New York

Jean Arp

Janis Gallery

The exhibition of sculpture and reliefs by Jean Arp at the Sidney Janis Gallery has overlapped with the opening of the exhibition devoted to Dada, Surrealism and their Heritage, at the Museum of Modern Art. I would not say that the Museum representation contradicts or transforms one’s view of Arp’s achievement, as derived from the Janis show. It does, however, complement that view, inciting one to give some consideration to Arp’s relation to those two movements. For the Janis show, while including some work of the same style and periods, had curiously inflected Arp’s career in a very different direction.

Like Miró, Arp seems never really to have been contained by either group or style. Although he was intimately involved, as poet and artist, with the Dadaists, although he participated in the first Surrealist exhibition of 1925 at the Galerie Pierre, although his contact with both movements was closer and more sustained than Giacometti’s, there is nevertheless something tangential about his relation to Surrealism, particularly.

It was partly a matter of personal style and sensibility, of a pastoral bent. Arp’s use of the biomorphic vocabulary involved more than formal innovation and the “abhumanism” characteristic of his generation. It perfectly articulated his deepest personal commitment, his aspiration to the totally organic quality of a primal innocence, identified most generally, with a pregenital sexuality. That commitment enabled him to speak quite unaffectedly and in terms positively Goethean of art “as a fruit that ripens within, as a plant or child grows in its mother’s womb.” (Compare this with Breton’s vision of the organic life as projected in the metaphor of the rock crystal, with its “hardness, endurance and inevitability.”) And Arp’s version of l’amour fou? “I met Sophie Taeuber in 1915 in Zurich. Like the leaves of a tree in a fairytale, her luminous works descended on my existence. Only a few days after our first meeting, we executed embroideries and collages together.” (Italics mine.) It is a Song of Innocence, and it was sustained, Heaven only knows how, in the face of half a century of cataclysm. Of all his companions, Arp most successfully embodied the image of the artist as engaged in play.

Of the Dadaists and Surrealists most intimately concerned with sculpture, he was also the most wholly free with respect to Cubism. Though not more original than Schwitters, he worked toward something more radically sculptural in that freedom. His own rebellion against Cubism was directed at its “abstraction,” by his wish to liberate painting and sculpture from the aspect of things, his desire for an art as “concrete and sensual as a leaf or stone.”

The major effect of the Janis Gallery exhibition, centered largely about the later sculpture but including a decent sampling of earlier work, has been, however, to suggest the movement from an abstract biomorphism of the “heroic” period to a semi figurative anthropomorphism. If the suggestion is interesting, it is also depressing.

Arp was 42 when, in 1930, he turned to making wholly sculptural, free standing forms. He had, since 1916, been producing reliefs. The earliest one on exhibition at the gallery, Balcon I (1925) introduces, in its felicitous use of a cut-out shape, an extra dimension of shadow cast on the wall which heightens the fantasy and enriches the range of whites, greys, blacks and blue in the ovoid forms. There is an extraordinary grace in almost all the reliefs, a grace inseparable, even in the earlier complex examples, from the modesty of the materials, the simplicity of form and the delicate control of centripetal and centrifugal movements which regulates them. They had evolved out of the successful early use of chance techniques, and their gradual simplification restores their relation to the automatic drawings and first collage arrangements of torn paper fragments. Arp continued until his death to handle this medium, the most playful of all, with the greatest of ease and flexibility. The detached reliefs, which preceded the free-standing pieces, are almost uniformly handsome and unsatisfactory. I have never quite understood the reason for their persistence once the first hesitant steps down from the wall had been made. Mr. Janis shows a number of these, and one very late piece, Idole (1964) has, in its unqualified symmetry, the security of an historical, anaconic reference, if no special interest of a sculptural order.

The importance of Arp’s work is presumed to be concentrated in his free-standing pieces. It is generally considered, as well, that he managed, prolific though he was, to sustain a rather evenly high quality. The,work of the ’60s, extremely well represented in the gallery, does include a number of pieces which, like Nid Enchanteur (1965), prolong, in their characteristic post-war elegance, the biomorphic inventiveness of the thirties. On the whole, however, the subversive simplicity of the earlier and more modest pieces tends in later marbles and bronzes toward decorum. There is, in a growing symmetry, verticality, increasingly static poise, sumptuous finish of surface, a return to the convention or the pedestal and a prevailingly anthropomorphic form in the later work. The effect is inescapably one of statuary rather than of a contemporary sculptural presence, of a retreat to an older, specifically Latin tradition. The retrogression involves, paradoxically enough, precisely that “abstraction” of natural forms about which Arp himself had centered his attack on Cubism. (The fact that he was not working in a Cubist style or structure is, as I see it, of secondary importance.) Involved, above all, is the minimization of a personal vocabulary and the adoption of the style and references of a classical humanism.

There is an indication of all this, of course, in the themes and titles: Femme Amphore, Torse Chorée, Torse Stèle, unthinkable for the vigorously irreverent Dadaist of the ’20s. Criticism, however, cannot presume to argue convincingly from titles or historical references. There is, above all, the striking evidence that only Groupe Méditerranéen (1949–1965) and Accroupissant (1961) among the very late works, attempt in any ambitious way to define their own sculptural space. Freed from a pedestaled verticality, their weight distributed, in spite of the seemingly improvisational quality of form, in a balance both complex and more than static, their direct contact with and use of, ground, is, as well, a contact with a contemporary esthetic. Their description of space, tending to envelop even as it displaces, makes for something richer than the merely sumptuous finish of the closed form, and, above all, far more urgent than the qualified classicism available to every moderately accomplished Continental sculptor—and his practicien—since the death of Rodin.

Contemplating the Sculpture Classique and the Grande Sculpture Classique of 1960–1964, one wonders whether it was for this that “the illusory movement” of Futurism and Cubism had to be rejected. Remembering Bell and Navels (1931) and the Constellation aux 5 Formes Blancs et 2 Noirs (1932), one has the sense of a slow, unconscious movement towards apostasy, of a failure of will which produced, in subtle paradox, a defeat of the pleasure principle through sustained performance.

Annette Michelson