Sari Dienes: Pioneer in the Art of Assemblage


In 1947, abstract artist Sari Dienes took a three-month trip to the Southwest United States that fundamentally altered her career. Dienes had previously concentrated on two-dimensional work, but the rugged, unfamiliar environment—in combination with her study of Zen Buddhism—caused her to both examine the found material in her surroundings more closely and reevaluate the essence of art itself. As she later recalled, “experiencing the natural formations as pieces of sculpture changed my whole attitude to life, to art.” Upon her return, she began translating these newfound insights into a passion for assemblage.

Sari Dienes in New Mexico, 1947 (photograph courtesy of the Sari Dienes Foundation)

Assemblage, according to one critic, is the “3-dimensional cousin of collage.” Like collage, assemblage is a challenge of unification, but with the additional element of multiple levels and a greater variety of texture and materials. The genre dates back to the early twentieth-century with the Cubist and Surrealist constructions of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, and André Breton, all of whom highly influenced Dienes at the beginning of her career (especially Léger, a former teacher). However, most of those pieces primarily utilized man-made found elements; Dienes broke new ground in the field by merging their European avant-garde sensibilities with her nascent Southwest enthusiasm for wild objects, creating singularly original works that seamlessly married the natural world with the manufactured. A perfect example of this unique amalgam is her later piece, Wire, fashioned in 1975 from multicolored wire, wood, leather, twine, and telephone components.

Wire (1975) by Sari Dienes

Dienes’ ingenious pairings of form and material had a profound impact on not only her own aesthetic progress, but that of two of her early 1950s studio assistants, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, then young unknown artists. Inspired by their work with Dienes, both men would soon create their own versions of assemblages, in particular Rauschenberg, who referred to his pieces as “combos,” the best known of which is his 1959 masterwork, Canyon. Even here Dienes played an integral part, though: it was she who gave Rauschenberg the infamous taxidermied eagle at its center.

Canyon (1959) by Robert Rauschenberg (photograph courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art)

A young Robert Rauschenberg

In 1961, the Museum of Modern Art codified the movement with The Art of Assemblage, a pioneering exhibition which featured Braque, Picasso, Rauschenberg, Joseph Cornell, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp, among others, as well as Dienes.

Dienes' correspondence with the Museum of Modern Art regarding her participation in The Art of Assemblage exhibition

She continued making the genre a central segment of her artistic output afterward, and created Silver Assemblage with Mirrors—a large, intricate ensemble of mirrors, textiles, shells, and plastic elements, all affixed to a silver-painted wooden board—less than a year before her death in 1992.

Silver Assemblage with Mirrors (1991) by Sari Dienes

Recently, public and aesthetic interest in assemblage as a discrete art form has experienced a marked resurgence. Pavel Zoubok Gallery, located in New York, specializes in post-war collage, assemblage and mixed media installations, and has presented the work of numerous prominent artists in the field, including Judy Pfaff, Charles McGill, Andras Borocz, and, in November 2014, Sari Dienes. In January, Pace Gallery displayed the work of Dienes’ contemporary, Louise Nevelson, in a very well received show, Collage and Assemblage. Dienes’ work was also exhibited at the Drawing Center this past October. Additionally, younger artists such as Dave McKean, a contemporary English artist best known for DC Comic’s Sandman series, have entered the field, both energizing its content and assuring the genre’s continued vitality and relevance to a new generation.

Both Wire and Silver Assemblage with Mirrors, as well as the archival material pictured above (unless otherwise indicated), are currently on display at RARE.


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