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The World According to Arp

Down in Los Angeles the clock radio starts playing the old rock song, “The Wanderer,” while outside, dew still clings to the car hoods. No workout this morning. Gotta get to dear old tacky HollyBurb airport to catch a flying cable car to the Bay. They moved the parking lot again. But a space is found by 8:45. Pocket change sets off the security robot. That’s me, the two-bit terrorist. Can’t smoke in the airplane anymore. The air smells of new-plane spray instead of nicotine but militant addicts are looking glum. The captain has turned on the seat-belt sign in preparation for landing. Down on the Tarmack the morning marches on to the tattoo of doors sneezing on the courtesy bus, ignition ratcheting on the rent-a-car, tires squeaking around cement ramps in the parking prison.

By 1:45 the mission is accomplished. The waiter sets down a lunch of pasta and prawns that looks delicious, but the conversation about insurance and annuities at the next table makes it taste like soggy cardboard and rubber.

Gotta get back to SF International. The little rented car is in the Performing Arts parking garage. Symbols of comedy, tragedy, music and dance tell you which gray level your car is lost in.

More freeways. Please leave your keys in the car. Note your gas level and mileage on the contract. Make sure to take your personal belongings. Not me. I’m only taking impersonal belongings ‘cause that’s all there are around here. The 2:24 is canceled. The 3:40 finally leaves at 4:15. The all-knowing sages of PSA have assigned quite a few seats to more than one person. Traffic will be bad on the Hollywood Freeway. Don’t worry about it. Read the fat catalogue on your lap titled “Arp.”

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“Was there ever a bigger swine than the man who invented the expression ‘Time is money,’ ” wrote the Dada poet, essayist and artist Hans (sometimes Jean) Arp in 1932. “Time and space no longer exist for modern man. With a can of gasoline under his behind man whizzes faster and faster around the earth so that soon he will be back again before he leaves. . . .”

That’s for sure. We don’t take time to smell the roses these days. Only the new-plane spray. On the other hand if it weren’t for that jumble of rolling rubber, flying flaps and inert ribbons of asphalt it wouldn’t be possible to round-trip L.A. and San Francisco in one day to spend a couple of hours with some of the most surprisingly serene and civilized art made in the heady days of this enfeebled century.

That veritable paradox is just the first of several surrounding the exhibition devoted to Arp’s art at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to Jan. 31. (Try saying “Arp’s art” out loud. It’s fun.) The show was organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Stuttgart’s Wuerttembergischer Kunstverein in 1986 to mark the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth in Strasbourg in Alsace when it was still part of Germany. He grew up speaking German, French and the Alsatian dialect. Eventually he became a leading member of the original Dada group centered around Zurich’s Cafe Voltaire, which merry band protested the idiocy of World War I and bourgeois values in general, using nonsense, irrationality and chance to fuel their art that ranged from collage to happenings. (Arp was once denied Swiss citizenship when officials decided his poetry proved him mentally deranged.)

Anybody who aspires to first-hand literacy in modern art should see this show. Arp is an acknowledged bulwark of modernism and all experts solemnly aver he was a leading contributor without ever quite tacking down just what it was he contributed. That’s no insult to Arp. He just happened to be part of a cutting edge wave that included a lot of talented people just a hair less dramatically and obviously inventive than, say, Kandinsky, Picasso or Mondrian.

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As much as anything, Arp probably contributed to an attitude of rebellion that proposed modes of artistic seeing that were then radically unconventional. The measure of the success of the effort is found in looking at his art. Today it’s hard to imagine that anybody could have ever found this work odd, shocking or subversive. It’s like all those vintage photographs of Dadaists and Surrealists in silly poses like the one of the neatly dressed and clean-shaven Arp using a big washer for a monocle, or members of the gang standing poker-faced in their derbys, umbrellas open on a sunny day. Today they look like a bunch of rather well-behaved and cultivated Europeans doing their stiffly lame best to relax and have fun. They must have been up against some really Puritanical opposition if anybody thought that mild stuff made them crazy.

The same goes for Arp’s art. His hallmark is that amoeba-shaped free-form that has long since become a cultural commonplace in everything from kidney-shaped coffee tables to swimming pools and is now considered part of a revival of ‘50s design. That so-called Biomorph became the lingua franca of sophisticated Dada and Surrealism. Nobody knows who invented it or annexed it to art, we only know how they used it. Miro made it a bit ominous, Dali literalized it into melting watches and Gorky made it juicy and sexy.

Arp made it civilized, funny and natural. “Forest,” a jigsaw relief of thick-painted wood, evokes nature before you see the title; and there is always that sense of the brooks and the pines of German Romanticism, but there is also the irony and wit of a French boulevardier.

Arp blended opposite cultures in his character and they say it gave him the easy cosmopolitan air you can see in his art. He was also something of a man without a country. He fled Alsace for Switzerland to avoid the German draft in World War I. He left staid Switzerland for Paris where he became a citizen after Alsace became French. During the German occupation in World War II his situation was sticky indeed. There’s something significant about his two names, Hans and Jean, a split of identity that made him marginal and places his art somewhere between universal and anonymous. It is simultaneously abstract and realistic, detached and astonished.

His works use universalized shapes that point to religion and idealism, but those same shapes are domesticated into amusing commonplaces like buttons, mustaches, shirt-fronts and an embarrassed fried egg all painted bright colors that hint towards Pop but not as much as, say, Kurt Schwitters.

Arp may have been a bundle of warring tendencies that fused and found peace in work that is so nicely equilibriated that in his late years the artist--who lived to be 80--became an icon of modernist officialdom like Henry Moore, revered in his years and covered with honors.

In these Post-Modern days one tends to look at the modernist radicals stripped of the revolutionary trappings that made them heroes of intransigence and see them as artists among other artists in history. In that frame, Arp looks playfully rococo in attitude and somewhat neo-classical in form, like some of those energetic academics of old. There is a touch of Canova in Arp and a bit of Carpeaux.

What sets Arp apart is--of course--the modernist language that clarified visual music and poetry for a whole generation and his personal sense of astonishment.

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Numerous metaphorical sculptures simultaneously evoke the roots, rocks and pebbles of nature and the writhing eroticism of sex. Arp both creates the forms and stands back looking at them like a pubescent boy delighted and baffled by his first view of aroused female flesh.

What that tells us about the realities of his relationship with his wife Sophie Taeuber is too chancy to even warrant a guess. Today she is acknowledged as a formidable talent in her own right. Works of hers included in this exhibition--like a wonderful painted egghead portrait of him--are among the most arresting on view.

In life, Taeuber was completely subservient to his career and his image, but there is now no question she was his major inspiration and deepest human love. She died early in 1943, suffocated by fumes from a gas heater while she slept at a friend’s house. The circumstances blended the absurd with the ominous--very like German art, which is inclined to play comedy like tragedy resulting in anxiety (whereas the French play tragedy like comedy and get poignancy). Arp’s art did all those things at once to make an art as natural as water smoothing a stone or wine soothing a smiling reverie.


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