My very first solid interpretation of Sophie Taeuber-Arp, the subject of a magnificent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, took place nine years ago, through an investigation, also at MOMA, from the genesis of abstract art, circa 1910-25. Until then, I had taken lightly the Swiss virtuoso of many trades. But on this occasion, which featured heavyweights of the aesthetic revolution like Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich, I kept coming back to a small woolen embroidery of rectangular shapes, “Vertical-horizontal composition” (1916), by Taeuber-Arp. Handsome, utterly confident and ineffably sincere, he passed the artist’s associates, almost all of them men, to relative thugs, working on innovations that were child’s play for her. That the medium was “a woman’s work” by the standards of the time added to my astonishment, overturning the pejorative lazy. There is no doubt that the revaluation by feminism of historical values had sensitized me. Good is good whether it is done with a brush or with a needle.
Now embroidery is again, like an old friend, in “Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction”. The exhibition traces the artist’s multiple achievements, under the radar of dominant styles, until her death in 1943, when she was fifty-three years old. The asymmetrically and creamy structured bars and shades of the artwork in white, black, red, blue, gray and two browns generate a seemingly effortless majesty. The performance secretes fun elements that I hadn’t noticed before: a tiny, eccentric shape of a different color in a brown field; an almost imperceptible checkerboard of alternating horizontal and vertical dots in a black area (prophetic black on black paintings by Ad Reinhardt); and a small piece of cluttered thread which would appear to be a flaw if it didn’t so bluntly underline the tactility of the work. No matter how attached she might be to the geometric order, Taeuber-Arp communicated her freedom.
Sophie Taeuber was the fourth child of a pharmacist father and a mother who ran a linen store in Davos. After her father died of tuberculosis when she was two years old, her mother boarded up their home in the predominantly German-speaking town of Trogen. Taeuber studied fine and applied arts at schools in Switzerland and Germany. In 1915, during an art exhibition in Zurich, she met the Alsatian sculptor and poet Arp, who used Jean as a first name in France and Hans everywhere else. They were among the early members of Dada, which focused on a city nightclub, Cabaret Voltaire, and brought together artists and writers in revolt against anything that could be associated with the obscenity of WWI. . Others on the galvanic scene included Romanian poet Tristan Tzara and German Hugo Ball. The multi-talented and daring Taeuber fits perfectly.
The Dadaists, belittling art worthy of a museum, devoted their energy to defining themselves at evenings marked by such deliriums as improvisations of deliberately incomprehensible poetry. They see their activities as the end – a sardonic swansong – of a disgraced Western civilization. The richly costumed Taeuber danced in a way Ball described in 1917 as “full of spikes and fishbones.” A single blurry photograph documents this phase. His eventful three-act puppet show from 1918, an adaptation of an 18th-century commedia-dell’arte play, “King Stag”, is also barely recorded, with sets and a few photographs. Production ended after three performances, amid the dangers of this year’s deadly flu pandemic. The puppets have survived and are on display in MOMA– surprisingly inventive human, animal and fantasy figures, like a whirling dervish wielding multiple swords of a gizmo – made of brightly painted metal hinged wood. Excerpts from a speculative recreation, filmed in 1993, arouse in the viewer the desire to have attended the original show. You do not have to have been there, but what a joy if you were.
Largely inspired by Taeuber’s design feats, experiments in non-figurative art are taking place in the Dada circle. Other embroideries and gouaches of his, also entitled “Vertical-horizontal composition”, develop a language of forms so fluid that it could seem to have been born there: of a complex balance, always surprising. She extended the mode to triangles then to curvilinear or scattered shapes, scattered, all vivid and, such is the intimacy of her surfaces, imploring to be touched. She often took a detour through the two dimensions, painting wooden heads with irrational abstract patterns, as if she was pondering a higher realm of the psyche. Invited by Tzara in 1920 to provide a photograph of her face, she made several takes in which she glances smilingly from behind one of the “Heads of Dada”.
Taeuber and Arp married in 1922, and she appended her name to hers. They traveled extensively among the hot spots of the European avant-garde before settling in France in 1929. Her repertoire included incredibly laborious pearls, which she deployed in jewelry and small handbags that she could sell commercially. She also made delicately woven tablecloths that you wouldn’t dream of putting a cup of coffee on. Her dedication to craftsmanship may seem strategic, allowing her to escape comparison with the great styles of fine art of the time, in which, nonetheless, she was perfectly versed. An inveterate carpenter, she has enriched group exhibitions with numerous trends, including surrealism. People liked having her with her.
From 1930, Taeuber-Arp focused on oil painting. She has proven to be a leading contributor to the Cercle et Carré and Abstraction-Création movements – both organized to promote geometric abstraction – to a certain loss of charisma. Another painter. But take a good look. She has exercised technical intricacies such as building what appear to be bursts of freehand curling lines with tiny, almost undetectable strokes to give them subliminal physical mass. Everything she has done, including forays into stained glass and designs for architectural and interior design projects, has acquired a mystique of how she has done it.
In 1940, Taeuber-Arp and Arp fled their home, outside of Paris, to the unoccupied area of southern France, shortly before German troops entered the city. The couple considered but blocked possible immigration to the United States (they had visas) before taking refuge in neutral Switzerland. In January 1943, Taeuber-Arp spent a night with a friend. She lit a wood-burning stove in the guest bedroom but, inexplicably neglecting to open the flue, died in her sleep from carbon monoxide poisoning. The calamity persists like an unbearable wound.
A friend suggested to me that the Taeuber-Arp show illustrates what he calls “the MOMA apology tour. After promulgating a canon of masters and modernist movements since its inception, under the leadership of Alfred H. Barr, Jr., in recent years the museum has taken to celebrating the talents and phenomena of the past that it had formerly consigned, considering them at all, to marginal status. A concurrent exhibition at the museum, “Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw,” features the work of an outside Chicago artist who died in 1972. Yoakum began painting at the age of seventy-one, in late 1900s. ‘a dark and overwhelming life. , and was warmly embraced by a cohort of wacky Chicago artists who, ignoring New York influences, dubbed themselves the Hairy Who; in recent times, they themselves have called for restorative justice. Yoakum’s landscapes of sensually inflated shapes, bubbling with visceral imagination, fill a void in MOMAthe story of twentieth-century art.
But the case of Taeuber-Arp goes beyond a gesture of late catholicity. Its elevation revises what is understood as “major” in modern art. Far from being incidental to its time, it was integral to the global expansion of what art could be and how it could change the world as a whole. The show recasts presuppositions of value long held hostage by hierarchies of mediums and dominated, with rare exceptions, by men. The story he tells frees up reflection on what counted – and still matters, and will henceforth be – in our cultural annals of consequent genius. ??