Assemblage is art that is made by assembling disparate elements which are often scavenged by the artist, or sometimes bought specially
- Introduction to assemblage
- Assemblage artists in focus
- Assemblage in context
- Other perspectives on assemblage
- In detail: In-depth articles and texts on assemblage
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.
‘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.
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:
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.
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
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
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.
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.