William Anastasi. Without Title (Subway Drawing). 2011. Ballpoint pen and pencil on paper, 7 1/2 × 11 1/4" (19.1 × 28.6 cm). Gift of Sarah-Ann and Werner H. Kramarsky. © 2020 William Anastasi

Letting Go: Making Art with the Element of Chance

As many of us learn to live with uncertainty, we can take inspiration from artists who play with the element of chance.
Cari Frisch Jul 31, 2020

“I love walking,” William Anastasi explained. “I find that walking does something to my thinking, to my mental process, that is different from sitting or lying down.” The artist has tried walking with a pad of paper, looking at his destination as he drew. He also folded paper into sections, put it in his pocket, and pressed a pencil against the paper as he walked, recording his movement. Through these drawing experiments, Anastasi invited the element of chance into his art making. Other modern and contemporary artists have used chance to guide their choices, from choosing colors, to allowing gravity to determine where materials fall, to relying on chance to determine how their artwork is installed and interpreted. Discover their ideas and processes, then make your own art using simple materials and chance.

Activity 1: Make a chance collage

Ellsworth Kelly. Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance II. 1951

Ellsworth Kelly. Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance II. 1951

To make the collage above, Ellsworth Kelly chose squares of colored paper randomly and arranged them into a grid, without creating a specific pattern. He said, “I want to eliminate the ‘I made this’ from my work.”

Try this!

Materials: Paper; scissors; glue; container (bowl, box, hat, etc.)

Cut different colored paper into squares of the same size. Put the squares in a box or bowl. Without looking, pick one square and place it in the top corner of a piece of paper. Pick another square and place it next to the first one. Continue, row by row, until you fill the page.

Mix up the squares and try again. After you create an arrangement you like, glue down the squares.

You can use the element of chance to make all kinds of collages. Kelly also made Brushstrokes Cut into Forty-Nine Squares and Arranged by Chance. Inspired by this piece, draw lines onto paper squares and arrange them randomly. You can also let gravity guide your composition. To make Untitled (Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance), the artist Jean Arp tore paper rectangles and let them fall onto a larger sheet of paper, allowing gravity to determine the arrangement.

Activity 2: Drop a line

Jean (Hans) Arp. Two Heads. 1927

Jean (Hans) Arp. Two Heads. 1927

Jean Arp experimented with gravity and the element of chance to make other artworks using different materials. To make Two Heads, Arp dropped a piece of cord to see what shapes and lines it would form. The artist likely adjusted the cord from how it originally fell for this final arrangement.

Try this!

Materials: string, yarn, cord, or ribbon; a base (paper, cardboard)

Drop one or more pieces of string onto a piece of paper or cardboard. What forms do you see in the lines that were created? You can change the cord to make new shapes and forms. If you’d like, glue down the string.

Activity 3: Arrange images by chance

Dayanita Singh. Museum of Chance. 2013

Dayanita Singh. Museum of Chance. 2013

Many stories unfold in Dayanita Singh’s Museum of Chance, which includes more than 160 photographs shot by the artist over many years. The arrangement of the photographs can be chosen each time they are shown, allowing countless possibilities for presentation and storytelling. A spiral staircase might lead to a room filled with mysterious bundles in one installation, and to a crowd gathering in a courtyard in another.

Try this!

Materials: photographs or printed images

Play with arranging images or photographs in different sequences, or orders. You can use photographs you’ve taken or look for images in a magazine or online. Play around with arranging them in different ways. What stories unfold? Ask a family member to create their own sequence with the same images and discuss what story their arrangement tells.

Activity 4: Let movement guide you

William Anastasi. Without Title (Subway Drawing). 2011

William Anastasi. Without Title (Subway Drawing). 2011

William Anastasi made drawings while walking and while riding the subway, allowing the train’s stops and starts, bumps and turns to direct the line’s size, weight, and direction. He called drawings like these “unsighted,” allowing chance and movement to guide his marks.

Try these challenges inspired by Anastasi’s process:

Materials: paper; pencil; hard surface

  1. Fold a piece of paper into four sections, then place it in your pocket. Go on a walk, taking a pencil along. As you walk, place the pencil against the paper, making marks as you move. Each time you get to a new block, take out your paper, and draw on a new, blank section. How are your drawings similar and different?

  2. The next time you take a ride in a car, subway, or bus, bring paper, pencil, and a hard surface along. Let the movement guide your hand and see what marks you make. Do the marks capture your journey?

  3. Bring along a pencil and pad of paper the next time you go for a walk. Choose a destination that you can see, and draw the place you are going as you walk. Be mindful of others on the street and don’t cross traffic; have an adult with you to help watch out! What surprises you about your drawing?

Activity 5: Follow instructions to make art

Another way to let go of control in your art-making is to follow instructions. Artist Yoko Ono wrote instructions, inviting the reader to participate, and relying on them to complete the artwork. In the video below, join MoMA educator Sarah Kennedy and her children as they make art inspired by Ono’s instructions in Waterdrop Painting. They throw pebbles and trace where they land; make marks inspired by the sounds around them; and let dust, dried leaves, and spices stick to glue and oil on a page.

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