SOONER or later, every artist must face the test of art history and be judged, not on what he or she intended, but on what was actually produced. At such time, one question overrides all others: Does the work hold up in the company of the greats, or does it pale, lose character and identity, and require the support of theory or rationalization?
This question has already been answered in the affirmative as to some of the early modernists, most particularly C'ezanne and Van Gogh, and almost as definitively by a number of modernism's more recent masters, including Picasso, Brancusi, Matisse, Mondrian, and Klee.
It is now the turn of Jean Arp (1886-1966) to be examined in depth, to have his life's work shown and analyzed against the backdrop of both 20th-century ideas and ideals and the standards and objectives of art itself.
Arp is receiving particular scrutiny at the Museum of Fine Arts here in an exhibition of 150 of his more important and illuminating pieces. These cover the full range of his creative production from work executed while still an art student in Europe before World War I to the lyrically monumental sculptures of the early 1960s.
``The Universe of Jean Arp'' was organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in association with the Wurttembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart, West Germany, where it was first shown. Roughly one-third of the works are marble, stone, and bronze sculptures, another third are reliefs made out of wood, cardboard, and string on canvas, and the rest are drawings, collages, prints, and textiles. A 318-page, profusely illustrated catalog accompanies the exhibition.
Arp, I'm certain, would have been delighted with this retrospective. It's about as pleasant and easy a way of becoming better acquainted with the work of this pioneer French abstract artist as anyone could wish. But the catalog, I'm afraid, is another matter. Reading its various essays on every conceivable aspect of Arp's life, thought, importance, and professional activities, one begins to wonder at the writers' persistent and somewhat overblown attempts to convince the reader of Arp's originality and genius.
But why? Is it because these writers aren't themselves totally convinced of the quality of what he's done? Or because they suspect that the theories on which his art is predicated may be of greater interest and value than the work itself?
I doubt that either is the case, and suspect that blame must lie with the art world's increasing tendency to overburden every major exhibition with endless verbal baggage.
So how does Arp the artist hold up? Very well, actually. Not that he quite matches Klee or Mir'o in two-dimensional work, nor Brancusi or Calder in three. But then, that's really beside the point, since what he's left behind in both areas will almost certainly be viewed in the future as central and important to 20th-century art.
To grasp the point of Arp's contribution to modernism, one must first understand that it represents a deeply felt and carefully thought-through formal strategy designed to serve as a dynamic alternative to traditional forms of representationalism. He made this very clear in 1915 when writing about the abstract pieces he had just begun to make: ``These works are structures of lines, surfaces, forms, colors. They try to approach the eternal, the inexpressible above man. They are a denial of human egotism. They are the hatred of human immodesty, the hatred of images, of paintings. ... Reproducing is imitation, theater, acrobatics. No one claims that there aren't more or less gifted acrobats. Art, however, is reality, and the common reality must become a clear sound above the particular.''
Having written that, he then went ahead to make what he envisioned a reality. He began, in 1916, by inventing a formal language of abstract, biomorphic shapes that vaguely suggested living organisms. These were organized and elaborated upon to form brightly colored wood reliefs and bold black-and-white drawings.
Next came highly stylized images of humans and inanimate objects that were frequently comical, even derisive, in intent and blatantly decorative in effect. They were followed in the early 1930s by the ``Constellations,'' a series of works consisting of simple organic shapes raised slightly and set against a plain background, and by a number of collages produced by tearing up earlier collages and then pasting the pieces wherever they fell ``according to the laws of chance.''
The 1930s also saw his first fully three-dimensional sculptures, a number of works inspired by shells, birds, stones, and plants, and several pieces of a more purely automatic or freely improvised nature. Few things he did during this period, however, can match the touching and often haunting sculptures he produced during the last 15 years of his life. Deeply disturbed by the death of his wife and occasional collaborator, Sophie Taeuber, and increasingly concerned about spiritual matters, he turned more and more toward highly stylized ``distillations'' of the human form.
A few of these later pieces are among this century's most elegant sculptures. ``Threshold with Plant Crenellations'' of 1959 is about as perfect an example of modernist art as one can find, and the same is true of ``The Three Graces'' of 1961, and ``Torso Sheaf'' of 1958.
At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through Sept. 13. This very fine exhibition can be seen at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from Dec. 3 through Jan. 31, 1988.