Artists associated with Dada, notably Hans Arp and Kurt Schwitters, used damaged and reclaimed materials as a potent image of the futility of World War I. Schwitters, in particular, sought to redeem the beauty and history of everyday items selected with recourse to chance but carefully arranged according to strict principles of composition, as in Construction for Noble Ladies (1919; Los Angeles, CA, Co. Mus. A.). His formal approach related to contemporary Constructivist art, with which he was familiar, and led to the monumental structure of recovered material, the Merzbau (1923–36; destr.; reconstruction, 1980–83; Hannover, Sprengel Mus.), which he built inside his house in Hannover. Had its progress not been curtailed by the coming to power of the Nazis, this complex work would have been the apotheosis of the objet trouvé. While directly influenced by the Dadaists, and especially by the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp and the objects of Man Ray, the use of the objet trouvé in Surrealism during the 1930s was prompted largely by a desire to create irrational juxtapositions. The interest shown by Salvador Dalí and André Breton in the nightmarish sculptures produced by Alberto Giacometti between 1930 and 1934 was an important factor in the impetus given to the Surrealist object. In 1936 the Galerie Charles Raton in Paris hosted an exhibition, Exposition surréaliste d’objets, devoted to found and made objects; the exhibits included natural objects and ready-mades as well as Oceanic sculptures, which were thought to draw on similar irrational sources. There Meret Oppenheim exhibited a fur-covered cup, saucer and spoon entitled Object (1936; New York, MOMA), a simple but disturbing transformation by which an inanimate object was given an implicitly sexual and animalistic identity. Also in 1936, at the Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition at MOMA in New York, Joseph Cornell’s mysterious and highly personal box constructions, which consisted largely of objets trouvés, were first presented in the context of Surrealism.
The idea of creating an entire environment out of objets trouvés, as pioneered in Dada and Surrealism, was also explored by amateur builders sometimes grouped together under the term art brut: notable examples include the Palais Idéal in Drôme, France, by the Facteur Cheval (1836–1924), and Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles. Many of the smaller examples of art brut collected by Jean Dubuffet, who coined the term, consisted of large quantities of found objects, as did many of his own works. Similar methods were employed in the late 1950s in the Accumulations of Arman and in pictures by Enrico Baj employing fabric or wood veneer. The resurgence of interest in the objet trouvé at this time took many forms, for example in the use of reclaimed rubbish by Robert Rauschenberg for his ‘combine’ paintings, largely under the influence of Schwitters; in the reliance on expendable materials in Junk art, for example in the assemblages of Edward Kienholz and another artist working in Los Angeles, Wallace Berman (b 1926); in the absurd kinetic machines of Jean Tinguely; and in the ‘happenings’ of Allan Kaprow and Jim Dine. The example of Schwitters was acknowledged also by Louise Nevelson; her boxed assemblages, painted a single uniform colour, recall theMerzbau in their scale and in their accretion of heterogeneous objects submitted to an overall composition. In the 1970s objects featured prominently in the work of Joseph Beuys and of the artists associated with Arte Povera, notably Jannis Kounellis. While some artists working in the 1980s, such as Julian Schnabel or Mimmo Paladino, used objects to supplement painted forms, others such as Tony Cragg and Bill Woodrow, who were part of a coherent movement in British sculpture, once again employed the objet trouvé as raw material.
Term applied in the 20th century to existing objects, manufactured or of natural origin, used in, or as, works of art. With the exception of the Ready-made, in which a manufactured object is generally presented on its own without mediation, the objet trouvé is most often used as raw material in an Assemblage, with juxtaposition as a guiding principle. Prior to the 20th century unusual objects were collected in cabinets of curiosities, but it was only in the early 20th century that found objects came to be appreciated as works of art in their own right. Antoni Gaudí, for example, used broken pieces of pottery to cover exterior surfaces in the Park Güell buildings (1900–14) in Barcelona and on various buildings designed by him during the same period. The development of Collage in Cubism heralded a greater dependence on found objects, paralleling the incorporation of conversational fragments in the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire from 1912; Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, in particular, used real items in their paintings and constructions as a way of commenting on the relationship between reality, representation and illusion. Their example in turn encouraged Vladimir Tatlin to use ordinary objects in his reliefs of 1913–14, and other sculptors, such as Alexander Archipenko and Umberto Boccioni, to extend the range of materials acceptable in sculpture.
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