Assemblage Art

Paul Darrow creates assemblage art. The spry nonagenarian lives alone in a rambling house in Laguna Beach, California.

Assemblage art – Untitled

Untitled Assemblage Piece by Paul Darrow

Paul's home epitomizes the stuff of his life. His fireplace mantle is filled with all kinds of boats, from expensive hand-made ones to cheap commercial versions. There is a variety of Buddhist artifacts, alongside folk art, ceramic knick-knacks, children's toys and kitsch found at souvenir stands. There is even an actual human skull.

These are just some of Paul Darrow's treasures - raw materials used to fashion his compositions.

Non-Traditional Sculpture

Assemblage art is non-traditional sculpture, made from re-combining found objects. Some of these objects are junk from the streets. It is doubtful that this form of art could have existed before the 20th century. We needed copious stuff to have this art form. But assemblage art is more than the works themselves. It expresses an attitude or statement by the artists about our throwaway society that values ever-more newness over quality.

French painter Jean Dubuffet first worked in this genre in the 1950s. He created works from wood, sponge, paper, and glue. Assemblage art can also be described as three-dimensional collage (Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso coined "collage" in the early 20th century to describe an aspect of their cubist artworks. Collage is more than the paper creations your kids bring home from school. Perhaps these kids will grow up to become great artists.).

Assemblage art – Himjim

"Himjim" by Pat Sparkuhl

Assemblage was officially introduced in New York in 1961 in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Among artists shown were Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Joseph Cornell and Edward Kienholz.

Paul Darrow's Basement

Venture into the basement of Paul Darrow's home, and you'll find a lot more stuff. There is a collection of warped 78-rpm vinyl records, victims of a water leak. Paul created assemblage sculpture out of these, compositions that became his signature works, now highly prized by collectors.

Paul is also a highly talented figurative artist. His numerous elegant, older paintings and drawings stored in his home that confirm this fact. (I would love to own a few of these.)

Why is Paul drawn to assemblage art? His life story - of taking personal adversity and turning it into art - gives the answer. He takes junk and makes beauty out of it.

Cornell Boxes

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), one of the most famous assemblage artists in the U.S., had a different story. He was shy, reclusive and spent most of his life in a house in Queens, New York. He worked at various jobs to support his art and never married.

He created assemblage pieces, known as "Cornell boxes." These are highly prized by museums and collectors. But, rather than junk, Joseph used objects that were once beautiful that he found in thrift shops. His boxes are like jewels, each a little, private world, containing old photos, discarded Victorian treasures and similar objects. Perhaps these boxes provided a magnificent world he escaped into to deal with his dismal life. Some people call his works visual poetry.

"Assemblage art is non-traditional sculpture, made from re-combining found objects. Some of these objects are junk found in the streets. It is doubtful that this form of art could have existed before the 20th century. We needed copious junk to have this art form...It expresses an attitude or statement by the artists about our throwaway society..."

West coast assemblage artist, Edward Kienholz (1927-1994), was a corpulent man who haunted flea markets all over the world. He also retrieved junk – often called detritus by assemblage artists - from the streets. One sculpture, made from an old bathtub filled with ash and charred material is called, "End of the Bucket of Tar." As with many contemporary artists, Ed's works have social commentary and controversy.

Back Seat Dodge

One of his most notorious is "Back Seat Dodge '38," at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The composition, made from decrepit car body parts and other junk such as old wire, depicts a couple engaged in sex in the back of an old car. It created a scandal in 1966 when it was unveiled. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors tried to ban the piece as pornographic.

Assemblage art – The Book of Love

"The Book of Love" by Tanya Wilkinson.
Assemblage art piece of damaged book and purse. Photo with permission of Mark Chamberlain:

A few years later, a story goes, a docent was leading a group of teenagers on a tour of the museum. When they got to the Kienholz piece, the docent - also an actress – lectured dramatically about the work. She said that the sculpture shows what kids should not do on a date, that they might get pregnant. The unpaid docent was fired for her theatrics. But her husband, a lawyer, got her reinstated.

The second image on this page is "HimJim." Pat Sparkuhl, the artist who created it, says, "Jim was a special person in our family - a friend who delighted in participating with people and life. His laughter was contagious, often influencing those around him to feel the lightness and joy of an elevated mood. He was a colorful person who was appreciated by many and recognized for his achievements. Now a void exists where happiness and merriment once were. His voice is muted and his image is fading, but the experience of being with him live on."

The third image on this page is "The Book of Love," by Tanya Wilkinson. She made it from a defaced book on women's sexuality, donated by the San Francisco Public Library. (This and other books were severely damaged by a vandal and donated to artists as sources of creation). The book, encased in a purse, opens like a female to reveal symbols of sexuality from Greek mythology to the present.

See also: Collage and Assemblage Art

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