The twentieth century’s ‘single most revolutionary formal innovation in artistic representation’[i] was first used by the artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, in 1912, when they began to paste objects onto the surfaces of their paintings, including everyday ephemera such as newspaper clippings or ticket stubs. For them, the role of art was not just to document life, but to embody it. Before long, their method had a name: collage. Coined by the poet Apollinaire, the word collage derives from the French word coller, meaning to paste. But, as Marjorie Perloff has noted, ‘the process of pasting is only the beginning of collage’.[ii] Brandon Taylor points out that, idiomatically, just as in English, the word coller can refer to students ‘absorbed (collés) in their books’, to dogs with ‘their noses collés à la voie or “stuck to the path”’, to unauthorised sexual relationships, and, when prefixed with the word papier, to wallpaper.[iii] So whilst a collage may simply be, on the one hand, what the Chambers dictionary terms ‘a picture made up from scraps of paper and other odds and ends pasted up’, it may also embody what Daniel Belgrad calls ‘the combined intellectual, emotional, and physical engagement of the body-mind with its environment’.[iv] Furthermore, collage evolved as a visual, material practice with strong poetic associations – re-invented by artists, named by a poet, used by both. In other words, collage is about sticking string and scraps of ephemera to paper; and it is also about an intellectual and emotional relationship with a given aesthetic environment.

Pablo Picasso Bowl of Fruit Violin And Bottle

Pablo Picasso, Bowl of Fruit, Violin and Bottle (1914)

Collage is about encounters. Its advent in the twentieth century brought about the deconstruction of old barriers between language and art, with the use of pasted letters in paintings giving rise ‘to poetic associations which mere spots of colour [could] not evoke’, to quote Christian Zervos[v]. This in turn brought about the dissolution of perceived impediments between art and life, demanding that the viewer, reader, or listener increasingly play their own role in the landscape of a work of art or literature, simultaneously experiencing what Daniel Kane calls the ‘provocative joys of juxtaposition and mysteriousness’, whilst also contemplating what it is that ‘constitutes authority, identity, voice, originality, sincerity, and art’.[vi] Its name’s origin is deceptively simple, even contentious, given that it so readily spans the disciplines. Collage has been described variously as ‘the growth of the surface towards us in real space’; as ‘the sensation of physically operating on the world’; and as an ‘intuitive self-definition of the artist among objects’.[vii] It is multi-dimensional and interdisciplinary: artistic systems of order, upon whose assumed absence the collage aesthetic is founded, are replaced by what Martyn Chalk calls simply ‘some intuitive grasp of how the world might be put together’.[viii] Joe Brainard’s collages, for instance, are illuminated by the premise that the ‘highly personal magic’ that emanates from his chosen materials enables those materials, regardless of their separateness, to have an effect on one another.[ix] Collage not only ‘declares the continuity of realms’ – it also declares the contiguity of realms, and carries the ‘implications of a life beyond art’,[x] without which the art in question could not exist. The context out of which the collage emerges is ultimately that from which it is made, embodying, as Thomas Brockelman suggests, ‘a kind of immediate presence beyond the necessity of representation’.[xi]

Juan Gris Die Jalousie

Juan Gris, Die Jalousie (1914)


Robert Rauschenberg Collection formerly untitled

Robert Rauschenberg, Collection (formerly Untitled) (1954-1955)

John Ashbery Hotel Boulevard 2016

John Ashbery, Hotel Boulevard (2016). Courtesy Tibor de Nagy, New York

Throughout the twentieth century and beyond, collage was used by artists, writers, and musicians associated with movements as diverse and significant as Dada, Modernism, Surrealism, Futurism, Russian Constructivism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and more. It was used to destabilise or even destroy traditional representational and institutional templates; and it itself became a template. By the mid-1960s, having been used provocatively by artists across the globe for fifty years, collage was at once a countercultural sensibility and a technique, and a mode of thinking, creating, and being that spanned art, literature, and music both formally and affectively. It had become the go-to method for subverting traditional methodologies of reading and interpretation. In Brandon Taylor’s words, by mid-century collage was ‘indifferent to questions of form or niceties of theory’:[xii] from the walls of teenage bedrooms to the Museum of Modern Art, via zines, music studios, publishing houses, and advertising companies, collage was everywhere. Jackson Pollock, Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Allan Kaprow, Joseph Cornell, Jess, and of course Joe Brainard, to name but a few key art world figures, had all used or were using it in various ways, unified by the processes of transforming the un-extraordinary into art in order to generate ideas about what might be concealed within the stuff of everyday life. Different methods were unified by a privileging of the idea of creative re-use.


The ‘About Joe’ section of this website discusses his collages in more depth, but it’s worth reflecting briefly on the collage-making activities that various artists and writers, including Joe Brainard, John Ashbery, Ron Padgett, and Kenward Elmslie would engage in at Elmslie’s Vermont summer residence during the 1970s. In keeping with the collaborative ethos of those varied artists and writers, collage-making at Elmslie’s house often occurred collectively and companionably, not to mention impulsively: ‘after dinner and a certain amount of wine’, Ashbery recalled, ‘we would sit around the table, cutting up old magazines and splicing them back together for our own amusement’.[xiii] This kind of collaboration was less about making art or poetry than it was about connecting or reconnecting with friends. The collages were made for the sake of making them, and for their beauty or humour, with their creators never ‘thinking anyone else would see them or be interested’.[xiv] They were typical, in this sense, of Brainard and Ashbery’s particular interest in creating art that was inherently valuable as art and / or on its own terms, and that resisted monetization, as well as being emblematic of the spirit of fun with which they both infused their collages (and other work). They were also typical of what Yasmine Shamma calls ‘Brainard’s inclusivity – often enmeshed in the art of collage’ – an inclusivity that is, ‘as [Alice] Notley calls it, “beautiful”’.[xv]

Joe Brainard Untitled 1975

Joe Brainard, Untitled (1975)

For further reading on collage, see:

  • David Banash, Collage Culture: Readymades, Meaning, and the Age of Consumption (Rodopi, 2013)
  • Thomas Brockelman, The Frame and the Mirror: On Collage and the Post Modern (Northwestern University Press, 2001)
  • Rona Cran, Collage in Twentieth-Century Art, Literature, and Culture: Joseph Cornell, William Burroughs, Frank O’Hara, and Bob Dylan (Ashgate/Routledge, 2014)
  • Stephen Fredman, Contextual Practice: Assemblage and the Erotic in Postwar Poetry and Art (Stanford University Press, 2010)
  • Marjorie Perloff, ‘Collage and Poetry’, in Encyclopaedia of Aesthetics, Michael Kelly (Oxford University Press, 1998)
  • Brandon Taylor, Collage: The Making of Modern Art (Thames & Hudson, 2004)

[i] Gregory Ulmer, ‘The Object of Post-Criticism’, in Collage: Critical Views, ed. Katherine Hoffman (Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1989), p. 384.

[ii] Marjorie Perloff, ‘The Invention of Collage’, in Collage, ed. Jeanine Parisier Plottel (New York: New York Literary Forum, 1983), p. 6.

[iii] Brandon Taylor, Collage: The Making of Modern Art (London and New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004), p. 8.

[iv] Daniel Belgrad, The Culture of Spontaneity: Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 135.

[v] Quoted in Herta Wescher, Collage, trans. Robert E. Wolf (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1978), p. 21.

[vi] Daniel Kane, What is Poetry: Conversations with the American Avant-Garde (New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2003), p. 12.

[vii] Kazimir Malevich, ‘Spatial Cubism’, in Essays on Art 1915-1933 (vol II.), ed. Troels Andersen (London: Rapp & Whiting, 1969), 60; Robert Motherwell, ‘Beyond the Aesthetic’, Design 47, no. 8 (April 1946): pp. 38-9; Carlo Carrà, quoted in Christine Poggi, In Defiance of Painting: Cubism, Futurism and the Invention of Collage (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 185-6.

[viii] Chalk, Missing, Presumed Destroyed: Seven Reconstructions of Lost Works by V.E. Tatlin (Kingston upon Hull: Ferens Art Gallery, 1981), 9.

[ix] Wescher, p. 29.

[x] David Rosand, ‘Paint, Paste and Plane’, in Plottel, 128.

[xi] Brockelman, The Frame and the Mirror: On Collage and the Post Modern (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2001), 1.

[xii] Taylor, p.171.

[xiii] John Ashbery, statement for the catalogue of his collage show, 4 September 2008, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, NYC. Copyright © John Ashbery 2008.  All rights reserved. N.p.

[xiv] Ashbery, quoted in Cotter, ‘The Poetry of Scissors and Glue’, New York Times, 8 September 2008.

[xv] Yasmine Shamma, Introduction to Joe Brainard’s Art (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), p. 4.