Pablo Picasso, ‘Still Life’ 1914
Pablo Picasso
Still Life 1914
© Succession Picasso/DACS 2022

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.

Man Ray, ‘Indestructible Object’ 1923, remade 1933, editioned replica 1965
Man Ray
Indestructible Object 1923, remade 1933, editioned replica 1965
© Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022
Mario Merz, ‘Lingotto’ 1968
Mario Merz
Lingotto 1968
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
© The estate of Mario Merz

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. They used scrappy materials and found objects alongside messily applied paint to create expressionist reliefs and sculptures, earning them the name neo-dada. Artists of the Italian arte povera movement, such as Mario Merz, made artworks using an assemblage of throwaway natural and everyday materials including, soil, rags and twigs. Their aim was to challenge and disrupt the values of the commercialised contemporary gallery system.

Sarah Lucas, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Freud)’ 2000
Sarah Lucas
Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Freud) 2000
© Sarah Lucas

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.