Arp was born in Strasbourg in 1886 to a French mother and German father. After studying at the Académie Julian in Paris, he moved to Munich in 1912, where he became friends with Kandinsky and was briefly involved with the German Expressionist group, Der Blaue Reiter (‘The Blue Rider’). At the outbreak of World War I, he fled for the neutral city of Zurich, where his artistic career began in earnest.
Arp became one of the founding members of Hugo Ball’s Cabaret Voltaire, an intellectual barrage of mindlessness orchestrated by exiled artists and writers in protest against the war. Out of these revelries emerged Dada. During this period, Arp met the artist Sophie Taeuber, who became his wife and a major influence on his work, most notably the early abstract reliefs. It was during this Dada period that Arp became one of the first artists to introduce chance into his art, by dropping scraps of paper and fixing them where they fell into random collages, known as Papiers Déchirés.
In 1920, Arp moved to Paris, where under André Breton’s influence the Parisian branch of Dada evolved into Surrealism. Arp did not strictly adhere to much of the Surrealist mindset, but nonetheless saw Surrealism as an appropriate platform for his art: he was an exhibitor at the first ever Surrealist exhibition in the Galerie Pierre in 1925, and he produced illustrations for almost every Dada or Surrealist publication.
An important common ground between him and the Surrealists was his great interest, almost always present in his art, of nature. Arp’s works represented, or recalled, nature as a great underlying power in life. Arp created reliefs until 1930, when his work became fully three-dimensional and his enigmatic but powerful amorphic natural forms made him a leading exponent of abstraction during the 1930s.
Although Arp produced very little during the 1940s, being profoundly affected by the tragic death of his wife, he continued developing his sculpture, sometimes paring the shapes down to a geometrical minimum, at other times creating swirling, complex structures with an increasing refinement.
Arp died in 1966, aged 79. His influence extended far and wide: from Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Isamu Noguchi to the American minimalists of the 1960s and 1970s.