View of Kurt Schwitter’s exhibition “Merz,” 2016, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, at Gmurzynska.

This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of Dada, and so it seems fitting that Galerie Gmurzynska, which is situated on the same block as the original Cabaret Voltaire, held an exhibition dedicated to Kurt Schwitters, one of the movement’s protagonists. It also produced a three-volume catalogue. Schwitters was a veritable artist’s artist: though his influence can be discerned throughout art of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, his name does not carry the luster of Picasso or Duchamp. This is surprising, given the forms he pioneered and the sheer variety of works his anarchic, free-for-all approach to art-making enabled. Still, while having garnered the respect of his peers worldwide, Schwitters died impoverished and in exile, residing in the UK’s Lake District and painting commissioned portraits of locals for extra cash. 

This exhibition thus served as a welcome opportunity to reconsider the work of this master, whence a wealth of abstractions poured forth. The earliest piece here, Der Einsame (The Lonely, 1918)—a moody charcoal rendering of a streetscape clearly rooted in the language of Expressionism—was followed by a selection of delirious doodlings on paper, dated 1919. But what left the strongest impression was the mature work of the 1940s—sculptures, collages, assemblages, and, less frequently, traditional oil paintings, all products of a manic bricolagist with a brilliant eye for composition. Untitled (Heavy Relief), 1945, for instance, is more than an orchestrated arrangement of flat strips of cement, wood, leather, and plastic affixed to a chalky white surface; it is a study in the considered ambiguity of thingness, an affirmation of the beauty of arbitrary relations among objects—and, it should follow, people as well. 

Another aspect of the show, which must be mentioned, was the exhibition design, created by the firm of the recently deceased Zaha Hadid. The architect was apparently aware of the exhibition at the time of her death, but the extent of her direct involvement remains somewhat vague. While the interior architecture was meant to be an ordering device for the disorder represented in Schwitters’s work, the actuality was rather less than convincing. Hadid’s style has a polished sci-fi retro-futuristic appearance, and Schwitters’s collage art is rough, dirty, and unfinished-looking. The one didn’t serve the other; the two bodies of work clashed in the gallery space, which was too cramped to give either artist’s effort the breathing room required. The viewer was left with the uncomfortable hunch that this was little more than an exercise in PR opportunism, a last-minute attempt to capitalize on the news of Hadid’s passing. (The opening festivities featured a bizarre, rambling speech by Hadid’s number-two architect that had nothing to do with Schwitters, only contributing to this suspicion.) What made the exhibition worthwhile, even more than the concurrent “Schwitters Miró Arp” show at the Zurich branch of Hauser and Wirth, was the archival material in the upper gallery—including a selection of Merz publications in glass vitrines—and the focus on Schwitters’s work, which seems to get only better with the passage of time.