Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s craft of abstraction

My first solid bid for Sophie Taeuber-Arp, the subject of a wonderful retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, took place nine years ago, as a study, also at. MOMA, of the creation of abstract art, around 1910-25. Until then, I had taken lightly the Swiss virtuoso of many crafts. But on the occasion, which contained such heavy hits of the aesthetic revolution as Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich, I kept returning to a small woolen embroidery of rectangular shapes, “Vertical-Horizontal Composition” (1916), by Taeuber-Arp . Beautiful, completely confident and indescribably heartfelt, it made the artist’s employees, almost all male, seem relative girls, worked up over innovations that were a breeze for her. That the medium was “women’s work” by the standards of the time, added to my amazement, and abolished the lazy derogatory meaning. No doubt feminism’s reassessment of historical values ​​had made me aware. Good is good, whether it is done with a brush or with a needle.

Now the embroidery is here again, like an old friend, in “Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction.” The show traces the artist’s diverse achievements, under the radar of prevailing styles, until her death, in 1943, when she was fifty-three years old. The work’s cute, asymmetrically structured beams and swatches in white, black, red, blue, gray and two browns generate a seemingly effortless majesty. The execution elicits pieces of fun that I had not noticed before: a small, eccentric off-colored shape in a brown field; an almost imperceptible checkerboard pattern of alternating horizontal and vertical stitches in a black area (prophetic of Ad Reinhardt’s black-on-black paintings); and a small lump of overloaded yarn that would seem to be a mistake if it did not so openly emphasize the tactility of the work. No matter how engaged she might be in geometric order, Taeuber-Arp communicated her freedom.

“Vertical-Horizontal Composition”, from 1916; a number of Taeuber-Arp’s works share the same title.Artwork lent by Foundation Arp eV, Berlin

Sophie Taeuber was the fourth child of a pharmacist father and a mother who ran a linen shop in Davos. After her father’s death from tuberculosis when she was two, her mother admitted students to their home in the most German-speaking town of Trogen. Taeuber studied art and applied arts at schools in Switzerland and Germany. In 1915, at an art exhibition in Zurich, she met the Alsatian sculptor and poet Arp, who used Jean as his first name in France and Hans everywhere else. They were among the early members of Dada, centered on a nightclub in the city, Cabaret Voltaire, and convened artists and writers in revolt against anything that could be associated with the obscene First World War. Others on the galvanic stage included the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara and the German Hugo Ball. The multi-talented, routinely daring Taeuber fit right in.

“Composition (To Disks Cut by a Line),” from 1931.Artwork lent by Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau

The Dadaists, who despised museum-worthy art, devoted their self-defining energy to evenings marked by such loud jinks as improvisations of deliberately incomprehensible poetry. They perceived their activities as the end – a sardonic swan song – of a disgraced Western civilization. Taeuber, artfully dressed, would dance in a way that Ball in 1917 described as “full of spikes and fish bones.” Only one blurred photograph documents that phase. Also sparsely recorded, with scenographies and a few photographs, is her hectic three-act puppet show from 1918, an adaptation of an eighteenth-century commedia-dell’arte play, “King Stag.” Production closed after three performances, amid the dangers of this year’s deadly flu pandemic. The puppets survived and can be seen at MOMA– astonishingly inventive human, animal and fantastic figures, such as a swirling dervish with several swords, of a gizmo – in brightly painted, metal-hinged wood. Clips from a speculative re-enactment, which was filmed in 1993, arouse a longing in the viewer after watching the original show. You do not have to have been there, but what bliss if you were.

Inspired to a large extent by Taeuber’s tours de force of design, experiments in non-figurative art took hold of the Dada circle. Further embroideries and gouaches of hers, also called the “Vertical-Horizontal Composition,” develop a idiom that is so fluid that she might seem born to it: intricately balanced, invariably surprising. She extended the state to involve triangles and then curvilinear or scattered, scattered shapes, all lively and, such is the intimacy of her surfaces, she begs to be touched. She often went on a detour from two dimensions and painted wooden heads with irrational abstract patterns, as if she were thinking of some overarching area of ​​the psyche. When Tzara in 1920 was asked to provide a photograph of her face, she was taken several, smiling looking forward behind one of the “Dada heads”.

Taeuber and Arp married in 1922, and she merged his name with her own. They traveled extensively among the hotspots of the European avant-garde before settling in France in 1929. Her repertoire included some dizzyingly labor-intensive pearls, which she used in jewelry and small purses, which she could sell commercially. She also made delicately woven tablecloths that one would not dream of putting a coffee cup on. Her devotion to craftsmanship can seem strategic, allowing her to evade comparison with the great art styles of the era – which she was nonetheless fully familiar with. She was an incarnated carpenter and enhanced group shows with several trends, including surrealism. People liked having her nearby.

“Cushion Panel,” from 1916.Artwork lent by the Museum of Design Zurich, ZHdK

From 1930, Taeuber-Arp concentrated on oil painting. She proved to be a prime contributor to the Cercle et Carré and Abstraction-Création movements – both of which were organized to promote geometric abstraction – with a certain loss of charisma. Another painter. But look closely. She exercised such technical subtleties as building what appear to be freehand stripes of curly lines with small, almost undetectable strokes to give them subliminal physical mass. Whatever she did, including stained glass interventions and designs for architecture and interior design projects, she got mystery from how she did it.

In 1940, Taeuber-Arp and Arp fled their homes outside Paris to the unoccupied zone of southern France, shortly before German troops entered the city. The couple considered but stopped a possible immigration to the US (they had visas) before taking refuge back in neutral Switzerland. In January 1943, Taeuber-Arp spent a night in a friend’s house. She turned on a wood-burning stove in the guest room, but after neglecting to open the hood, she died in her sleep from carbon monoxide poisoning. The accident continues as a ranking evil.

A friend has suggested to me that the Taeuber-Arp show is an example of what he calls “it MOMA apologetic tour. “Having preached a canon of modernist masters and movements since its earliest days, led by Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the museum has in recent years begun to celebrate past talents and phenomena that it once delivered , when considered at all, to marginal status.A parallel show at the museum, “Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw,” presents works by an outside artist from Chicago who died in 1972. Yoakum began painting at the age of 71 years, towards the end of a murky life., and was warmly embraced by a cohort of crazy figurative Chicago artists, who by turning New York influences away and christening themselves Hairy Who; been on the road to healing justice, Yoakum’s landscapes of sensually swollen visceral fantasies fill a void MOMA‘s tale of twentieth – century art.

But Taeuber-Arp’s case goes beyond a gesture of delayed Catholicism. Her elevation revises what is understood as the “major” in modern art. She was far from random in her era, but was an integral part of the wholesale expansion of what art could be and how it could change the world as a whole. The show recreates assumptions about value that had long been held hostage to medium hierarchies and, with rare exceptions, were dominated by men. The story it tells frees the thinking of what has meant something – and still does, and will in the future – in our cultural annals of consequent genius. ♦


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