Materials & Techniques

West Coast Assemblage

Assemblage as a medium grew in popularity with beat generation artists in California in the 1950s and early 1960s. Contemporaneous with the pop movement in New York and Los Angeles, they sought to distance themselves from the perceived conformity and materialism of mainstream American culture.

Though New York is credited as the undisputed center of postwar American art-making, the west coast cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco simultaneously hosted a vital and influential community of artists. Bruce Conner, Wallace Berman, Jess and others compiled junk store bric-à-brac and mass-produced images into assemblages full of complex cultural references. Though these works mirror Pop art in their integration of found materials from the popular realm, they ultimately assume a sensibility all their own. Absent is the cool and calculating formality of Pop icons like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, replaced by a raw, visceral quality centered around the literal accumulation of base things.

Berman, Jess, and Conner were the most visible artistic figures of the west coast Beat Generation. Berman, who worked in both Los Angeles and San Francisco, also used imagery culled from popular visual culture while seeking to go against the mainstream 1950s and 60s America, using the Verifax machine to create what we now call photocopies, positioning them in a strict grid that, to the artist, had mysterious powers to communicate. Berman’s grid of photocopied images, all of his hand holding up a small AM-FM transistor radio which transmits some blip of information, suggests an archive of everyday culture (1983.555). The artist has placed in an organized and contained construction the kind of images which Conner mixes chaotically in his assemblage, as seen in KNOX (2005.6), which is especially dense in its content. Underlying the erotic imagery of the pin-up calendar at the work’s center is a dark sense of nostalgia; all the objects Conner has collected seem to be in the midst of decay, as if cast-off remnants of the past. Jess, another collage artist, is best known for his intricate "paste-ups," which he assembled out of pictures cut from children's books, puzzles, magazines, and old photographs, giving them new life (1977.15). His work has an abundant and celebratory quality and testifies to the diversity of work produced under the banner of west coast assemblage. These have a nostalgic, fantastical quality to them, and like Conner's work, they hearken back to the eroticism of Surrealist collage (though without its aura of violence).

Adapted from

  • Claire Rifejl, Suzanne Weaver, and Charles Wylie, DMA unpublished material, 2004.

Web Resources

Watch "West Coast Assemblage: Ed Kienholz and Nancy."