Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction
On ViewThe Museum of Modern Art
November 21, 2021 – March 12, 2022
Prior to this exhibition, I’ve had little occasion to witness a significant body of work by this extraordinary, multi-talented artist of the early 20th century. While Sophie Taeuber-Arp is perhaps best known in Europe—given the majority of readings on her work stem from translations in German, French, and Italian—her relatively brief career was a formidable one, to say the least. Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction at the Museum of Modern Art is a magnificent, if not exemplary, exhibition that includes some 400 works intuitively conceived and produced in diverse media by a remarkable avant-garde practitioner.
No artist working with geometric abstraction can easily ignore the achievements of Taeuber-Arp. From her multimedia point of view—embracing painting, design, craft, textiles, sculpture, architecture, marionettes, embroidery, stained glass, and dance—there were no inherent separations between the fine and applied arts. According to the artist, the focus of her work was to reveal the “living abstraction” that gives the current exhibition its title. In promoting the concept of working between various mediums, Taeuber-Arp soon became a renowned and highly respected teacher, essayist, and spokesperson for the arts. Early on, she made a clear decision to live and work without categories, instead putting herself at the threshold of creativity where she could pursue her destiny as a total artist: a master of all trades.
Given the diversity of Taeuber-Arp’s multimedia activity, there is little doubt that the organization and installation of this exhibition proved a challenge for Senior Curator Anne Umland and her colleague Walburga Krupp. Even so, the design of the passageways between and within the gallery spaces allowed for a continuous movement from one group of works to the next, without interruption. The installation functions as a continuum that clarifies Taeuber-Arp’s deeply profound awareness of each medium, whether it be colored pencil on paper, architectural design, or embroidered pillows, all of which would become essential to her extraordinary development as a rigorous, thoughtful, and ground-breaking artist committed to living in the contemporary world and exercising “a new style that is fitting for us.”
It has often been noted that Taeuber-Arp worked on a consistent and conscious level against the bias that art was distinct from design and craft. Although her position was in opposition to many male artists in the early to mid-20th century, who insisted on their work as being art and very much not design, she was supported in her fight by the Zurich Dadaists, a group intrinsically removed from the formalities of what was considered acceptable by the establishment of the late 1910s. To pinpoint the art of Sophie Taeuber-Arp in those early years is not easy, and perhaps deliberately so. The MoMA exhibition opens with works on paper interspersed with knitted wool mounted on canvas. The visual elements in both groups of works are geometric forms, mostly squares and rectangles. Circles and indeterminate linear variations would come later: in the 1930s and ’40s, respectively. In all cases, the work would be based primarily on compositions or patterns that, for Taeuber-Arp, depended on how one might choose to see them.
The early rectilinear variations dominate during the early Dada period (1915–18), the same time Taeuber-Arp met her future husband Hans (Jean) Arp, one of Dada’s co-founders. Examples of her work in this period include a small piece titled Vertical, Horizontal. Square, Rectangular (1917), and, beside it, a somewhat larger work knitted in polychrome wool mounted on canvas, titled Vertical-Horizontal Composition (1917). Despite the fact that Taeuber-Arp was already working with textiles and embroideries, most of the works of this early period appear as studies, painted in gouache and metallic paint, with colored pencil. But herein resides the paradox. For Taeuber-Arp, the major concern was less about the difference between, say, a drawing and a design in knitted wool, and more about how the geometry re-appears, always retaining its presence, in relation to the various mediums it encounters. Still, in this case one might be persuaded to ask: what is the primary manifestation? While changes are clearly present as the work moves from one medium to another, one might argue that the work itself remains the same.
As an extension of her early work, Taeuber-Arp became involved with the Swiss Marionette Theatre during the later period of Zurich Dada, before Dada began spreading to Paris, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, and New York. At the same time, she became aware of an 18th-century work titled King Stag, from Carlo Gozzi’s commedia dell’arte. Taeuber-Arp saw the opportunity to transform the characters into 17 marionettes, all of which have been carefully preserved since 1918, when Taeuber-Arp’s King Stag was first performed. The geometric interpretation of the figures was especially appreciated by the Dada group, thus giving her special credibility as an advanced artist. One of the truly delightful aspects of this belated retrospective is the display of all 17 figures in wood adjacent to a film of their performance.
The complexity of the exhibition continues on many levels, including Taeuber-Arp’s work, along with her husband Jean Arp, on a 1927 architectural commission for the Aubette entertainment complex in Strasbourg. The commission mainly included her painted geometric panels throughout the “Five O’Clock” tearoom and the Aubette Bar adjacent to it. A review of this work appeared in Die Dorne, an illustrated magazine in Berlin (1919), praising Taeuber-Arp as an artist who “not only forged new paths with her décor and figures, but also already offered definitive solutions.”
For the most part, Jean Arp functioned as a technical assistant in the Aubette project—this was often the case in their working relationship. Of equal importance was Arp’s devotion to his wife’s outstanding position as an artist and philosopher throughout the 28 years of her career. Although this would sadly be curtailed by Taeuber-Arp’s accidental death from carbon monoxide poisoning in the early ’40s, Arp continued to promote her as a major artist and a key figure among the Dadaists. MoMA’s retrospective shows us how right he was: Sophie Taeuber-Arp was an artist of inspiration who opened doors for contemporary artists to become who they wanted themselves to be.