of found objects put together in a way to make a whole, but without manipulation of a unique manner that shows the hand of the artist ?
    I would disagree that this type of work as opposed to "bricolage" does not show the hand of the artist or create its own meaning.Although I personally would agree for the most part with the conclusion you make on the beginner art I would hesitate to make assumptions.
    I think it is dangerous to make that conclusion. The pieces put together in just the way that they have been, contain their own unique voice and become something else entirely when put together in just that way (uniquely its own)uniquely the vision of that particular artist, in this case, well known and established artist, Betye Saar.
    I also think it dangerous to generalize about any artists work,even "people who dont generally make art" There is a great deal of art out there that has content (meaning) only of a formal nature and does not attempt to make a deeper statement. Beginners or those who do not usually make art may just be trying to get formal elements of shape and form and principles such as balance and unity to "work" together as a whole.
    One has to walk before one can run.
    As a teacher judging the artwork of students is the most difficult part of my job. I avoid making judgements on their "meaning" or content and stick mostly to the formal elements, although I care deeply about what art is saying. Who can say when one's content or meaning is good enough,deep enough, done enough, obscure enough or too transparent? If we look at contemporary art we will find much controversy on these issues.
    Anyway, just some thoughts on this issue.

  3. Love this post, and Kate's comment also added richness to the conversation. All in all, just delicious.

  4. Cheryl - Thanks for your comment about seeing the Mr. Bricolage signs.I am striving to be known as "Mdme. Bricolage" (as christened by Joanne M.)

    Deborah - Thanks for your comment and appreciation of the post. I am always happy to know that you are reading because you bring so much to it.

    Kate - Thank you for your comment and for your disagreement with me about assemblage vs. bricolage. After a lot of experience looking at and thinking about works that assemble found objects rather than re-work them in some way, I definitely do jump to the conclusion that they lack enough of the artist's spirit for me to appreciate them. I don't understand why you think this is dangerous; it's my opinion. That is not the kind of work that I want to make and I hope it's not the kind that the students in my workshop will make.

    I am fairly familiar with Betye Saar's work and appreciate that she was breaking new ground with her work, but I think her efforts are far surpassed by those of her daughters, who had the benefit of her example and, hopefully, of her tutelage -- at least initially -- in their careers.

    The way I read these works and the makers' involvement in them, is that the makers are too much in awe of the original objects to make them their own by changing them in some way to incorporate them in new works. This is my take on it and there you are.

    I appreciate your thoughts on these issues and your warnings about the danger of generalization, but I am trying to stress particular points here and emphasize differences between rather similar types of work. I am trying to illuminate the differences rather than the similarities. Naturally, this leads to generalizations.

    In regard to meaning and content in student art, my approach is to ask the student about their intention in the work and then discuss whether or not that intention is supported by their use of formal elements. I think we have to talk directly about meaning and that if we don't address it, we are leaving out a large part of what makes art important to the artist, i.e. their reason for making it. Whether their intention is carried forward to the viewer is sometimes debatable, but can be discussed. Judging the worthiness of one meaning over the other is not what I'm talking about, but I think that many beginning artists or "people who don't generally make art" do not consciously think about their work in terms of formal organization. They want to make a robot or an animal or a doll with wings.

    Thanks for reading my blog and for commenting about these issues.