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Jean Arp
There isn't much of this type of artwork being done anymore, and what little there is produced, gets very little respect. But then, neither did it get much respect back in the early 1920s when much of it was produced, except from a loose group of Zurich artists who had fled to Switzerland near the end of the war to escape its trench slaughter madness. They were the dictionary image of what we'd call today a "motley crew" (or perhaps draft-dodgers). They included effete young intellectuals such as writers, Hugo Ball and Richard Huelsenbeck, the Rumanian poet Tristan Tzara, and the German painter, Jean Arp. There were also dozens of others, including musicians, philosophers, sculptors, and quite a number of miscellaneous, bohemian hangers-on who served little function in the group except as enthusiastic, and sometime rancorous audience members. They met in homes, apartments, and cabarets where they made up nonsensical poetry of sounds rather than words, made random noises they passed off as music, argued, sometimes fought, even to the point of a few bloody noses. They called themselves Dadaists.

Dada quickly passed with the decade of the 20s. It had, after all, contained the seeds of its own destruction in its anti-art, antiestablishment, anti-nearly-everything-else dogma. By far the most talented individual in this group was the painter, Arp. He was born in 1887 in Strasbourg (now Austria, but then a German city). The story is told that he discovered his true calling as an artist when he tossed pieces of a torn drawing onto the floor and discovered he'd accidentally created an interesting, even exciting composition. He began making random, as well as carefully arranged to look random collages at roughly the same time his friend Tzara was doing the same with newspaper words and phrases to create random poetry. It was Dada, but it was also a constructive, positive form of expression.

Today, the Museum of Modern Art in New York displays Arp's Mountain Table Anchors Navel created in 1925 using oil on cardboard with cut-outs. Mixing media and blurring the lines between painting and sculpture, Arp moved on to freeform pieces of wood cut out on a band saw. They were vaguely biomorphic in shape, glued to cardboard to create compositions somewhat resembling nature as transposed by swirling water or dimly perceived through distorted glass. They were whimsical, attractive, and sometimes even stunningly beautiful. As he grew older (he died in 1966) he moved into sculpture, carving and polishing his trademark free form shapes into white or black marble. His Torso, dating from 1953, today found in the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, is one of his best. There was good reason Dada art got little respect in its time, and good reason it was long ago pronounced dead as an art movement, but Arp and his art sprung from it, and even now, long after his death, his work continues to gain the respect it richly deserves.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
21 July 1999

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