Arp’s figuration is a bit like Klee’s, it has an aura of innocence and a species of humor, both of which are bound to make it widely popular. But though it seems inoffensive and kind of cute at first meeting, Arp’s work opens up some formal problems that are actually quite difficult. This piece is explicitly called “Constellation on Two Levels,” and it is the
orchestration of levels that is mind boggling. Each level has to have its own successful arrangement, including negative spaces, and then the two have to work together. But the tendency, for any work in relief, or that has a frontal orientation, is that the levels will collapse together. The contours start to dominate, and we see them flatly, as one complex pattern. The major effort is to keep the levels visibly distinct as compositions, even as they have to talk to each other. Arp does it by making the whole thing look chancy and light, effortless, but, as I said before, I don’t believe that his arrangements are as casual as they appear. Ultimately this kind of multi-level relief is a development of the cubist technique of interlacing, in which a form disappears under the edge of another one, giving the expectation
that it will reappear. Sometimes it does, and then we have distinct shapes that are not entirely visible, and a high degree of suggestion. This is such a simple and beautiful device, although today it has a kind of corny modernist flavor. There may be many minor looking semi-abstractions that use it, but I don’t think that there is a real appreciation of the rich formal and expressive possibilities it contains. In a way, the spatial levels can be clearer in a flat work of this type than in a relief, and there is something in this that explains why Stella keeps returning to 2-D. The multi-level piece is a frontier that I have barely crossed, although there is implicit interlacing in my work. Lines are not drawn out over their whole length, but broken by other contours of the closed forms.