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Jean (Hans) Arp. Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance). (1916-17)

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Jean (Hans) Arp (French, born Germany (Alsace). 1886–1966)

Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance)

Torn-and-pasted paper and colored paper on colored paper
19 1/8 x 13 5/8" (48.5 x 34.6 cm)
Credit Line:
MoMA Number:
© 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999

This elegantly composed collage of torn-and-pasted paper is a playful, almost syncopated composition in which uneven squares seem to dance within the space. As the title suggests, it was created not by the artist's design, but by chance. In 1915 Arp began to develop a method of making collages by dropping pieces of torn paper on the floor and arranging them on a piece of paper more or less the way they had fallen. He did this in order to create a work that was free of human intervention and closer to nature. The incorporation of chance operations was a way of removing the artist's will from the creative act, much as his earlier, more severely geometric collages had substituted a paper cutter for scissors, so as to divorce his work from "the life of the hand."

Audio Program excerpt


, June 18–September 11, 2006

Narrator: The Dadaists embraced abstraction as a radical new direction in modern art. This collage by Hans Arp was a deliberate protest against any subjective expression. The structure of the grid offered one way of limiting an artist's judgment; chance provided another.

Curator, Leah Dickerman: The Dadaists were very skeptical about human judgment. They thought it implicated them in the values that had brought the culture to war. Arp claimed that in making this work he tore pieces of paper and allowed them to fall where they may, creating a composition that was based more on chance than on his conscious control.

Curator, Anne Umland: In some of the Arp collages, you can see glue traces which show that he shifted the positions of the elements. So it's best to think of them as assisted chance. Dada is always introducing contradictions within the singular work of art. It's always asking you to hold two or three or more opposing ideas in mind at the same time.

John Elderfield, The Modern Drawing: 100 Works on Paper from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1983, p. 108

Dada is principally known as an antiart movement. Arp's serenely beautiful collage is nevertheless a characteristic Dada work, made in Zurich, the first Dada center, in 1916–1917. For while Dadaist propaganda did indeed talk of the end of art, such talk only came to dominate Dada when it reached Berlin, and even then it meant, by implication, the end of art as previously known. Dada artists, at least, understood that while the refusal of old structures could indeed seem, to propagandists, a daringly iconoclastic idea, to artists it was a familiar one, always a necessary part of the search for new structures. Dada as a whole rejected old structures more loudly and vehemently than had any previous modern movement. Such rejection characterized many of the movements that appeared around the same time—among them, Futurism, Supermatism, and de Stijl. This marks a distinct change in the history of modern art, for not only had earlier modernism been more respectful of the past, but it too was now often rejected along with the past itself. But even in this divisive climate, Dada stands out. Past art, including past modern art, belonged to a corrupt, materialist society which had produced the First World War: all that had to be destroyed in order to make a fresh start. Hence the importance of collage to Dada, for as noted elsewhere, the very technique of collage implied destruction of the narrative continuity of earlier art and construction of the new from the fragments that remained.

But Cubist collage itself was useless to the Dadists. Its secure rectilinear order told of a structured, man-made world they knew had been destroyed. Arp's Dada collages replace that order with arrangements made "according to the laws of chance"—a generic title for many of these works. His collages with this title immediately followed some severely geometric (which he had made in collaboration with Sophie Taeuber), where a paper-cutting machine was used to eliminate the accidental and thus find, in the purest of abstraction (never, of course, reached in Cubism), a contemplative order that escaped contemporary suggestion for something timeless and elementary. "I further developed the collages," he wrote, "by arranging the pieces automatically, without will." To do so was not to admit accidentality into his works but further to assert their essential order, for chance— not merely accident—viewed by Arp as a means of access, through the unconscious, to the basic ordering processes of the natural world. Hence, he declared that "these works, like nature, were ordered 'according to the law of chance.'" It is clear, howerever, even from this probably most loosely composed of these works, that conscious arrangement did play a crucially important role. As with Arp's contemporaneous drawings, "chance" was a liberating idea, a method of beginning a work of art that evaded traditional composition, but not an avoidance of composition itself.

This particular collage is unusual in using torn paper, a method that Arp fully developed only in the 1930s. Hans Richter, Arp's colleague, claims that the "law of chance" was discovered when Arp tore up a failed drawing and was struck by the pattern it made on the floor. This very carefully torn collage does have a sense of the natural, inevitable order, as if it came into being instantaneously, happening of itself.

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