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Art & Art History

Per se: Collages and Other Works by Irwin Kremen

Wednesday, February 17, 1988–Saturday, March 19, 1988
Gallery 400
400 South Peoria Street, Chicago, IL 60607

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Per se: Collages and Other Works is an exhibition of the collages of Irwin Kremen from 1975 to 1987. Kremen, a professor emeritus of psychology at Duke University, was never trained formally in art making, but, despite that fact, the small, unassuming collages in the exhibition are evidence of a deep patience, prodigious skill, and a passion for the overlooked detritus of the everyday. Over several decades he developed a unique and personal style and a vocabulary that reverberates with meaning while remaining truly non-representational. A Kremen collage, with its geometric forms, intricate textures, and delicate colors, can hint here of architectural forms, there of older cultural artifacts, and hieroglyphs, while yet remaining perfectly abstract pictorially. No matter how small the collage elements are, Kremen attaches each one to the rest of the piece with tiny paper hinges in order to avoid any chemicals that might deteriorate the material. The bits of paper, which are weather-beaten and faded, exude an aura of imminent disintegration that lends a tense fragility to the pieces. Exquisitely composed of scraps of posters, letters, and advertisements, Kremen’s works are exceptional examples of collage-making, transforming the rough edges of torn scraps into a delicate lace and weaving what seems to be decomposing refuse into meticulously considered arrangements.

At a time when largeness dominated the art world, it was intriguing to encounter these intimate, enigmatic configurations. Kremen’s is a world of minute detail, often of rich surfaces, dense levels, and tactile physicality. Paradoxically, the collages can also project a sense of heroic monumentality and grandeur. In his practice of collage as compared, say, to the Cubists or Dadaists, the mundane loses its real-world identity, and his “experienced papers,” as he calls his preferred materials, become transformed into the fresh aesthetic wholeness that is a new work of art.

The elegance and subtlety of Kremen’s color choices and handling of materials condense the emotional power of his works, a quality that serves him well in his series “Re ’eh,” a group of eleven collages relating to the Holocaust. These works were displayed separately from the other Kremen pieces at Gallery 400, in their own room in the gallery. Kremen wrought these as a remembrance, and their power derives as much from their abstract vocabulary as from what they allude to. The series has justifiably gained national attention and the showing of it at Gallery 400 was its first in the Midwest. The iron works that were exhibited here also for the very first time stood together as in a field, icons of another kind, “a cry,” in Kremen’s own words, “against the muteness of man finally before the rush of time.”