Works of art constructed from pre-existing materials as opposed to work that is drawn, painted or carved. A broad term, invented by French artist Jean Dubuffet in the 1950s, it includes collage, sculptural objects and installation art.

Joseph Cornell Untitled (Bird Box) About 1948 © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation. All rights reserved. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2022.

Assemblage is a broad ranging term referring to sculpture or installation art that ‘assembles’ various found objects. In contrast with two dimensional collage, assemblage art is generally three dimensional. Artists began exploring forms of assemblage in the early twentieth century, but it was French artist Jean Dubuffet who coined the term in the early 1950s, when the style became widespread, and paved the way for various movements including Pop Art, Arte Povera and Installation Art.

Early Examples

Some of the earliest examples of assemblage art can be traced back to Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, when they introduced elements of found objects or ‘objets trouves’ into their Synthetic Cubist paintings such as sand, sawdust and rope. Picasso later went on to produce constructed relief sculptures such as Still Life, 1914, which incorporated wooden elements with found textiles to expand from the wall out into the gallery space. Blurring the boundaries between painting and sculpture, he wrote, ‘… now we are delivered from Painting and Sculpture, themselves already liberated from the imbecile tyranny of genres. It’s neither one thing nor another.’

Assemblage became hugely popular with the ‘anti-art’ Dadaists, who brought everyday matter into sculptural forms, intertwining art with ordinary life. German artist Kurt Schwitters was a pioneer in assemblage art, bringing together scavenged items of garbage including old bus tickets, scraps of paper and wood offcuts to create richly layered two and three-dimensional artworks, which he referred to as ‘Merz’. His most ambitious works were his Merzbau, which expanded out into room-sized sculptural constructions.

Many Surrealists also saw the potential for assemblage techniques to produce uncanny, dream-like motifs as influenced by dreams, the subconscious mind and the theories of Sigmund Freud. Hans Bellmer’s unsettling dolls and Marcel Duchamp’s notorious Readymade sculptures elevate simple objects into works of art with minimal intervention. Such ideas were developed further by Joseph Cornell in his low-relief assemblages throughout the 1940s and 50s, creating fantastical scenes nestled inside deep-framed boxes.

From Assemblage to Pop

Throughout the 1950s French artist Jean Dubuffet produced a series titled assemblages d’empreintes, a set of constructed relief collages featuring three-dimensional butterfly wings, making him the first artist to make use of the term ‘assemblage’ in relation to art practice. In 1961 an exhibition titled The Art of Assemblage was held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, featuring Dubuffet’s work alongside the sculptures of Picasso, Duchamp and Schwitters, alongside younger artists Robert Rauschenberg, César Baldaccini and Arman. The show revealed a widespread, international interest in found object sculpture as a means of connecting art with the matter of ordinary life. The exhibition’s curator, William Seitz described his take on the assemblage artist: ‘Like a beachcomber, a collector, or a scavenger wandering among ruins, the assembler discovers order as well as materials by accident.’

American artist Allan Kaprow was an influential figure, incorporating found objects into his performances and ‘happenings’ as well as producing the pioneering text, Assemblage, Environments and Happenings, 1966, influencing artists associated with the Neo-dada movement who made object arrangements which included elements of performance or movement, as seen in Baldaccini’s Compression, 1966 and Arman’s Violoncelle dans l’espace (Cello in Space), 1967. Such appropriation of everyday matter was hugely influential on Pop Art practice across Britain and the United States, and on Nouveau Realism as a French variant.

Arte Povera, Environmental Art and Installation

Assemblage art led the way for Arte Povera in the late 1960s and 70s. In contrast with Pop Art’s celebration of the machine age and mass production, Arte Povera artists made assemblages of deliberately ‘poor’ natural materials, such as coal, rocks, soil, rags and twigs, including Jannis Kounellis’ wall pieces, where dry stone walls were inserted into gallery spaces. Such ideas were hugely influential on environmental art in the following decades.

In the 1980s, artists continued to explore ways of incorporating ordinary objects into works of art - Tony Cragg made eclectic assemblages combining seemingly banal found objects into imaginative arrangements, lending them an otherworldly quality, such as Kahzenarbeit, 1985, while Neo-Expressionist painter Julian Schnabel combined broken crockery into his three-dimensional canvases.

In contemporary practice, the terms Installation Art is more commonly ascribed to assemblages of multiple objects, which can be hugely diverse, including the eclectic arrangements of Cathy Wilkes, Claire Barclay and Karla Black, artists who continue to create surprising and unconventional relationships between materials



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