Assemblage is art that is made by assembling disparate elements which are often scavenged by the artist, or sometimes bought specially

Pablo Picasso, 'Still Life' 1914
Pablo Picasso
Still Life 1914
© Succession Picasso/DACS 2002


The use of assemblage as an approach to making art goes back to Pablo Picasso’s cubist constructions, the three dimensional works he began to make from 1912. An early example is his Still Life 1914 which is made from scraps of wood and a length of tablecloth fringing, glued together and painted. Picasso continued to use assemblage intermittently throughout his career.

In 1918 dada artist Kurt Schwitters began to use scavenged scrap materials to create collages and assemblages; he called this technique ‘merz’. Assemblage also became the basis for many surrealist objects. Inspired by psychologist Sigmund Freud’s writings about the unconscious and dreams, surrealist artists often combined unlikely combinations of found objects to create surprising and unsettling sculptures.

Robert Rauschenberg Monogram 1955–59
Robert Rauschenberg
Monogram 1955–59
Medium Oil, paper, fabric, printed paper, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe heel,
and tennis ball on canvas with oil on Angora goat and rubber tire on wood platform
mounted on four casters
Dimensions 1067 x 1607 x 1638 mm

‘Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it. [Repeat.]’
Jasper Johns, sketchbook note, 1964

In the 1950s and 1960s assemblage became widely used. Artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg adopted an apparently anti-aesthetic approach to making art, using scrappy materials and found objects alongside messily applied paint to create expressionist reliefs and sculptures (earning them the name neo-dada). While artists of the arte povera movement, such as Mario Merz, made artworks using an assemblage of throwaway natural and everyday materials including, soil, rags and twigs in order to challenge and disrupt the values of the commercialised contemporary gallery system.

As a technique assemblage continues to be extensively used, for example in sculptures of YBA artists such as Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst and Jake and Dinos Chapman. Many contemporary artists, such as Tomoko Takahashi, Christina Mackie and Mike Nelson, create large-scale installations from assembled scavenged materials and found objects.

Sarah Lucas, 'Beyond the Pleasure Principle' 2000
Sarah Lucas
Beyond the Pleasure Principle 2000
Mixed media
1560 x 1905 x 2900 mm Variable
Presented by the Patrons of New Art 2002© Sarah Lucas

The development of assemblage

See the development of assemblage and explore some of the different ways artists have combined disparate objects and materials in this slideshow of artworks from Tate’s collection:

1 of 19
  • Kurt Schwitters, 'Picture of Spatial Growths - Picture with Two Small Dogs' 1920-39
    Kurt Schwitters
    Picture of Spatial Growths - Picture with Two Small Dogs 1920-39
    Mixed media collage on board
    frame: 1155 x 863 x 131 mm
    support: 970 x 690 x 110 mm
    Purchased 1984© DACS, 2002
  • Marcel Duchamp, 'Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy?' 1921, replica 1964
    Marcel Duchamp
    Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy? 1921, replica 1964
    Mixed media
    unconfirmed: 114 x 220 x 160 mm
    Purchased 1999© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • Man Ray, 'Emak Bakia' 1926, remade 1970
    Man Ray
    Emak Bakia 1926, remade 1970
    Wood and horse hair
    object: 510 x 197 x 260 mm, 1.4 kg
    Presented by the Tate Collectors Forum 2002© Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • Eileen Agar, 'Angel of Anarchy' 1936-40
    Eileen Agar
    Angel of Anarchy 1936-40
  • Louise Nevelson, 'Black Wall' 1959
    Louise Nevelson
    Black Wall 1959
    Painted wood
    object: 2642 x 2165 x 648 mm
    Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1962
  • Peter Blake, 'The Toy Shop' 1962
    Peter Blake
    The Toy Shop 1962
    Mixed media, glass and painted wood
    displayed: 1568 x 1940 x 340 mm
    Purchased 1970© Peter Blake 2002. All rights reserved, DACS
  • Jannis Kounellis, 'Untitled' 1960-98
    Jannis Kounellis
    Untitled 1960-98
    Steel panel, two enamel drawings mounted on canvas, sack with coal, three hooks and hanging rod
    displayed: 2000 x 1800 x 460 mm
    Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008© Jannis Kounellis
  • Michelangelo Pistoletto, 'Venus of the Rags' 1967,1974
    Michelangelo Pistoletto
    Venus of the Rags 1967,1974
    Marble and textiles
    displayed: 2120 x 3400 x 1100 mm
    Purchased with assistance from Tate International Council 2006© Michaelangelo Pistoletto
  • Arman (Armand Fernandez), 'Bluebeard's Wife' 1969
    Arman (Armand Fernandez)
    Bluebeard's Wife 1969
    Mixed media in polyester resin
    object: 835 x 290 x 320 mm
    Purchased 1982© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • Daniel Spoerri, 'Prose Poems' 1959-60
    Daniel Spoerri
    Prose Poems 1959-60
    Mixed media on wood
    unconfirmed: 690 x 542 x 361 mm
    Purchased 1982© DACS, 2002
  • Jean Tinguely, 'Débricollage' 1970
    Jean Tinguely
    Débricollage 1970
    Steel, mixed media and electrical mechanism
    © The estate of Jean Tinguely
  • Edward Kienholz Sawdy 1971 (detail)
    Edward Kienholz
    Sawdy 1971 (detail)
  • Braco Dimitrijevic, 'Triptychos Post Historicus: Repeated Secret' 1978-85
    Braco Dimitrijevic
    Triptychos Post Historicus: Repeated Secret 1978-85
    Mixed media
    object: 2020 x 915 x 700 mm
    Presented by the artist 1985© Braco Dimitrijevic
  • Bill Woodrow, 'English Heritage - Humpty Fucking Dumpty' 1987
    Bill Woodrow
    English Heritage - Humpty Fucking Dumpty 1987
    Mixed media
    object: 2390 x 3276 x 1067 mm
    Purchased 1987© Bill Woodrow
  • Jake Chapman, Dinos Chapman, 'Little Death Machine (Castrated)' 1993
    Jake Chapman, Dinos Chapman
    Little Death Machine (Castrated) 1993
    Mixed media
    displayed: 1384 x 742 x 943 mm
    Presented anonymously 1997© Jake and Dinos Chapman
  • Mike Nelson, 'The Coral Reef' 2000
    Mike Nelson
    The Coral Reef 2000
    Mixed media installation of 15 interconnecting spaces with sourced, found and adapted objects
    Overall display dimensions variable
    Presented by Tate Members 2008© Mike Nelson, courtesy Matt's Gallery, London
  • Jim Lambie, 'Ska's Not Dead' 2001
    Jim Lambie
    Ska's Not Dead 2001
    Record deck, glitter, glove, safety pins, buttons and beads
    object: 360 x 360 x 720 mm
    Presented by Tate Members 2006© Jim Lambie
  • Gary Webb, 'Sound of the Blue Light' 2002
    Gary Webb
    Sound of the Blue Light 2002
    Stone, wood, plastic, brass and paper with found audio track, 12mm, looped
    displayed: 1815 x 2700 x 2800 mm
    Presented by the Patrons of New Art Special Purchase Fund through the Tate Foundation 2003© Gary Webb, courtesy The Approach, London
  • Martin Boyce, 'Untitled' 2009
    Martin Boyce
    Untitled 2009
    Altered Eames plywood leg splints, brass, cardboard, mdf and acrylic paint
    object: 1663 x 220 x 240 mm
    Presented by Tate Patrons 2011© Martin Boyce

In focus: Joseph Cornell, Niki de Saint Phalle, Jake and Dinos Chapman

Joseph Cornell: The poetry of assembled objects

Self-taught American artist, sculptor and filmmaker Joseph Cornell, is best known for his poetic but puzzling boxes of assembled objects.

Joseph Cornell, 'Planet Set, Tête Etoilée, Giuditta Pasta (dédicace)' 1950
Joseph Cornell
Planet Set, Tête Etoilée, Giuditta Pasta (dédicace) 1950

© The Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2015

John Stezaker on Joseph Cornell
Contemporary artist John Stezaker (whose collages make use of found photographs an postcards) reveals his debt to Joseph Cornell.

Kusama’s relationship with Joseph Cornell
Find out about the unlikely bond between Joseph Cornell and the flamboyant charismatic artist Yayoi Kusama (best known for her obsessive use of dots in her installations, paintings and sculptures).

An ‘overflowing, a richness & poetry’: Joseph Cornell’s Planet Set and Giuditta Pasta
An in-depth exploration of Tate’s Joseph Cornell box assemblage, Planet Set and Giuditta Pasta.

Niki de Saint Phalle: Assemblage as expression

Niki de Saint Phalle burst into the art world in the 1960s using painting, sculpture and assemblage to explore themes of femininity, mythology and fairy-tales, personal anxiety and international political conflict.

Watch this video, made at the time of a major exhibition of her work at Tate Liverpool in 2008, for an introduction to Niki de St Phalle and an overview of the development of her work powerful work.

Niki de Saint Phalle: Exhibition Guide
Explore the artist’s work in more detail in this online exhibition guide.

Jake and Dinos Chapman: Assemblage and installation

YBA artists Jake and Dinos Chapman draw from all areas of culture including art history, philosophy, artificial intelligence and cybernetic theory to create their sculptures and installations formed from assembled objects.

Jake and Dinos Chapman When Humans Walked the Earth Installation
Jake and Dinos Chapman
When Humans Walked the Earth 2006

Jake and Dinos Chapman: When humans walked the earth
Explore the online guide to this 2007 exhibition for which the artists created a series of improbable machines, made from bronze casts of assembled objects, that emulate human functions such as breathing, thinking or sexual intercourse.

The Chapman Family Collection
Listen to curator Chris Stephens exploring this installation of carved objects…which are not what they at first seem!

‘I’d like to have stepped on Goya’s toes, shouted in his ears and punched him in the face’
Found out why a series of gory etchings from the early nineteenth century by Spanish artist Francisco Goya have obsessively and repeatedly influenced the visual language of the Chapmans.

Assemblage in context

‘We make ourselves and re-make ourselves by the objects we surround ourselves with’. Artist Brian Griffiths talks about the multitude of objects he collects and creates within a tour of his London studio:

TateShots: Mike Nelson, Coral Reef
In this interview artist Mike Nelson explains the ideas and ideologies behind his installation The Coral Reef  2000, and tells us why he wants the spectator to feel ‘lost in a world of lost people’.

Animating the Archives: Eileen Agar
From the mid 1930s, Eileen Agar experimented with assemblage and collage inspired by the ideas and processes of surrealism. Watch this video to find out about her work through the context of her letters, objects and sketchbooks in Tate’s Archive.

TateShots: Abraham Cruzvillegas
Artist Abraham Cruzvillegas explains how the improvisatory approach to house construction in his native Mexico, influenced his approach to assembling materials and objects to make his sculptures.

Other perspectives on assemblage

John Latham, 'Observer IV' 1960
John Latham
Observer IV 1960
Plaster, resin, books, wire, metal and spray paint on canvas and board
object: 2440 x 1830 x 380 mm
Purchased 1983© The estate of John Latham (noit prof. of flattime), courtesy Lisson Gallery, London

Poem of the Month – A Charred Life by George Szirtes on John Latham’s The Observer IV
Read poet George Szirtes poem inspired by John Latham’s assemblage painting, The Observer IV 1960 one of a series that relates to Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov.

Kusama and Fashion
Find out how installation artist Yayoi Kusama applied the ideas and techniques of assemblage to her wardrobe.

Tate Worlds: The Toy Shop
Players of Minecraft, explore a magical world inspired by Peter Blake’s artwork The Toy Shop, with help from Stampylongnose!

In detail

X-radiography of Picasso's Still Life reveals more than fifty factory-produced nails
X-radiography of Still Life reveals more than fifty factory-produced nails

And the word was made art
In this article curator and writer Paul Moorhouse looks into why books were such an important motif in the assemblages and performances of conceptual artist John Latham.

A Technical Study of Picasso’s Construction Still Life 1914
Made from partly recycled and partly carved wooden elements, and reflecting Picasso’s experiments with materials and construction during the cubist years, his constructed Still Life of 1914 is the focus of this research paper.

Schwitters in Britain: Exhibition guide
Find out about the extraordinary life, ideas and work of Kurt Schwitters, an important pioneer of assemblage techniques, in this online guide to the 2013 exhibition of the artist’s work at Tate Britain.

Unland: The Place of Testimony
This research article explores in depth the work of Columbian artist Doris Salcedo who brings together everyday domestic and personal items, (such as furniture and clothing); and organic substances, (such as bone, hair and animal fibre) to make evocative works that address loss, grief, pain, memory, absence and mourning.

Related glossary terms

Techniques, processes and concepts:

Collage, found objectreadymadeappropriation, mixed mediainstallation, merz

Groups and movements:

Dadasurrealism, neo-dada, nouveau réalismearte poveraYBAs