The wandering creativity of Sophie Taeuber-Arp
There is one object in the Museum of Modern Art retrospective of Swiss polymath Sophie Taeuber-Arp that is so coveted that I wanted to hurry it.
It dates from 1922 and takes the form of triangles that fit together in an integral pattern of blue and pink, brown and olive. These abstract shapes are interrupted by five red birds, flattened and simplified into icons of a new age. Their wings are jazzy out of alignment. Their necks are scalloped with triangular plumage as consistent as the teeth of a comb.
This is not a painting. It’s a pillow: something beautiful and practical, something new to the eyes but suitable for the head.
Modern art, right on your sofa! Opening after one year of delay due to the pandemic, “Sophie Taeuber-Arp: living abstraction” offers a view of an artist who cared little for distinctions between works of art on your wall, in your living room, on stage or on your back. Freewheeling and alive with color, the show places Taeuber-Arp in its rightful place as the prime mover among the Dadaists of the Zurich War. He mixes his abstract watercolors and his painted wood sculptures with necklaces, puppets, beaded purses, stained glass. She could do it all and was underrated for decades because of it.
Her appetite for multimedia makes her the perfect subject for an explosion in MoMA’s expanded home, where curators now mix painting, photography, design and even film in unique presentations. The spectacle, exquisite though unbalanced, arrived here from the Kunstmuseum Basel and Tate Modern in London. It is true that it is large, with more than 300 objects on loan from 50 collections. Maybe even too big? There are a few lengths in its later galleries, filled with dozens of abstract paintings and later reliefs: so many dancing circles, so many boogie lines.
He is also strangely shy about the sources of his art, most notably his obvious debts to Native American textiles and African sculpture: influences shared by many anarchic rule breakers in Dada, who immerse his colors and patterns in a dialogue with the colonialism and ethnography. There’s so much to dream about here, and I bet “Living Abstraction” will spawn loads of young Sophie Stans. But could he have done with a little more guts on this point?
She was never an obscure figure, exactly. She was a regular at Cabaret Voltaire, dancing and drinking alongside Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball and her future husband, artist and poet Jean (Hans) Arp. Her face was on the 50-franc note in Switzerland, wearing a cloche hat that made her look eerily like one of her own symmetrical turned wood Dada heads. (It was phased out last decade, replaced the 50 by Alps and a Dandelion.)
It’s not even new to MoMA: Taeuber-Arp organized a small retrospective here in 1981 and was featured in the museum’s Dada exhibit in 2006 and in the 2012 “Inventing Abstraction” exhibit. Too often, however, she has been relegated to the minor leagues in art history, not just because of her gender (and her famous husband). For much of the twentieth century, in New York City in particular, critics and curators argued that a work of art was most successful when it fully manifested its “average uniqueness,” as critic Clement Greenberg put it.
Any suggestion that an abstract canvas shared DNA with textiles, furniture design, or the “minor arts” was therefore anathema. The biggest insult you could give an abstract painter was that his art – I use the pronoun wisely – was “decorative”. How could a painting express our highest ideals if it could also serve as a model for a women’s handbag?
But there was a completely different current of modernism, where women were much better represented, which mixture painting and sculpture in the decorative arts. Those obtuse triangles that she woven for that must-have pillow also appear in tender gouaches on paper, locking into gray and salmon parallelograms like the teeth of a zipper. A pretty painting that synchronizes rectangles of black, red, and teal hangs here alongside a larger weave with the same geometric arrangement. The table obeys the grid at right angles to the warp and weft of the loom. However, painting is not only a preparation for tapestry, nor tapestry a translation of painting.
What Taeuber-Arp saw was that abstract forms could serve as co-equal elements in a single creative system. They could be modular and shape changing; the forms could migrate at will. Ceiling murals she designed for the Aubette cultural center in Strasbourg have the same grid structure as his textiles, which themselves echo the gridlines of the paintings.
And for her, this cross-media engagement had an ethical and spiritual dimension. “In our complicated times,” wrote Taeuber-Arp in 1922, “why design ornaments and combinations of colors when there are so many more practical and above all more necessary things to do? For her, the answer was not to be found on the outside but on the inside, in a “deep and primordial need to make the things we have more beautiful”.
Taeuber-Arp arrived at this all-media approach as a teenager, when she left Switzerland to study at one of the most progressive art schools in Europe: the Debschitz School in Munich, where a student body predominantly female learned finely and applied artistic skills together. Returning to Zurich in 1914, she founded a craft business, began teaching and also enrolled in dance lessons with Rudolf von Laban.
She had returned to Switzerland to escape the war, and soon a bunch of foreigners followed suit. As World War I pulverized all remaining European claims to civilization, these expatriate artists turned Zurich into a compression chamber of Western madness, baptized with the absurd name of Dada. Taeuber-Arp, the only Swiss member of Dada, threw herself into his satirical indictments, especially through the most delightful objects here: stripped and uncluttered puppets of a parody piece, “King Deer”, in the form of courtiers and palace guards, parrots and deer, and unconscious kings named Freudanalyticus and Dr. Oedipus Complex.
Puppets are wonderful relics of Dada diversions. They are also sculptures, obviously inspired by the stylized geometric forms of Central African statuary – just like Dada’s rounded heads, his substitute self-portraits, which appear as Congolese or Gabonese masks rotated around a central axis. There isn’t a word in any wall text here about Africa or native America (as well as Swiss folk art, another influence); from the title, MoMA focuses above all on abstraction. Yet as I moved forward, the show’s indifference to its cross-cultural influences started to feel more like a conspiracy of silence than a choice of accent.
Only one photograph survives of the Taeuber-Arp dance, wearing a geometric mask on one of the many wild Dada nights where Europeans sang in fake African languages and performed fake tribal dances. Conservatives call the mask “cubist-inspired” and bury the photo on a four-inch card hung below eye level.
The ornate necklaces of Taeuber-Arp are strongly reminiscent of Zulu beadwork; fringed textiles share color schemes and geometric patterns with those of the Southwestern United States; all this happens without notice. The silence becomes even stranger when you consider that Walburga Krupp, one of the curators of the current MoMA exhibition, scrutinized Taeuber-Arp’s passion for Native American textiles in the catalog of “Dada Africa», A rigorous exhibition of Dada and non-Western art seen in Zurich, Berlin and Paris in 2016-17. (The other curators here are Anne Umland from MoMA, Eva Reifert from Basel and Natalia Sidlina from Tate.)
Indeed, some of Taeuber-Arp’s best-known works before this show were costumes whose geometric patterns she modeled after Hopi katsina dolls – those that Carl Jung, her Swiss compatriot, purchased on a trip to New Mexico. The costumes appear on the cover from the “Dada Africa” catalog; one of them was exhibited this summer in “Women in abstraction», At the Center Pompidou. But they’re not here in New York, nor in the MoMA publication. Only the most attentive reader will find, buried in footnotes, a disclosure that the clothing “has been omitted from this publication out of respect for the Hopi and Pueblo peoples.”
Forgive me, I’m really not the type to cancel cultured bromides, but we are in serious problem if our main museum of modern and contemporary art thinks there is a need to hide the colonial inspirations of European art from its visitors – or, worse, thinks its visitors are not sophisticated enough to recognize them. (Images are already widely published; Hopi art lovers have Google too.) Umland, the curator at MoMA, told me that pseudo-Hopi textiles were “not essential to the exhibition thesis.” , although she conceded that “the important reason given in the catalog” also weighed on their decision.
I wonder. The abstract impulse that Taeuber-Arp brought to his art and his life was not just about color and line. His “deep and primordial drive” crossed colonial anthropology and ethnography. Instead of silencing this or passing judgment, why not analyze it, historically, with all the intellectual tools that these Europeans did not have and the voices that they could not hear? Almost 40 years after its famous exhibition on “primitive” art and its modernist influence, hasn’t MoMA really found a better approach to this period than concealment?
As it stands, this show is almost too beautiful, and in its final parts we come across acres of refined abstractions that the artist painted in France in the 1930s, saturated with floating circles, rectangles, scribbles and half-moons. When war came a second time and canvases became more difficult to procure, she made smaller but no less ambitious designs, where the side scribbles face each other with hard-edged angles. Back in Switzerland in 1943, she spent the night with her friend Max Bill; she lit a fire in the guest bedroom, failing to notice that the stove flue was closed, and never woke up. She was 53 years old.
The density of crosses and curves has a clear purpose. They are there in force to establish the artist as a major modernist – a modernist of MoMA caliber. In this “living abstraction” is totally successful, and Sophie Taeuber-Arp seems almost an autonomous paradigm of the recent reinvention of this museum: an artist who could make abstraction a high vocation, in the fine arts as in the applied arts. . It also has its place in a more global museum, where images and people shuttle through endless encounters and where no abstraction is pure.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living abstraction
Until March 12 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, Manhattan; 212-708-9400, moma.org.