A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 109: Experiments in Randomness

Collage with squares arranged according to the laws of chance

Jean Arp, Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance, 1916-17

I have experimented in Randomness and it was fun.

As I was working on the design for the Easter cross I made last Sunday, it was reminding me of something but I couldn’t quite place it. Then, the following day, it came to me: Jean Arp and his piece Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance. Evidently, Arp let square pieces of paper fall randomly onto the surface of a larger piece of paper and affixed them where they landed. This may not seem like much, but for an artwork created around the time of World War I, it was revolutionary. Jean Arp’s work would come to be seen as an important bridge between the Dada and Surrealism movements.

Arp (1886-1966) was a French-German painter, sculptor and collagist that existed in his own unique space in the history of art. As the website theartstory.org puts it, “Something of a one-man movement, Jean Arp could (and did) make anything into art”. He was one of the first to make randomness and chance a part of the creative process. This was mostly unheard of at the time as artists were always striving for a high level of skill and control. But Arp was seeking to remove the conscious mind as much as possible from the entire process. He would begin an artwork with the form, not the subject – in reversal of common practice – and then give titles to what emerged.

I realized as I considered my own habit of Planned Randomness (see yesterday’s post) that I had something in common with Jean Arp. Therefore, I thought it might be fun to do some experiments in randomness. I kept it simple, using six sheets of slate grey construction paper, I cut squares and rectangles out of dollar store foam sheets. I chose some color combinations that I liked, and then proceeded to drop the shapes from a foot or so above onto the paper. I began with the largest shapes first. Wherever they landed (as long as they made contact with the paper) I glued them to that spot. I felt slightly silly doing this, to be honest.

True to Arp’s process, I had no subject in mind as I did these. After the pieces were completed, I came up with titles for them. I’m kind of proud of those. Below are the results of my randomness…

I am Iron Man

I Am Iron Man

Sky Through Clouds

Sky Through Clouds

Building Down

Building Down

Nude Ascending Staircase

Nude Ascending Staircase

The Tinker

The Tinker

Chattanooga Choo Choo

Chattanooga Choo Choo

Randomness is fun, indeed. But one thing was abundantly clear in this experiment: This is planned randomness. I think Arp discovered this, too. As much as you try to remove the conscious mind from the whole enterprise, part of it remains. I made choices as to materials, colors and sizes. When one of the shapes floated off the page or onto the floor, I picked it up and dropped it again. I was in control of many of the elements in creating these Squares and Rectangles Arranged According to the Laws of Chance so, really, was chance involved enough to get any credit?

Maybe a bit. Enough to introduce an element of surprise, for sure. So, in effect, it wasn’t much different than most of my artwork, or most of my life. I have always allowed room for something surprising, for something to happen that was not part of the plan.

I would recommend, especially if you are an artist who wishes they could be more loose or more spontaneous, to try something like this. Releasing control, even over just a few elements of the process, is liberating. And it is a reminder that often, as an artist, you are merely a channel for the creativity, not always the sole author.



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