Hung Up on the Telephone, Artist Arman Devises a Long-Distance Tribute

updated 01/22/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/22/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

To Armand Pierre Arman—or Arman, as he prefers to be known—the telephone is the supreme machine of our age. "It is," he says, "the instrument of emotion and communication, problems and solutions, business and friendship." So, fired by a need to reach out and touch everyone, Arman, an artist whose works sell for as much as $1 million, has fashioned his own gray-hued salute to La Bell Époque.

Arman's work, a giant grotto that stands in Vence, a French Riviera hill town, is made from the remains of 12 tons of telephones—most of them obsolete rotaries junked by the French telephone utility. The grotto winds its way for about 50 feet down a flight of stairs from the artist's house to his swimming pool, a spooky labyrinth of disconnected telephones that will never ring again. "It amazes me to think what kinds of conversations, thoughts and feelings went through all those telephones," says Arman, 61, a French-born naturalized American who divides his time between Vence and his home in Manhattan.

Arman's grotto, which he whimsically has titled Reach Out, took him and two assistants three months to complete. Arman and his assistants attached the phones to the previously bare stairs and walls with a nail gun. Though it consists mainly of gray phones, there also are occasional blues, browns and oranges. Arman has no plans to move his work, thereby disappointing, among others, Nice gallery owner Jean Ferrero, who handles Arman's works and considers him one of the most important "neorealist" artists in the world. "I could sell Reach Out for about $1 million," says Ferrero in a ringing endorsement, "but it would obviously be difficult to transport."

Arman's fascination with the telephone has not stopped him from creating works of art out of other appliances. Most of the outer walls of the house are covered with steel cylinders from washing machines, and in the inner courtyard stands a fountain formed by 15 constantly overflowing bathroom sinks. Inside the house there is a chair made of violin cases, another is formed by hundreds of plastic paint tubes—and some stools that were once tractor seats. At the moment, Arman is working on a 26-foot tall piece made of bronzed pianos.

"I was a pack rat when I was a kid," says Arman, who grew up in Nice, "and always used to have more toy soldiers and marbles than anyone else. I made my first professional sculpture out of rubber stamps in the early 1950s and never looked back."

Arman has one last finishing touch he plans to add to Reach Out some time next summer—an actual connected, working telephone so that he can take calls poolside.

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