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Arman's life and work revolved around objects. The son of an art dealer, he spent his youth surrounded by works of art. He inherited his family's inclination for gathering things and became a renowned collector of ancient and oriental art. It was, then, only natural that the objects he found and accumulated and salvaged from the everyday world would be at the centre of his own distinctive form of Nouveau Réalisme. Born Armand Pierre Fernandez in 1928 in Nice, by the end of the 1940s Arman was studying art at the École des Arts Décoratifs de Nice. He was attracted to all things oriental, be it art, philosophy or martial arts. It was during the judo lessons he was taking at the time that he struck up a friendship with Yves Klein, with whom he became one of the founding members of the Nouveaux Réalistes movement in 1960.
The aesthetic of Nouveau Réalisme was saturated with the social climate of France during that period. At the turn of the Sixties, France was experiencing a modernisation and a boom in consumption which, although much smaller than the concurrent developments in the United States, nonetheless ushered in a new consumer society. The Nouveaux Réalistes responded to these changes with a new take on Duchamp's 'readymade', parallel to yet distinctly different from the Neo-Dada and Pop artists active in the States.
"The great shock for me was the discovery of Dada and Surrealism and seeing objects made integral to the work of art," said Arman (quoted in J. Putman, Les Moments d'Arman, Paris, 1973). Objects are integral to Arman's work, yet in order to include them in his artistic programme, he deliberately distrupts and destroys their integrity as objects in order to achieve his own specific aesthetic goals. Unlike Duchamp, Arman' s approach is not to proclame the possibility for the banal but chosen object to become art; instead, Arman encourages his viewer to see beyond the object and use its fabric as the basis of a new aesthetic. He presents rather than represents the object, but in doing so he manages to "show the phases of a thing that we don't know." The object is both his subject and his medium-- this is, then, an absolute and literal Nouveau Réalisme.
The objects selected by Arman are not unique, but tend to be mass-produced or form part of a series, like the cars or the violins. Echoing the culture of production that has created these source objects, Arman's artistic endeavor is expressly based on seriality. Each series is defined by a particular process of re-presentation-- empreinte, accumulation, découpage, combustion-- applied to a variety of products and artifacts. In 1959, Arman began the Accumulations series, of which Dollar Signs (lot 415) is part. The piling up of dollar bills in a Plexiglas case allows the artist-- and by extension, the viewer-- to question the identity, the nature of the bill itself. Its function has been removed, it has become absurd, and yet this absurd status, this Surreal transformation, allows us to view the dollar bill as an entity in its own right. Paraphrasing his friend Klein, Arman declared that 'As a thousand square feet of blue are more blue than one square meter of blue, I say that a thousand dribblers are more dribbler than one dribbler' (Arman, quoted in Revue Zéro, no. 3, July 1960).
If the Accumulation is a way of affecting the object's identity without affecting its state or structure, Arman's other artistic processes are of a different nature, involving a more extreme intervention. In the Combustion series, begun in 1963, Arman captures the ephemeral state of an object on the brink of its own annihilation, for instance the violin in Untitled (lot 410). Later in the mid-1960s, he incorporated used tubes of paint still dribbling colour; these acted as a parody of abstract painting in richly articulated compositions that echo and ape Jackson Pollock-like all-over fields, alluding also to artists such as Johns and Rauschenberg, while also celebrating the status of the artist, of painting and of paint at the same time.
One of the key tenets of Arman's artistic adventure, then, is to convert an act of destruction into an act of creation. Yet while the burning, amassing, adjusting of his source objects is an intensely iconoclastic act, a rebellious and daring gesture towards his contemporaries in the art world, he was nonetheless constantly aware of the value of aesthetics and of the formal qualities and properties of his materials: he achieves his effect, instilling an epiphany in the viewer through the rearrangement of everyday items, through careful composition. And it is through this judicious process of re-composing and re-assembling his beloved objects that Arman reveals their intrinsic beauty.