If you’re sitting there thinking ‘Hey, isn't it Jean Arp?’ you’re right. Turns out the sculptor referred to himself as Jean when speaking French and Hans when speaking German. It’s an Alsatian thing. Maybe we can just call him ‘John’. Still, it’s the surname that counts and Arp’s rates as one of those that, curiously, sounds a lot like their work looks – in this case curvaceous (and tantalisingly tactile).
In a curatorial masterstroke, Hauser & Wirth has arranged Arp’s slinkily semi-figurative sculpture within an irregular grid format that, set against a stark red wall, feels amazingly fresh. It certainly reinvigorates this classic, surrealism-inflected modernism drawn primarily from the mid-1940s to mid-1960s (Arp died in 1966). From outside, it’s a richly impressive scene. Inside, you’re drawn along sight lines, getting up-close with works to enjoy contrasts not just of form – variously biomorphic, attenuated and phallic, with a focus on solid/void, inside/outside – but also materials and textures – bronze, wood, granite marble.
Evocative, and often highly suggestive, the work chimes with Arp’s stated desire to work intuitively (for which we might read: libidinously). He employed a similar automatic technique when crafting words into Dada-esque poems. Some of these, including the brilliant ‘I am a Horse’ (lines include ‘I neigh loudly hnnnnn, on my chest the six buttons of sex appeal, shine nicely aligned’) are printed on a gallery wall and broadcast (in German and English) through speakers in the ceiling. It’s a heady experience ratcheted up a notch or two by the presence of Franz West’s bawdy, bodily ‘adaptives’ – plaster sculptures intended to be picked up and manipulated by the viewer – which bring out the corporeality of Arp’s art. You’re invited to try one out. Maybe recite a few lines of ‘I am a Horse’ while you’re at it. Who knows where it might lead?