Rona Cran, Collage in Twentieth-Century Art, Literature, and Culture. Review by Tomasz Stompor

Rona Cran, Collage in Twentieth-Century Art, Literature, and Culture: Joseph Cornell, William Burroughs, Frank O’Hara, and Bob Dylan. Ashgate Publishing 2014.

Chance Encounters in New York

The cast of Rona Cran’s Collage in Twentieth-Century Art, Literature, wsb collage in Lines 5_1965and Culture: Joseph Cornell, William Burroughs, Frank O’Hara, and Bob Dylan sounds like a motley crew at first glance. At reading the title I instantly wondered whether the mentioned four would have ever engaged in a conversation at a cocktail party held, for example, at William S. Burroughs’ bunker on the Bowery, or would they rather have remained adrift, glass in hand, each one for himself? At least, I am sure that it would have been an interesting sight. The proposed logic with which the author yokes this jumbled constellation together is the mechanism of collage where heterogeneous elements are juxtaposed on a common surface. Max Ernst described this mechanism as “the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them,” and before him the forefather of the Surrealists Lautréamont summoned the oft-cited image of “a chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.”1 The common ground on which the four artists in Cran’s book are grouped is their use of collage and their, more or less, strong connection to New York. As the title suggests, the book aims to present four different manifestations of collage as one of the most prevalent artistic techniques of the twentieth century.

With this unusual quartet, Rona Cran brings together a selection of artists, who, except maybe for Cornell, are not the obvious canonical names one associates with collage. The differences between the four are not only generational but lie also in the different media they worked with. Joseph Cornell was a visual artist and maker of art objects. William S. Burroughs, who called himself “a humble practitioner of the scrivener’s trade” in his last journals, is mainly known as a writer, but his role as an artist who transgressed the borders of genre and medium with his cut-up experiments has become increasingly acknowledged.2 Frank O’Hara was a poet, an art critic, and a curator at the MOMA, who had strong ties to New York’s abstract expressionist painters, but his main medium was the word. Bob Dylan is, as everybody knows, a singer and songwriter, who could be otherwise called a singing poet.

The reason why I am repeating briefly the obvious classifications of these four artists is to point to the important issue of terminology. Each of the four worked in a different medium and obviously used different procedures to produce their work, which raises the question whether what they produced can be universally called collage. Burroughs, for example, never denied the affinity of his cut-up experiments to the techniques of the historical avant-gardes, he even emphasized them through references to Tristan Tzara, but he still insisted on using a different term to distinguish his method. To deny the differences of these artworks by simply classifying all of them as collage is wrong in my opinion, and I want to use this review as a soapbox for making a strong case for a different terminology centered around the term montage instead. I am aware that the widespread Anglo-American usage of the term collage, with minor exceptions, is very inclusive and universal, but the discussion of Cran’s book gives me the opportunity to make clear why we should rethink this conception.

Terminology is the point where all trouble starts, when dealing with the vast field of collage and montage. The grouping of the four artists under the common header ‘collage,’ presupposes a generic definition of the technique, which could be contested in terminological and conceptual terms. The author makes us aware of this theoretical problem in her introduction by pointing to the diverging definitions of the term one inevitably encounters when dealing with this topic. Following Max Ernst’s remark that it is not the glue that makes the collage (“ce n’est pas la colle qui fait le collage”),3 Cran suggests a broad generic definition of collage:

At its most basic yet arguably most significant level, the absent origin of collage is the physical act of pasting, which was gradually subordinated to a more conceptual, theoretical approach as the collage practice gained ascendancy during the first half of the twentieth century. (8)

This ‘conceptual’ and ‘theoretical’ approach to collage might just as well be called ignoring the materiality and process of most composite works of art that allows one to label everything that is remotely fragmented as collage, or as Cran does in the case of Bob Dylan, “collage-esque” (187). This widely accepted and prevailing perception of collage is in no way analytical, but rather very arbitrary. If collage was purely conceptual, we might as well call it free-association. I want to counter Ernst’s statement by insisting that it is the glue that makes the collage. It seems very surprising that the introductory chapter, in which the problems of defining collage are discussed, never once mentions the term montage. This omission is telling in many ways. First of all, it reflects the differences in terminology across nationally formed discourses. Secondly, it is an omission that not only eclipses the ‘absent origin of collage in the physical act of pasting,’ but also the technological and socioeconomic conditions that made these artistic practices possible in the first place.

Let me elaborate on the first aspect. Most critical discourses on modernist art are
characterized by a confusion in the use of the terms montage and collage. Even though both techniques have been proclaimed as paradigmatic artistic practices of modernism, no clear distinction between the two has been elaborated so far.4 Usually, montage and collage are used as synonyms, although in more specific contexts montage is almost exclusively linked to film, while collage in the Anglo-American discourse is an umbrella term applied in the visual arts, literature, and in music. The explanation for this ambiguity might be, for one thing, located in linguistic differences across nationally formed discourses. While the understanding of montage as a generic term is rather common in German discourses, collage prevails in a similar encompassing fashion in French and Anglo-American contexts. It needs to be called to attention here that Picasso’s and Braque’s exercises with the papiers collés were paralleled in Germany by George Grosz’s and John Heartfield’s self-stylizations as artistic monteurs within only a few years distance. So although Cubism played an important role in the dissemination of collage as an artistic technique and genre, other artistic movements were also influenced by such factors as advertising, print media, and a general transformation of the public space.5 Another factor that might account for this confusion is the fact that most modernist works of art informed by these techniques are transgressive in media and genre, so that the terminology used in one art form is transposed into another, as is the case with, for example, the term collage which is imported from the visual arts into literary discourse and sometimes also applied to musical compositions. Facing such complexity it is all the more important to make careful distinctions that take into account such factors as media-specificity and processuality. The different use of terminology reflects not only national discourses but also emphasizes different artistic agendas. The Dadaists, for example, preferred generally the term montage to underline the mechanical and technological source of their composite art forms. This is of course an influence of Italian Futurism, but with a dystopian and critical twist. With the adoption of these techniques and forms by the Surrealists, the meaning of the term collage was transformed from a literal into a figurative one. 6 This shift demonstrates the Surrealist emphasis on
amalgamation as a main characteristic of the Surrealist dream aesthetic. Burroughs’ and Gysin’s cut-up, on the other hand, underlines the analytical and destructive aspect in the production of composite art forms. In sum, one can say that each movement in the theorization of their practices emphasized one certain aspect of the entire montage process that fitted their program. To ignore these emphases through the acceptance of a generic conception of collage hijacked by the Surrealists, means to neglect the material operations involved in the practices and the political agendas that were formulated around them.

As for the second aspect, it can be asserted that the figurative use of the term collage, as proposed by the Surrealists, and the universal conception that includes a wide variety of art that goes with it, is misleading insofar as it clouds not only the production process but also the technological and socioeconomic conditions that made these artistic practices possible in the first place. The standardization and serialization of industrial production influenced all branches of artistic production. Photography and new printing techniques at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries made reproductions of works of art in books and magazines, but also a variety of other images in news publishing and advertising widely available. This richness in cheap, ubiquitously available graphic material as a pool of artistic material was made possible through industrial montage as a technological basis. If we were to use a generic term under which the various artistic techniques of fragmentation and recombination resulting from these possibilities could be subsumed, then the term montage adequately reflects these conditions as a central feature of the second industrial revolution that provided the raw material and the technical means on which the avant-gardes could creatively thrive. The use of the term collage on the other hand clouds and distorts this historical fact and isolates these practices into an assumed autonomous realm of the arts, which supports a heroic conception of the avant-gardes.

Montage as a generic term not only grounds the rich variety of artistic practices in their social structure, but also underlines the processual character of their production. All montage-based techniques could be then briefly characterized by a three-step process of selection, fragmentation, and recombination. This definition allows then to include all the various types of montage-informed works of art, be it collage, décollage, assemblage, cut-up formats, scrapbooks, acoustic and filmic montages, mash-ups etc., while at the same time allowing for a finely tuned terminology in the analysis of individual artworks in their concrete media specificity and materiality. One of the few examples in Anglo-American critical theory where this conception is supported, is Marcus Boon’s In Praise of Copying (2010), where he makes a very detailed analysis of the characteristic steps of montage procedures.7

Having established these terminological and theoretical preliminaries, let us return to Rona Cran’s book and to the question how she frames its narrative. Following the conceptual definition of collage, the author describes her work as a cross-disciplinary study of collage with New York as a common point of reference. According to Cran, no one “has yet attempted a cross-disciplinary study of collage.” (37) This is quite a bold claim considering the vast body of research on intermediality, transmediality, interart, and word and image studies, where collage as a cross-disciplinary practice has been dealt with in numerous publications and exhibitions. One could name for example Marcus Boon’s already mentioned In Praise of Copying (2010), Maud Lavin and Matthew Teitelbaum eds. Montage and Modern Life, 1919-1942 (1992), Kirk Varnedoe High & Low: Modern Art, Popular Culture (1990), to name but a few selected titles that have dealt with this subject. There are also numerous studies on literary collage, which thematize the influence of the visual arts on literary representation.

Concerning the selection of her case studies, the author states that her intention is:

to emphasise the different ways in which collage was used by different artists in overlapping periods with links to the same geographical location: they are not […] linked through similarities of technique […] and it is often the differences between them that cast their individual uses of collage in the most revelatory light. (38)

In short, the intention is to show the different forms and effects of collage that originated in the same city. Again, we are faced here with the problem of a universal conception of collage, since the different uses and forms are defined by their respective technique and production process. It can be granted that these aspects are to some degree covered in the first two chapters on Cornell and Burroughs, but it does not become exactly clear how O’Hara and Dylan produced their supposed collages. I am aware that in the cases of both of the latter the process of writing is not as invested in material operations as in Burroughs’ case. O’Hara and Dylan appropriated (mis)quotations, slogans, and bits of conversation, and weaved them into the fabric of their writing, but one could ask whether this is enough to qualify them as collages, but if the definition of the central term is wide enough, anything fragmentary might fit. Even though Cran acknowledges the fortuitous linking of the four artists and calls her book “a self-reflexive exercise, embodying the collage form it discusses” (40), one might wonder in how far such artistic ambitions of the author contribute to a constructive scholarly debate.

The second link that is supposed to bind the four case studies together is New York as the capital of the arts after 1945 and as a “city built on intersections and by immigrants.” (10) It is true that New York, and Manhattan with its grid structure can be likened to a collage, but this visual analogy could be made for many American metropolitan cities. Especially relevant in this context is the fact that New York became the artistic capital of the twentieth century after 1945 and Cran depicts very convincingly and knowledgeably how this process was fueled with the influx of European émigrés who brought avant-garde art forms to the U.S. Especially in her analysis of Cornell, the author illustrates how this transatlantic transfer stripped these art forms off their European contexts through the appropriation by American artists.

This transfer is one of the central subjects in the chapter on Joseph Cornell, where Cran forcefully emphasizes the original status of Cornell’s collage work in relation to his Surrealist influences. Even though strongly influenced by Surrealist collages, especially the work of Max Ernst, Cornell managed to transform this influence into his own iconography. The author elaborates this argument in an enlightening fashion in comparative analyses of selected collage pieces of the two artists, which although composed of similar source materials result in divergent imagery. While Ernst’s collage scenarios tend to be menacing, spectacular, and catastrophic, those of Cornell display a personal mythology, steeped in a sense of nostalgia and childhood memories. So, although there is a traceable influence in the choice of material and technique, Cornell succeeds in creating his own iconography that is contrary to the tenets of the Surrealist agenda. Cran underlines that Cornell created this individual mythology by drawing on New York as his “habitat” and pool of artistic material. The found objects that he encountered on walks through the city and that found their way into his collages and boxed assemblages are, according to Cran, a characteristic of all collage practices in that they reflect the artist’s “intellectual and emotional relationship with a given aesthetic environment.” (4) This aspect is also a leading point of interest in her other case studies.

The following chapter deals with William S. Burroughs and the question “how and why he
came to use collage in his writing.” (85) Her declared objective in this chapter is to contextualize Burroughs’ experiments in their relation to the European avant-garde, and especially the visual arts, and to examine their significance as a form of collage practice. Apparently, Cran classifies the cutup experiments as an example of collage, whether this assessment is on the mark, shall be discussed in the following. A first hint toward the clarification of this question is not only the already mentioned widely inclusive conception of collage applied by Cran but also her selection of examples for the demonstration of cut-up practices. In her introductory remarks, she states that she has decided to: “concentrate chiefly on the novels rather than on the hundreds of shorter cut-up items that Burroughs also produced during the same period, predominantly because of the novels’ relative availability and the likelihood of their having a wider readership.” (85) While the so called cut-up novels, also called The Nova Trilogy, have been the subject of a number of studies,8 cut-up novels, also called The Nova Trilogy, have been the subject of a number of studies, the shorter cut-up items, which indeed are large in number, have remained marginalized by scholarship. The neglect of these latter materials is an unfortunate lacuna in the study of the cut-up experiments as these shorter formats tell more about them as a material artistic practice. The reason for this gap is the availability of the source material, since most of these shorter pieces were published in small, ephemeral magazines. Still, with the acquisition of the William S. Burroughs papers by the Berg collection of the New York Public Library in 2009, these materials have become accessible to scholars. Another source of digitalized versions of these publications is, the most valuable and reliable website dedicated to William S. Burroughs’ work on the internet. With these
sources in place, there is a need to reevaluate our perception of the cut-up experiments solely formed by the so-called cut-up trilogy. Jed Birmingham, a regular contributor to realitystudio, and curator of “the bibliographic bunker,” a digital repository of rare mimeo magazines containing Burroughs’ shorter cut-up pieces comments on the value of these materials in contrast to the trilogy:

For Burroughs, the cut-up subverted “the trap of linear, narrative time produced by language” and opened up the potential of space. The cut-up was an attempt to break down the apparent coherence of language. The experiments published in little mags best represent this aspect of the cut-up and best demonstrate the cut-up in practice. The cut-up trilogy straightjackets the cut-up into the form of the novel. The block paragraphs force the reader to approach the cut-up from left to right onward down the page and forward through the codex. This is precisely “the trap of linear, narrative time” that Burroughs hoped to explode with the cut-up.9

This assessment of the trilogy as a compromise in form and a toned down version of the textual cutups was further underlined by Oliver Harris, who calls the three cut-up novels “aberrations, extraordinary exceptions to the cut-up project rather than its necessary fulfillment.10 Although Harris has somewhat tempered this evaluation in his introductions to the re-editions of the trilogy in 2014 by suggesting we conceive both manifestations of the cut-ups in a complementary relationship, I still want to maintain that there is a higher amount of visible cut in the shorter pieces than in the novel form as they often include layout as an additional spatial element that foregrounds the text’s duality between sign and image. Contrary to these graphically more complex manifestations of the cut-ups, the trilogy offers us the linear time of justified print and discontinuity is mainly visible on the levels of punctuation and grammar. The ephemeral pieces, on the other hand, tell us more about the material nature of the cut-up experiments, as they bear traces of their production processes, and consequently about the theorizations that Burroughs came to build around them. Furthermore, through their complexity, these shorter forms force us as recipients to be more careful in the use of terminology for their description. Cran admits that it is problematic to approach the trilogy as three examples of novels. Instead she suggests to conceive of them “as a series of interrelated pieces of art, consisting of found objects, montages, and simulated and actual collages.” (93) Unfortunately, she neither demonstrates the found objects in the trilogy, nor does she provide a clear distinction between the three latter terms, among which montage has sneaked in like a ghost. So, even although the author has decided to tread in the footsteps of previous studies on the cut-ups that focus on the trilogy, she still manages to say something new about Burroughs’ experiments.

Indeed, the initial question of her approach, namely, how Burroughs came to use
experimental techniques in his writing is a very interesting one, since his early texts make the impression of straightforward and continuous narrative at first sight, and stand in stark contrast to his cut-up experiments of the 1960s. Cran traces this development from Junky, Queer, The Yage Letters to the so called Nova Trilogy and manages to establish a thematic and tonal continuity between these stylistically diverging texts. She observes astutely that from the beginning of his literary career Burroughs assumed a materially invasive attitude towards his own writing. This aspect is most visible in the condition of his manuscripts, especially in his work on The Yage Letters, where travelogue entries and pieces of correspondence are composed into a fictional epistolary novella with its own chronology that still retains a myth-making air of authenticity. With this comparative setting Cran suggests a juxtaposition of two trilogies (Junky, Queer, The Yagé Letters/The Nova Trilogy) with Naked Lunch as a transitional work that links the cut-up experiments with the early work. Although this narrative of a pre-cut-up and a cut-up trilogy is difficult to uphold from a view point of editorial history, one can admit a tendency toward
fragmentation and a conception of writing as a materially invasive practice. This comparison is productive insofar as it shows a continuity between two supposedly different periods in Burroughs’ oeuvre. This continuity is not only visible in a hands-on attitude to writing, but also in the choice of themes and characters. With much care for detail, Cran illustrates these textual revenants by bringing forward many examples that migrate between various texts. She emphasizes that Burroughs’ adoption and modification of cut-up methods as suggested to him by Brion Gysin allowed him to emancipate himself from Allen Ginsberg’s influence and to reinvent himself as an original artist.

The novelty of this contribution to the study of the cut-up experiments is their
conceptualization as a form of autopsy and as a reassessment of reading habits. Concerning the first aspect, Cran understands autopsy in the sense of an inspection and analysis of the body of language:

In creating the cut-ups Burroughs transformed himself into a Benway figure. In front of the audience attracted by Naked Lunch, Burroughs turned to cut-ups to enable himself to cross the cultural divide between the subjectivity of art (as characterized by Naked Lunch) and the objectivity of science (as seen in the cut-ups), with which to diagnose, improve on, and ultimately correct the more resolutely ‘human’ internal structures of his earlier work, by which, during the 1960s, he seemed somewhat embarrassed. (117-118)

By emphasizing the gesture of the cut in its ambivalence of destruction and liberation, Cran indirectly reveals the mechanism by which artistic techniques are theorized by their practitioners through the highlighting of one particular aspect of the montage process. At the latest from this point on, it should become clear how absurd it is to speak of the cut-up as a collage practice. Mimicking Ernst, Burroughs could have equally said, it is not the cut that makes the cut-up.

Still Cran’s observation that Burroughs’ self-stylization as a verbal surgeon, or rather Frankenstein of textual body parts, is a pataphysical performance in the tradition of Alfred Jarry – a tightrope walk between art and science. Beginning with the first cut-up publication Minutes to Go (1960), Burroughs parodies the scientific rhetoric of virus research and genetics bound up in the quest for a language of life. He consciously appropriates comments made by scientists and reverses their conceptualization of DNA as a language of life by proposing that language itself is a virus used to program humans. By cutting into this code, Burroughs not only performs an autopsy, but creatively scrambles its meaning. Although Cran evaluates this turn towards science as “serious and humourless” (109), it seems really improbable to miss the irony and slapstick in such texts as for example The Electronic Revolution (1970).

The second aspect discussed by Cran, which has not yet met much attention in the
discussion of the cut-ups is their effect on readers as an upsetting of their conventional habits in approaching texts. As fragmented composites, cut-up texts require much effort on the part of the reader to fill in the gaps between the juxtaposed pieces by the force of their imagination:

Burroughs’s decisive, clean cuts imply a gesture of transplantation rather than mere aggressive tearing or uprooting. As a result, the dislocated sections of text can be reintegrated, creating fresh tensions and compelling the reader to respond with an increased dynamism and flexibility. A distorted dialogue subsequently emerges within the texts, as sections permutate and correspond, suggesting that in the
destruction of one artwork lies the creation of another. (120.)

One might add that this playful challenge posed by cut-up texts is even more visible in the shorter pieces, where, for example, the reader is forced to jump, or cross columns of text, and to relate them in their spatial arrangement. Still, Cran rightfully attests that in this challenging quality of the cutups lies also their lasting relevance as “mutable, subjective, and elusive” work that projects itself into the future and is “ultimately governed by no law other than that of the reader’s imagination.” (131)

Having focused at length on Cran’s treatment of Burroughs, I will forego discussing her
chapters on O’Hara and Dylan and find some concluding words by returning to the issue of the composition of the book as a quartet. Even though the author claims to have taken a collagist approach in the structuring of her book, my overall impression is that the interconnections between the four chapters are limited to cursory mentions rather than really evolved narratives. Each chapter stands for itself as an interesting study in its own right, but even though a collage is made up of fragmented composites, they still need to communicate by what Burroughs called “precise intersection points.11 Taking a closer look, one might have found more parallels between the first three artists, while Cornell and Burroughs could have been connected, for example, through a heavy presence of nostalgia in their works and their reliance on the collection and the archive as sources for their artistic practices. O’Hara and Burroughs, on the other hand, could have been related to each other by the common recurrences of Rimbaud in their work, or by comparing Burroughs’ concept of “present time” with O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” poems, or by their attempts to create subjective maps of their environment in their writing. All in all, Rona Cran presents us with a fresh look at four montage/collage artists even if the glue does not quite stick.

1. [Max Ernst, “What Is the Mechanism of Collage? [1936],” in Theories of Modern Art; a Source Book by Artists and Critics, ed. Herschel Browning Chipp, California Studies in the History of Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 427. Lautréamont, Maldoror (Les Chants de Maldoror), trans. Guy Wernham (New York: New Directions, 1965), 263.]
2. [William S. Burroughs, Last Words : The Final Journals of William Burroughs (London: Flamingo, 2001), 152. Burroughs’ relationship with the arts was demonstrated in two major exhibitions in 1996 and in 2012. Cf. Robert A. Sobieszek, Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Arts (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Thames and Hudson New York and London, 1996). and Axel Heil et al., eds., William S. Burroughs/Cut, The Future of the Past 2 (Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2013).]
3. [Max Ernst Au-delà de la peinture (1937) in: Max Ernst, Ecritures, Avec Cent Vingt Illustrations Extraites de L’oeuvre de L’auteur, Le Point Du Jour (Paris: Gallimard, 1970), 256.]
4. [One of the few exceptions, where a systematic attempt at a clarification of the terms was made was suggested by the comparatist Ulrich Weisstein: Cf. Ulrich Weisstein, “Collage, Montage, and Related Terms: Their Literal and Figurative Use in and Application to Techniques and Forms In Various Arts,” Comparative Literature Studies XIV, no. 1 (1978): 124–39.]
5. [David Banash makes an important argument about the importance of advertising for the development of collage as an artistic practice. Cf. David C. Banash, “From Advertising to the Avant-Garde: Rethinking the Invention of Collage,” Postmodern Culture 14, no. 2 (2004),

6. [Weisstein, “Collage, Montage, and Related Terms: Their Literal and Figurative Use in and Application to Techniques and Forms In Various Arts,” 126.]
7. [Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 144–145.]
8. [Leaving aside the numerous articles dealing with select aspects of The Nova Trilogy, following studies have been of relevance for the discussion of cut-up experiments: Robin Lydenberg, Word Cultures: Radical Theory and Practice in William S. Burroughs’ Fiction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987); Timothy S. Murphy, Wising Up the Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997); Sigrid Fahrer, Cut-Up, Eine Literarische Medienguerilla (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2009); Edward S. Robinson, Shift Linguals. Cut-up Narratives from William S. Burroughs to the Present (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011).]
9. [Jed Birmingham, “Speed, Apomorphine, Mimeo, and the Cut-Up,”, September 8, 2008,
10. [Oliver Harris, “Cutting Up Politics,” in Retaking the Universe. William S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization., ed. Davis Schneiderman and Philip Walsh (London; Sterling, Va.: Pluto Press, 2004), 178.]
11. [William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, The Third Mind, A Seaver Book (New York: Viking Press, 1978), 133–137.]

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