[untitled (what is rubbish?)]

catalogue number: hdv 1956.012.1
date created: 1956
classification: works on paper
work type: collage
media: fragment of posters taken from a wall in Paris mounted on board
dimensions: 36 × 15.4 cm
signature and inscriptions: signed 'HER' and dated 'juli 1956, paris' on the reverse + note: "what is rubbish?"
current repository: private collection, Paris (acquired directly from the artist)
current repository number:
collecting history:
related works:
photo/scan: archive herman de vries
rights & reproduction: herman de vries
extended description

[21] It follows from this that the dísciplined and watchful eye may find already existing objects and events as revelatory as any created by the artist. For such objects are not made by artistic will and intention but by the hazards of chance and change, and the artistic act of creation consists in their discovery. Between 1956 and 1959 de vries 'created' a number of collages trouvés whose beauty increases with the effects of time as it modifies them and distances

[22] them from their source. They are to be distinguished from the cubist and the surrealist forms of classical modernist collage, both of which were constrained by what might be described as syntactic or logical structures. In both those forms of collage, new meaning is generated by adding one thing to another to produce an implicit connection. In cubist collage this was a bringing together of familiar objects (represented by drawing or paint or by fragments of 'reality' - wallpaper, veneer, newspaper, etc.) which had multiple implications, to do with perception, art and life. In surrealist collage (and montage) it was the juxtaposition of objects and images from categorically different fields of meaning that created a super-reality and engendered the appropriate shock. Both types of collage depended on a logic of connection/disconnection.

As an artist de vries was interested in neither procedure. He was, however, an admirer of the merz works of Kurt Schwitters, the first collages that lacked those formal, or 'logical', structures. Many (but by no means all) of Schwitters's collages incorporated items of cultural detritus - bus tickets, bits of newspaper, used postal stamps, rags, etc.- into arbitrary structures, whose coherence is to be discovered after the act of creation: they have a kind of inevitable objectness. The a-logical nature of Schwitterian collage appealed to de vries, who could see that the operations of chance - in both the finding of random materials and in the somewhat random processes of his gluing them together - had resulted in an object that had an irrefutable reality in the world. What made the object what it was could only be described retrospectively, in relation to the actuality of the object itself.

de vries was aware, too, of the related Duchampian concept of the readymade: that an object, arbitrarily removed from the field of its intended utility and meaning and placed deliberately in the context of art, might acquire the new status of art-object and be invested with a multiplicity of potential meanings. The artistic act consists in the choice of the object, its naming and designation. Thus the notorious urinal is transfigured: perfectly white, empty of meaning, it becomes, in Suzuki's (perfectly apt) phrase, 'a fountain of infinite possibilities'. Marcel Duchamp famously denied any aesthetic intent in his choice, indeed he selected his readymade objects with a vaunted 'visual indifference', a state which might be compared to the 'emptiness of mind' required by the Zen swordsman or archer. At the moment of effective action the artist is untrammelled by inhibiting consciousness. In his selection of natural objects for presentation de vries abides by this approach: how could one leaf of a particular kind, or one plant of a species, or one clump of turf be 'more beautiful' than another? The effect of both Duchamp's and de vries's 'indifference' is, of course, to direct our attention to the potential beauty of any obiect or action.

de vries at this period created a number of 'found works', each with its own particular interest. In '[untitled (collage trouvé)]' (1959), for instance, he preserved a discoloured filter paperfrom a laboratory experiment containing traces of plant extract: seen against a dark background this abject object assumes the grandeur of a cosmic image, its stains and tears like the dark marks on the surface of the moon. A second '[untitled (collage trouvé)] of 1959 which includes leaves and foil anticipates (unconsciously) the many later works de vries created by the laying down and framed preservation of a bed of leaves found on the forest floor, or of bits of discarded 'rubbish' found in wild places.

The signature piece of this series is '[untitled (what is rubbish?)] (1956), which asks directly the question they all pose implicitly. A tattered collage trouvé of layered sheets torn from a much fly-posted wall, it is a fragment of the urban world redeemed by art. Rubbish has been defined as 'displaced matter': like the designation 'weed' it is not a description of a thing so much as an expression of an attitude towards it ('a weed is a plant growing in the wrong place'). Change the context, change the meaning. The question posed by 'what is rubbish?' is both

[23] direct and rhetorical, both a general question and a challenge specific to the work itself. It recalls, in reverse, the essential Duchampian question, 'what is art?'

We may be tempted here to think, briefly, of Mimmo Rotella's [or Raymond Hains'] torn-poster works of the same period (of which de vries, as it happens, was unaware), but there is a significant difference: whereas Rotella,s décollages sought to look like 'art', de vries's collage trouvé is happy to come into its own, and look like nothing but itself. In Rotella's work, the referential elements - remnant images and names from the popular culture advertised and promoted by the posters - have a social and political poignancy intensified by their defacement and fragmentation. In what is rubbish? the object is itself the subject of the work: it is itself a trace of the transformations its material elements have undergone. It has reverted thereby from the world of social signifying to the indifferent materiality of the processes by which all things, of whatever worth and grade, are 'degraded' to 'rubbish' in the cycle of nature.

Source: Mel Gooding, herman de vries. chance & change (Thames & Hudson : London 2005) 21-23.

exhibition history
1957 'Natuur en Kunst', Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Amsterdam [group]
1980 'herman de vries. werken 1954-1980', Groninger Museum, Groningen
1983 'Informele kunst in België en Nederland 1955-'60', Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague [group]
1984 'Informele kunst in België en Nederland 1955-'60', Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp [group]
1998 'herman de vries. aus der wirklichkeit', Stadthaus Ulm, Ulm
2014 'herman de vries. all', Stedelijk Museum Schiedam, Schiedam
2016 'herman de vries. sculptures trouvées', Ernst Barlach Haus, Hamburg
published references
exhibition catalogue herman de vries. werken 1954-1980 (Groninger Museum : Groningen 1980) image repr. on page 60 (catalogue number 1.5).
exhibition catalogue Informele kunst in België en Nederland 1955-'60. Parallellen in de Nederlandstalige literatuur (Haags Gemeentemuseum : Den Haag 1983) image repr. on page 139.
exhibition catalogue herman de vries. aus der wirklichkeit (Stadt Ulm : Ulm 1998) image repr. on page 30.
monograph herman de vries (Galerie Aline Vidal/Anthèse : Paris 2000) image repr. on page 20.
monograph Mel Gooding, herman de vries. chance and change (Thames & Hudson : London 2006) image repr. on page 23.
monograph Cees de Boer, herman de vries. overal stroomt mijn oog (Uitgeverij De Kunst/Waanders : Zwolle 2014) image repr. on page 62.
exhibition catalogue herman de vries. all (Stedelijk Museum Schiedam : Schiedam 2014) image repr. on page 17.
exhibition catalogue herman de vries. sculptures trouvées (Ernst Barlach Haus : Hamburg 2016) image repr. as no. 3 in catalogue.