Koi is a small abstract drawing by the German artist Kurt Schwitters. It consists of a series of faint lines and bands of text that run both vertically and horizontally across the composition. A thicker black line draws attention to the right side of the work, emphasising the ‘edge’ of a rectangular space in the drawing within which most of the graphic elements are contained. Black, light brown and yellow ochre dominate the work’s colour scheme. The ‘Koi’ of the print’s title has no clear reference point in the image, and there are several indistinct areas of reversed text just visible, but still illegible, running grid-like throughout the design.
Schwitters created Koi in his studio in Hanover in 1932. To make it, the artist drew in ink onto a piece of pre-printed paper which he took from the printing works that he frequented in his capacity as a designer. The reversed lettering printed onto the paper suggests that the sheet may have been an offprint from the printers’ proofs. The blocks of printed lines and text are arranged into a geometrical structure reminiscent of constructivist compositions, which is perhaps why Schwitters chose it as a ground for his drawing. The artist has signed the work in pencil in the bottom-left margin.
Many of Schwitters’s works are composed of discarded everyday materials. These take the form of bus tickets, wallpaper, newspapers, playing cards and fabrics, among many others, while in case of Koi, the found material is the printed paper. Curator Isabel Schulz has said of Schwitters’s use of found objects: ‘the “chunks of everyday use” that Schwitters applied to his collages surrender their original function to be sure, but not all semantic meaning. As used objects, discarded materials distinctly relate to the social reality of their time.’ (Schulz 2011, p.52.) Although Schwitters placed emphasis on an artwork’s autonomy in relation to its context, there is a conflict between the inherent social meaning of found objects and their abstract forms. In Koi, the lettering is a reminder of the paper’s original purpose and context, yet because the letters are reversed and do not perform their intended function they also become abstract shapes in the work. Untitled (fec.) 1920 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) is another, earlier example of a work by Schwitters that contains typographical elements. Schulz has noted that ‘images such as these suggest the degree to which the print medium was integral to Schwitters’s self-conception as artist … Schwitters notably identifies himself with the figure of the printmaker’ (Schulz 2011, p.92). In Koi Schwitters undoubtedly made reference to the centrality of printed materials to his practice and to what Schulz refers to as his ‘heightened attention to the visual and material aspects of publically circulating printed language’ (Schulz 2011, p.91).
Schwitters began making collages in 1918 and produced them in large numbers for the remainder of his career (see, for instance, Vierecke im Raum 1920, private collection). In 1919 he began using the term ‘Merz’ (which originated from the German word ‘Kommerz’, meaning ‘commerce’) to describe his principle of assembling found materials (see Elderfield 1985, p.12). The muted colour scheme found in Koi is reminiscent of his earliest collages, a tonal emphasis that would recur in Schwitters’s work in the later 1930s when he fled to Norway in the face of rising National Socialism in Germany (see Schulz 2011, p.57). Schwitters’s work was influenced by the playful collage elements of dada and surrealism and by the bold abstraction of constructivism, each movements with which he was heavily involved from 1918 onwards. In 1937 Schwitters’s artworks were featured in the Nazis’ exhibition of ‘degenerate art’ in Munich and were also removed from institutions in Berlin, Hanover, Mannheim and Breslau. However, around this time his work was being promoted in Britain and America by key art establishment figures such as Peggy Guggenheim, who featured five of Schwitters’s works in a show in her London gallery in 1938.
John Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, London 1985.
Isabel Schulz (ed.), Kurt Schwitters: Colour and Collage, exhibition catalogue, Menil Collection, Houston 2011.
Mel Gooding, Kurt Schwitters, exhibition catalogue, Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London 2013.
Supported by Christie’s.