Mapplethorpe, Schwitters and rubbish in art

Mapplethorpe, Schwitters and rubbish in art

RE: ‘Just Kids’. Fascinating to read about Robert Mapplethorpe’s early collage process. Using photographs from magazines, found objects and anything he could put his hands on in the early days. He couldn’t afford a camera and film was expensive, but there is something exciting about the urban ‘hunter gatherer’ aspect of using found objects, seeing the potential in otherwise throwaway things, whether due to artistic necessity or the financial constraints of the times (or both).

I was also interested to read recently about the German artist, Kurt Schwitters (there is going to be a new major exhibition at the Tate Britain). Not an artist I know much about. A great dadaist, he paved the way for Pop art and the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe. Kurt used found objects and materials for 2D and 3D collage and installation. He died relatively young (age 51), ending his years in post-war Cumbria “working feverishly in a draughty old barn, poor, hungry and ignored”.

We seem to live an age of of mass consumerism and materialism, and much of our culture disposable, ruled as it is by social media with it’s need for quickly consumed messages. The amount of relationships and interfaces we uphold, virtual or otherwise, can at times be overwhelming.

It makes me reflect on all of these questions: Do we need lots of space? Can we simplify our lives? Can we reduce this superfluity and the by-products, the debris of our lives? Can we re-use rubbish to create (not rubbish) art?

At one point, Kurt used the bushy eyebrow hairs of one of his friends and the oil from sardine cans. In contrast, Robert Mapplethorpe went from using photographic reference in magazines to taking his own photographs, but only when the finance wasn’t an issue. John McKendry (then curator of photography at MOMA), bought him his first camera and secured a grant from Polaroid providing him with all the film he needed. When Robert found he had more control over the imagery in his work, he did not have the same need for found imagery. Sam Wagstaff provided him with his first Hasselblad camera and the rest is history. Patti recalls how “The new camera taught him nothing, just allowed him to get exactly what he was looking for.”

The found object / collage process is a far cry from my own working practice, but one I would still like to learn from. I have used found wood to paint oil portraits on. It certainly won’t hurt me to be reminded to check what I consume, what I throw away and what could be re-used in my art. Recycling has always been an important part of daily life in my family, but without a thought of where does it go and how is it recycled? Is it actually recycled or does it end up in an island of plastic rubbish in the Pacific Ocean, roughly the size of the USA “an enormous expanse of floating rubbish held in a vortex by the swirling currents off the coast of California, stretching almost to the islands of Japan […] so vast that it is roughly the size of the United States.” A sobering thought.

In contrast, there is a wonderful program in San Francisco called The Recology Artist in Residence Program which is “a unique art and education program that provides Bay Area artists with access to discarded materials” as well studio space. “Recology hopes to encourage people to conserve natural resources and promote new ways of thinking about art and the environment.”

Now off to rummage through my recycling…

PS The Kurt Schwitters exhibition is on at the Tate Britain from 30/01/13 to 12/05/13. Definitely worth a visit.


  • Karl Foster
    Posted at 19:47h, 20 January Reply

    Oh look at that inspirational young man on the right.

    This article takes me back to when we just made pieces and judged afterwards. I spend all my time considering how the work will be successful. Will it be good enough rather than I’m an artist and that’s good enough.

  • Caukill
    Posted at 22:24h, 20 January Reply

    Interesting post Cathy , i have had the thought recently “Where does it all go?” when sifting thru our ‘Recycle’ bags .
    In some quarters where there is little alternative, communities scratch a living from the rubbish of others – both fascinating & heartbreaking .
    Re.Mapplethorpe, i only recently read ‘Just Kids’ & Mapplethorpes’ collages put me in mind of the bedsit culture of the mid-80’s . Seemingly at the time anyone who was anyone had their own collage wall on the go . A girl Heidi i was mates with had one of the best, i’d wait for her to get ready to go out & all the way around her mirror were pictures of the great & the good, the famous & the infamous – i had to be prized away to go for a night out! These days it’d be called a ‘mood board’ or be on Pinterest!
    It got me to thinking how Mapplethorpe would have developed in a digital era? Perhaps it was a good case of ‘place & time’ , the artist / the medium / the era . Undoubtably very talented man though his relationship with Sam probably didn’t harm.

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