Iconoclastic artist and collector claimed alike by his native France and his adopted New York

Thursday 27 October 2005 00:00 BST

Armand Fernandez, known under his nom de pinceau as "Arman", was a veritable exemplar of the artist's fate in outliving their historic moment of truly radical inspiration and becoming a marketable, middle-brow institution. If Arman had died not last week but, say, aged 40 in 1968, a participant in Documenta and the Venice Biennale, his reputation and prices would be as high as his friends Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni.

For, during more than a decade of feverish creativity beginning in 1958, Arman was a genuine revolutionary leader of the European avant-garde. Whether filling every inch of a gallery with street refuse, artificially preserving flowers, slicing quotidian objects in half or simply displaying hundreds of them, coffee pots for example, in identical rows, Arman bravely expanded art's supposed limits. Arman at his most innovative was as refreshingly iconoclastic as any currently celebrated young turks - indeed Damien Hirst's work seems to echo many of Arman's own ideas. Arman was displaying clinically correct transparent containers of detritus back in the 1950s, and his 1960 gleaming vitrine packed with trash from the modish Colombe d'Or was remade by Hirst with rubbish from the Groucho Club.

Arman's youthful boldness was linked to his fascination with martial arts. In 1950 Arman saw service with the French marines in Indo-China and had garnered sufficient expertise in their medical corps to be offered work performing operations. His other combative tastes ranged from chess (played competitively at the highest level) and the board game Go (of which he was one of the highest-ranking Western players), to judo and Kung Fu Wu Su. In fact, with Yves Klein, he had opened a judo dojo in Madrid.

An expert practitioner of such fighting skills, Arman was also a leading collector of Japanese swords and armour. For his art of "accumulation", the formal display of banal objects, was part of his own acquisitive mania. He was acknowledged as one of the world's greatest collector-experts on African art. He was equally expert in the Oceanic field, not to mention diamonds, precious stones, Chinese porcelain and antique watches. At one point Arman had 17 different collections - "I am a collector of collections," he said - including a most astonishing library, which ranged from Rimbaud and Verlaine to Dada and Surrealist rarities and manuscripts.

Yet, by the end of his life, Arman had become almost like a well-kept secret. He was an artist whose real cultural import had been forgotten, but who was consulted by museums and academics on everything from antique swords to tribal masks; the most French of figures who was in fact an American citizen and pioneer of Manhattan's most modish area, Tribeca.

Armand Pierre Fernandez was born in Nice in 1928, his father an antique dealer, and this town was a formative influence. He enrolled at the Ecole Nationale des Arts Décoratifs in Nice and, having studied judo and philosophy along with his new best friend Yves Klein, had his first one-man show in 1955. By 1959, as "Arman", he had begun to exhibit his "accumulations" of objects and sculptural plexi-glass containers of rubbish. In 1960 he was a lead signatory of the manifesto of Les Nouveaux Réalistes (the New Realists), the group with which he was always most closely linked.

That year he filled Iris Clert's gallery to bursting with detritus and called it "le Plein" ("Full Up"), and began his "robot portraits" of various figures, emptying a week's worth of the contents of their dustbin into a transparent box for eternity. Clert was not only his loyal gallerist but the cause of his pseudonym. When she printed an invitation which left the final "d" off his name, he decided to adopt it as his identity, a truly anarchic and "cool" act for a 30-year-old artist.

Arman's success was rapid and widespread, and he was an overt influence on the immediately subsequent generation of Pop artists. Thus, when he first moved to New York, his work was already known within that milieu and he became a particular friend of Andy Warhol (born the same year) who created memorable portraits of Arman and his second wife Corice. In 1973 Arman became an American citizen and formally took the name Armand Pierre Arman.

In his adopted home of Manhattan, Arman moved through a sequence of increasingly large Bohemian properties before buying an enormous pickle factory on Washington Street near the Hudson river in the then raw area of Tribeca. Nearby, on Canal Street, he also maintained a corner garage lot for larger, outdoor sculptures. Arman became increasingly known for these large installations, such sculptures being sited at the Elysée, the Gare St Lazare, in front of the fabled restaurant Maison Troisgros in Roanne and most impressively as a 6,000-ton monument at the Place des Martyrs in Beirut.

Appointed to the Légion d'honneur by Jacques Chirac in 2001, Arman had practically become a state "public artist" - a long way from the outrageous conceptual provocateur capable of performances entitled Colère in which he would smash haute-bourgeois furniture with an axe, set fire to Louis IV chairs, blow up a car, incinerate antique violins.

Arman was aware of this paradox. In an interview he granted me for The Art Newspaper two years ago, he admitted,

I'm conscious that if it's too easy and too commercial it is no good. After I die I have a committee who will lend 50 or 60 key works to museums for shows. And if, after 30 years, my reputation is not so good, they will give these works to museums. I am very practical - if my reputation has gone bad, there is no point still paying for this committee. Many cities are prepared to make an Arman museum, in Geneva, Seoul, near Nice. But I refuse to have an Arman museum because I'm too ambitious and proud. I do not want to end up as the curator of my own mausoleum.

Adrian Dannatt

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