Collage According to the Laws of Chance

I am a big fan of work by the artist Jean (Hans) ARP.  He was born in 1886 in Strasbourg. His mother was French and his father was German. When he spoke French, he referred to himself as Jean; when he spoke German he referred to himself as Hans.

Arp was a founding member of the Dada movement that started in Zurich, Switzerland in 1916.

He is known for his curvy biomorphic sculptures and painted wood relief sculpture. He is also known for geometric abstract collage.

Jean (Hans) Arp

One of my favorite works by Arp is titled Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance , 1917 (cut and pasted papers, ink, and bronze paint), collection the Museum of Modern Art, New York, seen below (image the Internet).

Arp claimed he created the work by dropping cut and torn papers onto another paper and attaching them where they landed. Many people believe the artist moved the papers around as he made the collage.

Arp denied it, and his titles are his testament to the Dada premise that the work is done by chance.

Dada art is anti-art. It is anti-aesthetic.

By definition, Dada (especially in painting) was based on irrationality.


In my opinion, a painting that is a bunch of squares arranged by chance is not high art – unless it is Dada. Then it is anti-art in the highest dadaist tradition.

The image below  is another early collage by Arp,  titled Rectangles Arranged According to the Laws of Chance (1916) 9 7/8 x 4 7/8 inches.

Arp, Rectangles Arranged…


I’ve tried to drop squares and see if they land well.

I teach collage classes and ask students to drop squares and see if they land well. I show them the image by Arp (above).

It doesn’t work. The squares never land where they should. We always feel compelled to adjust the spaces between the papers, moving them closer together or further apart.

Here’s a Lesson in Design

The spaces in between are important. Spaces help create a pattern and a rhythm for the composition, both basic elements of good design.


Arp is famous for his curvy sculpture and painted wood relief sculpture.

He also titled them Arranged According to the Laws of Chance . The image below was done in 1928. It is a painted wood relief sculpture, 55 1/8 x 42 ½ inches (private collection).

Arp, Arranged According to the Laws of Chance, painted wood

Notice some of the shapes are circular and some are biomorhic (like flower petals). Notice the spaces between the wood pieces. Some are closer; some are further apart; some almost touch. Notice the variations in size and value. Some are bigger; some are smaller. Some are darker; some are lighter. The relationship between the pieces is perfect and creates a sense of movement and rhythm so your eye keeps moving.


The image below shows Arp in 1958 in his studio at Meudon, a suburb of Paris, France, surrounded by his sculpture (photo by Andre Villers).

Jean Arp in his studio with sculpture

I found the images in a book about Arp printed in 1958. The book was published by the Musuem of Modern Art, New York.

I was lucky to find the book – by chance – at a tag sale  in New Canaan, CT at the Silvermine Arts Center  (the tag sale is an annual event).

I brought my collage to Silvermine for the 90th Anniversary Exhibition, May 5-June 9, 2012 and found an art book.


I planned to write this post about Art and Dada, and by chance found a book about Arp and Dada.

Below is an image of my collage I delivered to Silvermine Arts Center. The papers are cut and torn and assembled – not by chance. The image is 16×18 inches.

Nikkal, Recycle Totems, collage with various papers

I converted my collage (above) from color to black and white – to match the other black and white images from the book about Arp.

The collage is made with recycled papers. I think the elements look like totems. That is how the work got its title Recycled Totems.

Do you think Arp created his collages by chance?

Did you ever try to create a work by chance?

Thank you for reading. Please leave a comment below.

Read more about Dadaism:

Dada laid the groundwork for abstract art and sound poetry; it’s a precursor to postmodernism and pop art.  Read about the important artists in Dada and how the Dada movement influenced performance art, poetry and music…

17 thoughts on “Collage According to the Laws of Chance

  1. I like your collage. It looks like each element is a miniature collage in itself. Is this so?
    Also, I don’t believe the collages by Arp are by chance. No way will paper fall into such neat formations.

    1. I agree that there’s no way Arp’s papers fell into place like that. I plan to try a fun daily exercise and drop papers and paste them exactly where they land. I may have to stand on a ladder. Thanks for your comment about my collage. I don’t remember if each element is a miniature collage. I think I kept adding pieces up and across until I felt satisfied.

  2. Very interesting article and the randomness question is right up my alley. My collages always begin with that premise of randomness, as I make little square paintings and then I put them together in what seems at first random, but then I play with the squares, so there is a bit of both involved: randomness and chance at first, which sparks something in our artistic eye–then we play with it until we come to an end. Thanks Nancy.

    1. I think there is always randomness in artistic practice because you are always open to serendipity and willing to accept success, especially when it arrives unannounced or unexpected. Your drawings are wonderful and I remember how they come together.

  3. Oh, and I forgot to say how much I love your Recycled Totems. Would love to see them in color. Will stop by….Helen

    1. I am so glad I converted the color image file to black and white. It works with the vintage photos of Arps works. The actual collage made from a recycled cola graph print and is an earth-tone green with an edge of grey. Some of the tiny accent squares are red.

  4. Great article. I embrace chance and randomness (as in Helen’s post). I begin my fabric collages with painted cotton, torn into pieces and see where it goes. I want to believe that Arp’s papers fell into place. I think it is kind of a gift to others, which is inspiring.

    1. I’m glad you liked the article and am fascinated that you tear painted cotton into pieces. Do you have a ragged edge? Do you have to use a scissor at all? How do you attach the painted cotton and do you add paint after? Thanks for sharing information.

      1. I keep a ragged edge on my fabric pieces and sew them onto a cotton backing with invisible thread. I keep the loose threads, too. I add paint and/or fabric markers, and finish with Goldenseal medium.

  5. Howdy very cool site!! Man .. Beautiful .. Amazing .
    . I’ll bookmark your web site and take the feeds additionally? I am glad to search out a lot of helpful info here in the submit, we’d like develop
    more techniques in this regard, thank you for sharing. . .
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    1. Hi Robin,
      Thanks for the compliments. Please tell me what kind of collage you do and what inspires your art.

  6. Feeling like I need some support in going on with my sculpture and remembered having seen a photo of Arp in his studio on the net so I typed that in and saw the perfect photo of him sat amongst his amazing work in the search results and this led me to your site. I will stick this up in my studio to give me courage and help me feel less alone . Lovely to come across your site keeping the ideas alive like this . You have reminded me how I need to get back to collage as a foundation to my thinking and the will refine my ideas and skills in my sculpture .Big thank you.


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