‘The Nature of Arp’ Review: Revolutionary Forms

Arp’s ‘Three Disagreeable Objects on a Face’ (1930)
Arp’s ‘Three Disagreeable Objects on a Face’ (1930) Photo: Museum Jorn, Silkeborg, Denmark/ARS), NY/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn


Here at the Nasher Sculpture Center, where “The Nature of Arp” is up through Jan. 6, 2019, is an auxiliary gallery in which Arp’s abstract sculptures intermingle with other artists’ sculptures from the Nasher’s permanent collection. Selected by the main exhibition’s curator, the Nasher’s Catherine Craft, these include masterpieces by Rodin, Maillol, Matisse, Brancusi, Picasso, Calder, Giacometti, Noguchi, and Donald Judd.

The Nature of Arp

Nasher Sculpture Center
Through Jan. 6, 2019

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This substantial, supplementary group show further extends the Nasher’s survey of the French-German artist Jean (Hans) Arp (1886-1966), which comprises more than 80 abstract objects: sculptures in plaster, marble, wood, bronze, brass, stone and Duralumin; painted-wood reliefs, drawings, collages, textiles, prints, illustrated books and maquettes for large commissions; as well as a collection of collaborative pieces he made with his wife, the artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp. (“The Nature of Arp” moves to Venice’s Peggy Guggenheim Collection in April.)

These ancillary multiartist installations are common practice at the Nasher. Highlighting distinctiveness, they spark dialogues among disparate voices—inspiring viewers to look beyond individual artworks and artists, toward broader contexts of influence and relationship. In the case of Arp, a revolutionary figure in modernism’s movements of abstraction, Dadaism and Surrealism, this complementary group show illumines just how foundational and remarkably inimitable Arp’s abstractions really are.

Installation view of ‘The Nature of Arp’ at the Nasher Sculpture Center
Installation view of ‘The Nature of Arp’ at the Nasher Sculpture Center Photo: Nasher Sculpture Center

Consider Arp’s small, white-marble distillation “Automatic Sculpture (Homage to Rodin)” (1938). Seemingly contorting its muscular limbs, Arp’s abstract “Homage” is expressive, tightly wound—Rodinesque—evoking, in form and spirit, Rodin’s crouching figures, entwined lovers and clasping hands. As with all of Arp’s shifting abstractions, however, its forms are all and, fleetingly, none of those things. As Judd wrote, “Arp’s work is never unspecific, although it is unusually general.”

Arp was a poet as much as a sculptor. Judd was exalting the malleable, metaphoric nature of Arp’s sculpted poems, which seem constantly to mutate right before your eyes, encouraging your mind to free-associate; and which suggest strange, hybrid, living beings rather than traditional sculptures. When I first saw Arp’s surreal “Homage,” I thought that it looked like twisted roots, or a seashell, or a giant human ear, reminding me of the enlarged, exaggerated features in the figurative sculptures of Rodin and Michelangelo.

Arp’s ‘Plant Hammer (Terrestrial Forms)’ (1916)
Arp’s ‘Plant Hammer (Terrestrial Forms)’ (1916) Photo: Gemeentemuseum Den Haag/ARS, NY/

Nearby, stands Arp’s bronze “Torso With Buds” (1961), a slim 74-inch-tall conflation of figure, animal, tree, buds, fruit and column. Playful, gracefully spiraling, it suggests nude, peapod, prancing bird and leaping cotton-tail, as well as a dangling snake digesting multiple prey, or perhaps a disembodied digestive tract. The first major modern sculpture to enter Raymond and Patsy Nasher’s collection, Arp’s “Torso” greeted visitors in their foyer. As you look through the plate-glass windows, into the Nasher’s sculpture gardens, Arp’s creations feel as related to the museum’s mingling viewers as they are to the art and flora, seen outside.

Among the enormous pleasures of encountering Arp’s abstract artworks in significant number is to see them interact as an extended family. This show, although it excludes his formative representational paintings, covers Arp’s early Dadaist and Surrealist and later abstract periods and is fairly comprehensive.

Arp’s ‘Torso With Buds’ (1961)
Arp’s ‘Torso With Buds’ (1961) Photo: Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas

Here are important early prints, torn-paper collages and abstract painted-wood relief sculptures, including two comical ones from 1916: “Plant Hammer (Terrestrial Forms),” a Frankensteinian fusion of nature and machine; and “Forest (Terrestrial Forms),” a portrait-cum-vivisection of forest and sky. Other inventive painted-wood reliefs merge leaves, sea life, kitchen utensils, human body parts and wooden pull toys; some, mounted just out of arm’s reach, suggest clouds, birds, stars or ghosts; teardrops, breasts or bellybuttons—or some combination—drifting overhead.

Arp’s most compelling artworks are the freestanding sculptures, whose poetic titles only begin to provide entry into their countless evocations: “Three Disagreeable Objects on a Face” (1930), “Two Thoughts on a Navel (Sculpture in Three Forms)” (1932), “Head and Shell” (c. 1933), “Crown of Buds I” (1936), “Amphora-Fruit” (c. 1946), “Human Lunar Spectral” (1950) and “Torso Fruit” (1960). The largest here is the gleaming Duralumin “Lunar Fruit” (1936), a sprawling biomorphic blob whose forms evoke giant gourds, eggs, phalluses and beached seals.

‘Portrait of Jean (Hans) Arp’ (c. 1926)
‘Portrait of Jean (Hans) Arp’ (c. 1926) Photo: Stiftung Arp e.V., Berlin/Roland

The show’s greatest masterpiece, however, is the abstract white-marble “Growth” (1938), a roughly 3-foot-tall, slender, spiraling sculpture in which Arp distills and fuses a stunning range of forms: stones, fruit, horns, totem pole, tree, vase, classical nude and column. “Growth,” shimmying like a belly dancer, is sexy and dynamic; reminiscent of a broken leg, a Cycladic idol, a club and a Greco-Roman Venus—yet as intangible as a dream. As you circle “Growth,” forms flit among hip, buttock, breast, phallus, beak, elbow and antler; flora and fauna; infant and adult; and its bottom half seemingly births its upper half. Arp conveys not only the myriad forms of nature, but its myriad actions: gestation, symbiosis, evolution, metamorphosis.

“The Nature of Arp,” his first major survey in the U.S. in more than three decades, is elegant, lively, often sublime. It’s an informative and engaging presentation of the nature of Arp—one of the greatest modern sculptors—as well as of the nature of sculpture and of abstraction.

Appeared in the October 31, 2018, print edition as ‘‘The Nature Of Arp’: Revolutionary Forms.’

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