I’ve never been big on parades. Like the circus, they almost
never live up to their creepy psychedelic mythological baggage. So, in spite
of living 10 minutes from Pasadena for a third of my life, I’ve never actually
attended the Rose Parade. Then, a couple of years ago, I happened to be catching
a cheap movie in the early evening of New Year’s Day at the Academy 6, and stumbled
across something much more up my alley — the entire parade route was heaped
with the detritus of the forced-cheerfulness march, and hardly a squalling brat
or drum majorette in sight. Just a glorious, flickering mosaic of brightly colored
paper, iridescent plastic, abandoned balloons, fast-food packaging, commingled
with big-ticket items like clothing, furniture and the occasional small appliance
swirling around the now-vacant skeletal infrastructure of the spectator shelving
units. Like the best art, it was effortlessly more poetic and hinted at far
more mysterious revels than the chamber-of-commerce spectacle in whose shadow
it huddled. And the parking was much better.

Innovation in art often means seeing something that’s been sitting
right in front of you with new eyes, and communicating that awareness to others.
Many of the revolutionary leaps in painting over the last century, for example,
have been directly traceable to the “discovery” of art by psychiatric
inmates, children and indigenous “primitive” people. Likewise, one
of the major streams of modernism consisted of reclaiming the castoffs that
our society had designated as useless crap and raising it up to the status of
a precious object. Marcel Duchamp’s found urinal sculpture Fountain is
perhaps the most famous example of this strategy, but it’s really only the most
concise of an enormous pantheon of trash-can samplings. Beginning with Picasso’s
incorporation of collage elements in his early cubist paintings, modern art
embarked on a love affair with the rubbish heap that continues to this day.

Since Pasadena is such a fastidious community, there’s probably
only a short window of opportunity to explore the post-festivity detritus so
you might have to swing back another day to check out the Norton Simon’s “Lost
but Found,” as the museum itself is boarded up for New Year’s Day. An exhibition
culled from the museum’s permanent collection, “Lost but Found” sketches
a modest but engaging history of the history of modern fine-art collage, from
its roots in European cubism and Dada through West Coast Beat-era assemblage
to a handful of more-or-less contemporary work.

The show takes a fairly scattershot approach to its subject, given
the strengths and limitations of the Norton Simon collection. An Ed Moses painting
is included on the basis of the patched-together scraps of canvas used as a
ground, Duchamp is prominently featured as much due to leftover holdings from
the institution’s incarnation as the Pasadena Art Museum (when it hosted the
artist’s first American museum retrospective in 1963) as to Duchamp’s importance
to the collagist sensibility.

Lost but Foundthe show starts with
a tiny bang, with several of Kurt Schwitters’ “merz” collages and
a surprise to me: the fabricated Lust Murder Box No. 2, which simultaneously
translates Schwitters’ always visually engaging cut-and-paste aesthetics into
the crafty medium of finely worked exotic woods and equates collage —
a practice that is often mistaken for a superficial decorative strategy — with
the modern era’s unspoken fetish for mutilation and serial murder. Neat! Schwitters
— probably because he died in Ambleside, England, in 1948 — remains an underappreciated
pioneer in many areas including sound art, zines, installation, concrete poetry,
and now knickknack design. But he remains best known for the tiny collages of
materials scavenged while walking the streets of Hanover, and his position at
the opening of this survey — while begging the possibility of a more expansive
showing — is dead on.

The rest of the first gallery is an odd mix & match, with
atypical early works from ab-ex stainer Helen Frankenthaler, a typically stunning
bedpost symphony from Louise Nevelson, and an unusually effective 1962 still
life by pop hack Tom Wesselmann. A large share of space is taken up with Duchamp’s
late-period self-referential multiples — 1960s re-creations of his 1914 readymade
Bottle Rack and 1919 mustachioed Mona Lisa, even a replica of his droll
1941 Boîte-en-Valise portable retrospective, itself consisting
of miniature replicas of his signature works.

There’s an enormous gap between the aura of one of Schwitters’
unique abstract paper collages and Duchamp’s production-line hall-of-mirrors
wisecracks, a chasm that only widens in the next gallery — a strong cross section
of dark Surrealist-tinged assemblage works from local heroes Ed Kienholz, Wallace
Berman and George Herms and a powerful pair of vintage works by Bay Area bricoleur
Bruce Conner (and one weird-with-a-beard appliance from weird-to-start-with
Jess). It is this brand of collagism — with its dolly parts, costume jewelry,
and moldy Victorian cabinetry, textbooks and undergarments that set the vocabulary
for countless generations of imitators. And it was these subsequent inferior
homages — with their romanticism, easy symbolic read and subjective psychological
emphasis — that exiled collage from the increasingly cool climes of the art

It’s been rare to find collage in any mainstream fine art
since the late ’60s. With occasional exceptions (like the meticulous Cornell-like
constructions of Alexis Smith), collage has been relegated to the secret realms
of the middle-aged hippie hobbyist and the post-punk pop deconstructionist.
The latter area has proved tremendously fertile, with artists like Jamie Reid
and Winston Smith carrying the torch of formally rigorous politically engaged
photomontage design lit by John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch. Davy Rothbart’s
Found magazine has distilled the contemporary archaeological mission
of the zine subculture into its purest form, pasting up found rants, laundry
lists and mash notes into a unintended patchwork quilt of hilarious and poignant

Found’s latest offering is a 7-inch single of modified
thrift-store cassettes similar to the work of Optigan champion Pea Hicks in
his legendary mid-’90s CD compilation Lucas and Friends Discover a World
of Sound
, Soundsfromthepocket.com’s two CDs of Found Sound, Otis
Fodder’s 365 mp3 project (now archived at www.ubu.com) or his
earlier exhaustive nine-volume Party Fun With Recorders, not to mention
the entire subgenre of found plunderphonics lurking on the Internet. And don’t
get me started on the Internet. Disappearing old-style media are providing enough
to chew on. From Charles Phoenix’s invariably delightful shows of estate-sale
35mm holiday slides to Rick Prelinger’s laborious preservation of ephemeral
film, from Ian Philips’ Lost collection of missing pet posters to the
quasi-legal TV Carnage DVD compilations of celebrity humiliations, cable-access
star turns, infomercials, and snippets from best-forgotten ’80s afternoon TV
specials, it seems like much of today’s most exciting art is being scraped off
the bottom of America’s Nikes and held up in a decidedly un-unironic light.

Not so surprisingly, the result of all this underground pressure
has allowed collage to seep back into the lower echelons of the art world, particularly
in the sticker-fun neopsychedelic bicoastal art-school generation of the last
couple of years. More deliberate reinventions have also been popping up — Liz
Rowe’s recent residency at the Brewery’s Raid Projects resulted in a series
of monstrously self-replicating grocery-store fliers as visually dazzling as
they are subtly critical of our culture’s frenzied consumerism.

None of this kind of work makes an appearance in “Lost but
Found,” which never claims to be comprehensive. Petering out after some
mid-’80s work by Llyn Foulkes, the show manages one final shot of virtuosic
artmaking from — who else — dumpster-diver extraordinaire Robert Rauschenberg.
His 1971 suite of Cardbird prints consist of eight carefully reproduced
crushed cardboard boxes vaguely resembling avian wildlife. Each box — down to
the corrugations and stains — are photolithographic copies of the trash-picked
originals, produced in an edition of 75. Not a rarity, especially here in L.A.
where they were printed, but trust a drunken dyslexic to find a conceptual path
between Duchamp’s righteous witticisms and Schwitters’ sophisticated sensory-driven
synthetic formalism, while pointing out a direction for anyone wanting to reinvigorate
collage as a contemporary high-art technique.

Lost But Found: Assemblage, Collage and Sculpture, 1920–2002
| Norton Simon Museum, 411 West Colorado Blvd., Pasadena Through March 28

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