The works in the Yale University Art Gallery’s newest exhibit, “The Synthetic Century: Collage from Cubism to Postmodernism,” are so durable that they offer an alternative history of the twentieth century — despite their primarily abstract nature. The show’s title alone is surprising to the lay student of art history, who might have thought the collage was a creation of some postmodern head-trip, and without modern precedent.

Picasso defies our expectations in the show’s opening piece — an event which for museum-goers is now a comforting fact of life. His “Ace of Clubs” from 1914 challenges elementary school popular notions of what a collage is, and lays the foundations of the medium.

Many associate collage with ideas of hodge-podge or the randomness of dream elements, but Picasso was no scavenger or surrealist. Instead, he found places for woven papers and soft graphite in this otherwise standard Cubist still-life, evoking the tension and points of intersection between the most philosophical art form and tactile reality. There is nothing incoherent or random about this marvelous portrait of conflicted nature. It hangs in suspension between art and the physical world.

Part cubist painting, part collage, all angles and textures, “Ace of Clubs” teases the viewer: What’s the difference between an object of art and an object one encounters in real life? Where does the boundary between representation and reality break down? And here, philosophers and hedonists alike, is where all the subversive fun begins.

Umberto Boccioni, another pioneer in Great War-age collage, expands on Picasso’s philosophical quandary in his work. “New Marionette for Plastic Ballet,” from 1914, is composed entirely of “colored papers cut and pasted onto cardstock,” and the result is a vaguely humanoid form clutching a solid purple weapon in white space.

As the viewer learns, this strange emblem is Boccioni’s answer to his own demand upon twentieth century art. The provocative label beside his collage tells it like this: Boccioni thought new art should “give skeleton and flesh to the invisible, the impalpable — find abstract equivalents for all the forms and elements of the universe.”

Boccioni is not borrowing the rhetoric of the surrealists here, but rather employing ideas that come from daydreams unique to an age of infinite technological progress. For Boccioni and many others, collage was the perfect way to blend the material and the imaginative in an age when both faculties raged, and neither could be shut out with conviction. The label thus moves the viewer to go back, and look again.

And indeed, in perfect postmodern form, the labels of “The Synthetic Century” are themselves one of its greatest pleasures. Rather than offering a curator’s interpretation, they provide insight upon the works and the very young medium delivered by the artists themselves. Such a fun impetus to read small square labels goes well with the rewards each collage offers for giving a close, almost squinting, look at the way its disparate elements connect.

For example, Willem de Kooning’s “Collage No. 2” from the early 1960’s gets a lot of mileage out of its label. We learn, for example, that the collage includes “paper towels, [and] cigarette butt” among its elements, but I couldn’t find the traces of butt among the thick swarthy layers of pink and green oil paint. Only de Kooning could use a cigarette butt for subtle, rather than merely subversive, effects upon a canvas.

“The Synthetic Century” is a show that demands a roving eye for detail at close proximity to the works. Don’t forget your glasses and hang on to those cherished newspapers and buttons; collage is a medium that fervently embraces the present, and you never know when the next de Kooning will strike.