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These two terms, applied to works of visual art that eschew traditional paint-on-canvas techniques, are related in their attention to physical objects arranged in visual, even symbolic, patterns and shapes. “Art is looking at things carefully,” according to Saroyan, and these forms of art make the viewer look with fresh eyes at patterns, shapes, shadows, etc. Differing from pure sculpture in that they are still meant to be viewed from a face-front position, albeit having some three-dimensional form, they are both visual collections; the main difference between the terms is in the sameness or differences of the “assembled” objects—a collage (from French “coller”-“glue”), probably coined by Picasso, uses similar patches of material or colorful two-dimensional shapes—photos, for example, or swatches of cloth or paper, and either repeat patterns or build a pattern of their own; an assemblage on the other hand, uses three-dimensional objects, often “found objects”, either alike in theme or shape, or purposely varied, to create a new arrangement of familiar materials. Joseph Cornell is perhaps the assemblage artist with the strongest reputation for the form; earlier artists of the 20th century—Picasso, Dubuffet, Duchamp, etc. did not separate these two terms with any regularity—Dubuffet, for example, referred to his collection of butterfly wings as a “collage,” but named the piece “assemblage d’emprientes”. The other complication is that these artists sometimes combined traditional oil painting on canvas with objects attached, calling these pieces “assemblages” (the most famous of these might be Robert Rauschenberg’s “Canyon”( 1959), officially described in the National Gallery of Art as “Assemblage: oil, housepaint, pencil, paper, fabric, metal, buttons, nails, cardboard, printed paper, photographs, wood, paint tubes, mirror string, pillow & bald eagle on canvas”. So the difference between the terms, both of which are used rather loosely, might be stated as “collages are pieces of flat material, glued into basically two-dimensional patterns, and framed like an oil painting” while “assemblages are a gathering of small three-dimensional objects, either found or collected into patterns with new relationships among them.” As is the case with many post-facto art terms, they are not perfectly descriptive, nor are they used with much differentiation or discrimination by historians and scholars.
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