Arp created this collage in Zurich in 1916–17, at the geographic and temporal heart of the Dada movement. Profoundly affected by the trauma of modern warfare and the expansion of print media, Arp and his fellow Dadaists sought to radically rethink the very nature of art. They held reason and rationality responsible for World War I and, in response, employed new, antirational aesthetic strategies, including abstraction, collage, and the use of chance procedures.
This collage fully embodies Dada’s demands of the new art. According to his contemporaries, Arp made this work and others like it by tearing paper into pieces, letting them fall to the floor, and pasting each scrap where it happened to land. Rather than ordering the page according to his own design, he ceded control to the random hand of gravity. The work is resolutely nonreferential: no story, no picture, only torn blue and white paper.
However, the grid-like composition of this collage may be evidence that Arp did not fully relinquish control. Careful examination also reveals that he used heavyweight, possibly fine-art, paper, and that the edges were torn on a slant to reveal their inner fibers. It suggests a counterintuitive interpretation: that the work may be as much a visual representation of chance as a product of it.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Accounts by several Dadaists describe how Arp made "chance collages" such as this one: by tearing paper into pieces, dropping them onto a larger sheet, and pasting each scrap wherever it happened to fall. The relatively ordered appearance of Arp's collages suggests, however, that the artist did not fully relinquish artistic control. Skeptical of reason in the wake of World War I, Arp and other Dadaists turned to chance as an antidote.
Gallery label from Dada, June 18–September 11, 2006.
One of the founders of the Dada movement in Zurich in 1916, Arp challenged existing notions of art and experimented with spontaneous and seemingly irrational methods of artistic creation. This work is one of several collages he made by scattering torn rectangular pieces of paper onto a paper support. He and other Dada artists embraced the notion of chance as a way of relinquishing control—a kind of depersonalization of the creative process that would influence many subsequent generations of artists.
Gallery label from Geo/Metric: Prints and Drawings from the Collection, June 11–August 18, 2008.
Arp participated in the Dada movement in Zurich during World War I, creating collages such as this one that privilege chance over artistic intention. This work consists of fragments of colored paper arranged in a random configuration or indeterminacy. The squares that swarm this collage were torn from sheets of colored paper. By using his hands to rip the paper instead of a more precise tool, the artist surrendered an increased level of control, embracing the jagged contours of the squares.
Gallery label from There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage's 4'33, October 12, 2013–June 22, 2014.
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.
Publication excerpt from 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.