Early on he makes contact with Vasili Kandinsky and the Blaue Reiter group, and exhibits with Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Franz Marc and Paul Klee, all artists looking to free themselves from the forms of an art that is deemed conventional and outmoded. In 1914 he settles in Zurich and takes part in founding Dada. Later he will draw closer to the Surrealists and join in succession the avant-garde groups Cercle et carré and Abstraction-creation in the 1930s.
He creates collages and assemblages, and writes poems. Speaking both German and French, he is given to playing as much with words as with forms. The organic-looking compositions of his early work gradually take on volume. To elaborate one and the same piece in relief, Arp combines different images, at times mixing in humour and derision whilst emphasising the decompartmentalisation of genres.
As Pierre Descargues recalled, “He tapped into analogies. Thus, he broke up our categories, our organisations. Thus, he revealed the correspondences between the mineral, the animal and the vegetable. He created impossible couplings in which bacteria began to sport a nose and the entire world new possibilities”.
In 1954 Arp takes the main sculpture prize at the Venice Biennale. In 1958 the Museum of Modern Art in New York devotes a solo show to his work, and in 1962 the Musée national d'art moderne in Paris mounts a retrospective that will travel to Basel, Stockholm, Copenhagen and London. He dies in Basel in 1966. Since then, shows have been regularly devoted to him and his work around the world, including an important exhibition in 1972 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Jean Arp Foundation opened its doors in 1979 in Clamart, near Paris.