informal collages 1959-1961

collage trouvé 9-10/10/59, 1959, 31,5 x 28 cm30 x 21,2 cm, collage

The constructive powers of the human mind', wrote Alan Watts, the most widely read western advocate of Zen, 'are no more artificial than the formative processes of plants or bees, so that from the standpoint of Zen it is no contradiction to say that artistic technique is discipline in spontaneity and spontaneity in discipline. [...] when you paint it is the brush, ink, and paper which determine the result as much as your own hand.'
It follows from this that the disciplined 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 1961 de vries 'created' a number of collages trouvés whose beauty increases with the effects of time as it modifies them and distances 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 'realily' - 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 irrtent 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 object or action.
(...) A 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 "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. 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 therebyfrom the world of social signiíying 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.

Passage from Mel Gooding, herman de vries : chance and change (Thames and Hudson : London 2006) 20-23.
© Mel Gooding; courtesy Mel Gooding.