20th Century Art in 20 Unforgettable Works: Jean Arp’s ‘Torse végétal’

20th Century Art in 20 Unforgettable Works: Jean Arp’s ‘Torse végétal’

Precious, primordial and otherworldly, Arp’s mature bronzes evoke an enigmatic, organic force pulsing at the center of all matter.
Precious, primordial and otherworldly, Arp’s mature bronzes evoke an enigmatic, organic force pulsing at the center of all matter.

Emily Fisher Landau was, simply put, one of the greatest collectors and patrons of the twentieth century. Her legacy is set apart for her deep and longstanding involvement with leading institutions, in particular the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as her profound engagement with the art and artists of her time and her unerring instinct as a collector at the highest level. Fisher Landau assembled one of the greatest collections of modern and contemporary art – over 100 works of which are coming to auction at Sotheby’s on 8–9 November.

Join us over the next 20 days leading up to the Emily Fisher Landau Evening Auction on 8 November as our specialists spotlight 20 key works from the Collection, celebrating their impact on twentieth-century art. Here, Frances Asquith reflects on the significance of Jean Arp’s Torse végétal as part of our series The Emily Fisher Landau Collection: Twentieth Century Art in Twenty Unforgettable Works.

Jean Arp’s ‘Torse végétal’

Jean Arp, Torse végétal, conceived in 1959 and cast in 1960

If Jean Arp had been tasked with transforming Picasso’s Femme à la montre into a sculpture, I imagine we’d be looking at something very like Torse végétal: a sinuous form emerging from a geometric foundation, an asymmetric, voluptuous silhouette and a slender head that invites you to circle around to work out where exactly the delicate angle sets in to lend the sculpture such character. One of Arp’s most attractive qualities is the way he integrates the vocabulary of his predecessors into his own distinctive abstract language. The lineage of Torse végétal can be traced back to the curves of classical sculpture, Rodin’s twisting torsos and Brâncuși’s clean lines. However, whereas the second-rate artist takes an artistic inheritance and assimilates, imitates, reframes or rejects, Arp does the near-impossible: he distills.

The Emily Fisher Landau Collection is remarkable for its sense of vitality. You feel it in the muscular Tansey and the tumbling divers of Leger’s L’Étoile rouge, in Klee’s starbursts, the static electricity of De Kooning and in Albers’ pulsing yellows. In Torse végétal you see Arp doing what he does best, which is to capture this force and reduce it to the most essential concentrated form. Like neutron stars after a supernova, his torsos are the most perfect, dense expression of the energy that so many artists attempt to describe.

Constantin Brâncuși, L’Oiseau dans l’espace, 1924. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image: Bridgeman Images. Art © Succession Brâncuși / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

There is nothing predictable about an Arp sculpture. Torse végétal has no dull sequences or uniformities; the contours catch you off guard and make you retrace your steps to reread the unexpected passages. Arp was one of the first artists to engage with the element of chance in art with his early paper-pictures, and his focus on uncontrolled outcomes, metamorphosis and the subconscious impacted movements as far-ranging as Dada and Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism. But what distinguishes his work for me is his unusual response to a universe that accepts randomness: it is glorious rather than disconcerting, a source of wonder not existential alarm. Instead of recoiling at chaos, Arp revels in “all things counter, original, spare, strange” as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it in “Pied Beauty,” a poem that also takes the natural world as a starting point to contemplate the mutable and the eternal.

Patina is one of the ultimate expressions of chance in art, and looking closely at the surface of Torse végétal, you find a two-tone blend of dark sepia and burnished gold that fits exactly into Hopkins’ dappled world, with its “skies of couple-colour” and “fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls.” The muted surface makes Arp’s bronzes feel precious, primordial, even otherworldly, as though they have burnt through the atmosphere before landing in a gallery. What I think both poet and sculptor aim to do is refresh our vision and remind us of the strange beauty of the here and now.

I love the way Arp talked about being moved by details in his own sculptures – some curve or contrast that would go on to become the germ of a new piece – and I think of them as endlessly generative, each with an imaginary energy center at its core. To call them ‘biomorphic’ would be clinically accurate but somehow the wrong semantic field; ‘organic,’ similarly, is a term that sets off ethical and chemical associations in the modern mind, though perhaps useful ones: the advent of macro-photography now allows us (as Arp never could) to look at the cellular structures of plants produced intensively and those cultivated in organic conditions. Comparing large-scale dyed images side-by-side, it is fascinating to watch how even a child will react against the bombed-out, jagged and empty disorder of the former and is drawn to the odd, bulging, clustering forms of the latter – forms that always remind me of nothing so much as hundreds upon hundreds of Arp’s conceptions huddled together.

Whatever term you want to apply to this force that the subconscious responds to – organic energy, Qi, the good, the true, the beautiful – I can’t think of another sculptor who channels it better than Arp, and nowhere more clearly than in his mature bronzes.

The Emily Fisher Landau Collection: An Era Defined

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