The Nature of Arp

Nasher Sculpture Center
Jul 26, 2019 9:09PM

i was born in nature. i was born in strasbourg. i was born in a cloud. i was born in a pump. i was born in a robe. i have four natures. i have two things. i have five senses, sense and non-sense. nature is senseless. make way for nature. nature is a white eagle. make dada-way for dada-nature. —Arp, “Strasbourg Configuration”

Jean (Hans) Arp, Three Disagreeable Objects on a Face, 1930. Plaster. Overall, 7 1/2 x 14 1/2 x 11 5/8 in. (19 x 37 x 29.5 cm) Museum Jorn, Silkeborg, Denmark. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Photo courtesy of Museum Jorn, Silkeborg

In his 1931 poem “Strasbourg Configuration” (see preceding page), Jean (Hans) Arp (1866-1966) began with a seemingly simple declaration: “i was born in nature.” Five words establish an allegiance still regarded as fundamental to the artist, who was responsible for an astonishingly inventive oeuvre typified by organic forms that moved fluidly between abstraction and representation. Arp’s wide-ranging work became a touchstone for several generations of artists, prompting Alfred H. Barr Jr., founding director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, to assert that “the Arp ‘shape,’ a soft, irregular, curving silhouette halfway between a circle and the object represented, appears again and again in the work of [Joan] Miró, [Yves] Tanguy, [Alexander] Calder, [Henry] Moore, and many lesser men.” Barr’s masculine bias aside, the inspiration that artists as varied as those he listed—to which could be added Barbara Hepworth, Paule Vézelay, Robert Motherwell, Ellsworth Kelly, Lygia Clark, and Donald Judd—found in Arp’s drawings, collages, reliefs, and sculptures suggests that his art’s appeal extended beyond a signature form to encompass the principles and processes underpinning its creation. Arp was always adamant in resisting an art based on nature’s appearance: “I love nature but not its substitutes. Illusionistic art is a substitute for nature.” Around 1920, a text titled “Dada Art” by Alexander Partens (a pseudonym for Arp, Tristan Tzara, and Walter Serner) addressed Arp’s realization that his desire for a “direct form of production” hinged on something other than imitating nature’s appearance:

For [Arp] it was no longer a question of improving and specifying an aesthetic system and making it more precise. He wanted a direct form of production, one that exactly conformed to the way a stone breaks off from a mountain, a flower blossoms, or an animal perpetuates itself. He wanted imaginative qualities that are not to be found in any museum. A type of animal-like formation with all its wild intensity and diversities. The creation of a new body outside of us that lives as we do, perches on the corners of tables, resides in gardens, looks down from walls. He wanted abstraction.

Portrait of Jean (Hans) Arp, ca. 1926. Photo courtesy Stiftung Arp e.V., Berlin/Rolandswerth

Jean (Hans) Arp, Objects Arranged According to the Laws of Chance III, 1931. Oil on wood. 10 1/8 in. x 11 3/8 in. x 2 3/8 in. (25.7 cm x 28.9 cm x 6 cm) San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Purchase. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Photo: Katherine Du Tiel/SFMOMA

This rhapsodic evocation of a creaturely art with a life and will of its own intimated a more disruptive relation between artist and object than mere representation. Taking this passage from “Dada Art” as a starting point, The Nature of Arp was conceived to present Arp’s oeuvre through the examination of creative processes, developed over a six-decade career, that paralleled not the appearance of nature but rather its workings—“the way a stone breaks off from a mountain, a flower blossoms, or an animal perpetuates itself.”

Jean (Hans) Arp, Daphne, 1955. Bronze. 47 3/16 x 13 x 11 3/4 in. (119.8 x 33 x 30 cm). Stiftung Arp e.V., Berlin/Rolandswerth. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG. Photo: Wolfgang Morell/ Stiftung Arp e.V., Berlin/Rolandswerth

Yet just as “Strasbourg Configuration” pivots from Arp being born in nature to having a nature (or, rather, four of them), so, too, the relation of his art to nature cannot be assessed without first taking stock of Arp’s own nature. This proves an unexpectedly complex undertaking, for Arp seems to have regarded identity to be as fluid and mutable as nature itself. By some accounts, the consistency of Arp’s character was a defining quality of his character, as the artist Michel Seuphor reflected a few months before his friend’s death:

When I met Arp in 1926 to me he was the same as he is now. I can see no qualitative difference between the thirty-nine-year-old man he was then and the lauded and fêted seventy-nine-year-old artist he is now.… Arp knows nothing, but he guesses everything. He guesses that one should never run. He guesses that one should go forward prudently, allowing one thing to develop from another, like the succession of leaves on a tree. And what emerges each time is roughly the same.

Jean (Hans) Arp, Plant Hammer (Terrestrial Forms), 1916. Painted wood. 24 1/2 x 19 1/2 x 3 1/8 in. (62 x 50 x 8 cm) Collection of the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Photo courtesy Gemeentemuseum Den Haag

Jean (Hans) Arp, Untitled (dessin déchiré), 1934. Collage with torn paper, ink, and pencil. 9 5/8 x 8 11/16 in. (24.5 x 22 cm) Stiftung Arp e.V., Berlin/Rolandswerth. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG. Photo: Wolfgang Morell/Stiftung Arp e.V., Berlin/Rolandswerth

The qualities Seuphor described paradoxically encompass tendencies toward both consistency and flux, summoned by comparison with the growth of a tree. Nonetheless, within this impression of constancy, Arp treated the supposedly stable categories of knowledge by which we define ourselves and the world as contingent, to varying degrees, on his creative and personal needs. Remarkably, he regularly gave the year of his birth as 1887 instead of the correct date of 1886; referred to himself variously as Hans or Jean; dated works earlier than they were likely made; presented artwork he had probably made alone as the products of collaboration; continued, when he later quoted from “Dada Art,” to maintain the illusion of its author’s identity as “Alexander Partens”; repaired, replicated, or destroyed artworks as he saw fit—playing, in other words, with the humanly established limits of knowledge and reason. All this he did with total conviction, much humor, and in the wholly sincere belief that humanity desperately needed an art aligned with nature to save itself from the destructive impulses and arrogant self-regard that had led to two world wars. An examination of aspects of Arp’s nature, in both senses of the word, reveals how the subversive approach he took to the exigencies of daily existence fed his art and how he devised creative processes analogous to the workings of nature and inspired by the materials of his art.

Jean (Hans) Arp, Human Concretion, 1934. Marble (carved before 1949). 13 1/4 x 16 x 15 1/2 in. (33.7 x 40.6 x 39.4 cm). Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia. Gift of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. 71.3208. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Photo: Ed Pollard/Chrysler Museum of Art

Written by Catherine Craft, Curator, Nasher Sculpture Center

Nasher Sculpture Center