Stunning collages of odds and ends

The name Kurt Schwitters and the word "Merz" are synonymous in 20th-century art, the former having invented the term in 1919 to distinguish the collages and assemblages he was making from other forms of nonobjective art.

In his own words, Schwitters "could not see the reason why old tickets, driftwood, cloakroom tabs, wire and wheel parts, buttons and old rubbish found in the attic and in refuse dumps should not be a material for painting as good as the colors made in factories." And why they could not be considered art in the truest sense of the word.

By the time of his death in 1948, Schwitters had proved his point, and had established a unique and quite extraordinary reputation for his Merz collages, lithographs, and publications -- as well as for two completed and one unfinished Merzbauten (the latter being fantastic, room-size structures assembled entirely from odds and ends).

Although the Merzbauten are gone forever, much of his other work remains, and we can see and enjoy some excellent examples of these in the Carus Gallery's current exhibition here of Schwitterhs Merz art.

Among these are several collages, including a small one made out fabric, and a truly stunning 1931 piece entitled "Constructivist Collage -- Red, Gray, and Black."

Also on view are the large, seldom seen Merz lithographs, some with hand collage, which Schwitters created in 1923, several Merz, publications, a number of titles published by "Der Sturm" in Berlin, and his handwritten program for a 1923 Merz recital evening.

This is, all in all, a rare event, possibly of greater interest to specialists and art historians than to the general public, but an outstanding show nonetheless.

At the Carus Gallery through Oct. 17. Emil nolde

To a large extent it is due to Emil Nolde (1867-1956) that German expressionism ranks as high as it does today. Without his profound and passionate convictions, his imagination, originality, and integrity, German expresionism would be lacking a goodly portion of its soul -- as well as much of its dignity.

Even so, Nolde was no towering giant, n great master for the ages. He was, rather, a profoundly moving, authentic, and important voice speaking with passion about his native landscape, his religious beliefs, and about the humanity with which he indentified so deeply but from which he generally preferred to remain physically isolated.

A small but excellent sampling of Nolde's paintings, watercolors, and prints has just opened at the Serge Sabarsky Gallery here. Outstanding among these works are three impressive oils, at least a dozen superb watercolors (including one of his very small "Unpainted Pictures," which he secretly painted in direct violation of Hitler's order that he never paint again), and one of his most beautiful prints.

The oils show three crucial aspects of Nolde's art: the sea, florals, and masks. Of these, I was particularly taken by his early "Horses on the Beach." While not altogether successful as a composition, it nevertheless, in its flamboyant and wondrously painted image of two horses charging into the sea, reveals us Nolde at his most typical -- and at his direct, passionate, and colorful best.

The floral painting, while a bit sweet and lacking the deep, resonant colors typical of his very best works in this genre, is nevertheless of high quality. And the painting of masks is pure Nolde in its grotesqueries and color.

It's a pity, however, considering how representative these oils are of those other genre, that no examples of his religious art are included. His religious paintings are in many ways the most difficult of his works ot accept -- Nolde goes to what he feels is the emotional core of the story of Jesus and reduces the physical aspects to simplified and highly stylized forms. They are, nevertheless, so central to Nolde's art that their absence calls attention to itself.

On the other hand, the watercolors give us a very good idea of the nature and range of Nolde's importance as an artist. Included here is a magnificent floral , several of his remarkable studies of heads, a superb black-and-white harbor scene, a study of a horse, an excellent landscape, and a head of an apostle (the closest thing to religious art in the show). But of them all, I was most impressed by the "Unpainted Picture" of "Two Very Old Men." It's truly a gem.

The same is true of his color lithograph "Young Couple," which is not only ravishing in color, but also remarkably elegant in design -- something one wouldn't normally say about a work of Nolde's!

At the Serge Sabarsky Gallery through Nov. 28.

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