This is one of two virtually identical reliefs. The 'first' version, formerly in the collection of George Heard Hamilton, is now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. It was not uncommon for Arp to make two or more identical, reliefs and paint them differently. In this case the two reliefs are painted slightly differently; in the Washington relief the protruding shapes are painted a lighter grey than in the Canberra version and the lower area between the fork and shirtfront is dark grey rather than black as in the Canberra relief. Comparison, however, is complicated by the repainting to which both reliefs would seem to have been subjected-possibly by Arp himself; in later years he frequently retrieved his reliefs from private collections in order to repair cracks and repaint them.1
The Washington relief has always been dated 1922, while the relief in Canberra has traditionally been dated to 1924. It is not impossible that the two reliefs were made two years apart, the 'first' providing a pattern for the second, but it does seem unlikely, and in the catalogue raisonné of Arp's reliefs compiled by Bernd Rau, the Canberra version has also been assigned the date 1922.2
Shirtfront and fork has often been cited to illustrate a shift in the style of Arp's reliefs that occurred after his return to Paris in 1920. The abstract, organic forms of the Dada reliefs that he had produced in Zurich during the war were replaced by a bizarre array of figurative elements-lips, noses, navels, shoes, shirtfronts, forks-imagery probably encouraged by his association with the cafe society into which he was welcomed in Paris both as a poet and artist. The elements of this 'object language', as Arp referred to his new style, are often set in strange juxtaposition, and encourage a comic ambiguity. In Shirtfront and fork the shirtfront (actually a 'dickie') with its two studs, can just as easily be seen as a human face, and the fork as an arm. As such, it harbours the kind of mischievous comment on social behaviour that Arp relished-the abstract personage seen merely as his proper shirtfront and correctly held fork.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.144.