Table Salt is a collage made of printed material adhered to thin board. A bold, geometric pattern in dense black ink dominates a rectangular piece of buff paper measuring some thirty centimetres in height. In the upper zone, the German word ‘Tafelsalz’, oriented vertically, appears in capital letters; the source was a label for a packet of salt. Overlaying this pattern, and oriented in the opposite direction, is a line illustration of two fruits and the word ‘Aprikose’ (meaning ‘apricot’ in German). Mounted on a piece of off-white paper, the image is inscribed by the artist in pencil ‘Z.i.20 – Tafelsalz’ on its lower edge and signed and dated 1922.
Schwitters was born in Hanover, Germany, and spent most of his life there. From late 1918 onwards he began to make collages and assemblages using found objects and in 1919 invented the term Merz to describe his art, a word derived from a textual fragment that he had used in one of these early works. As a concept Merz would become the artist’s personal platform for subversion in art, design, poetry and performance. ‘My ultimate aspiration is the union of art and non-art in the Merz total world view’, he wrote in 1920 (quoted in Elderfield, p.31).
In the case of Table Salt, the prefix ‘Z.i.’ before the number ‘20’ identifies this work as a form of Merz Schwitters called i-Zeichnung or i-drawing. The i-drawings were collages made from found, printed, and often misprinted, material. ‘Idea, material, work of art are identical’, the artist wrote in 1922, the year in which he made Table Salt. ‘i grasps the work of art in its natural state. The only artistic forming that comes in is the recognition of rhythm and expression.’ (Quoted in Elderfield, p.189.) Two years later, he wrote of his role in this process as ‘singling out a part that is rhythmic in itself’ in order to bring about ‘the metamorphosis of a given object’ (quoted in Elderfield, p.188).
Alongside Tate T12391, Schwitters made two further i-drawings in 1922 with offprints of the ‘Tafelsalz’ paper (reproduced in Orchard and Schulz, 2000, no.1073 and no.1074, pp.515–6). Given the character of the imagery of these works, it is quite possible that the raw materials came from the Molling commercial printing plant in Hanover, which the artist frequented in his capacity as a designer. The basement at the plant where the proofs and misprints were discarded became ‘a treasure trove for Kurt’, according to his friend, the artist Kate Steinitz (1889–1975). ‘[He] sorted out the unfinished pages that appealed to him as carefully as a connoisseur would have examined the precious prints in a museum collection.’ (Quoted in Dickerman, p.94.)
Schwitters’s work in the period in which Table Salt was produced was informed both by dada and by constructivism. In Table Salt the geometrical structure formed by the block printed element is reminiscent of constructivist
. The artist’s interest in the randomness of the design, in which two apparently unrelated elements are united, suggests a dadaist emphasis on the role of nature or chance in art making.
Karin Orchard and Isabel Schulz (eds.), Kurt Schwitters: Catalogue Raisonné, vol.1, Hanover 2000, reproduced p.479 and no.1072 p.515.
The Stage of Drawing: Gesture and Act, exhibition catalogue, The Drawing Center, New York 2003, reproduced no.69 [p.37].
Leah Dickerman, ‘Schwitters Fec.’ in Isabel Schulz (ed.), Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage, exhibition catalogue, The Menil Collection, Houston 2010, pp.87–97.