The wandering creativity of Sophie Taeuber-Arp

In the retrospective of the Museum of Modern Art by Swiss polymath Sophie Taeuber-Arp, there is an object that is so desirable that I wanted to squeeze it.

It dates from 1922 and is in the shape of triangles that come together to form an all-over pattern of blue and pink, brown and olive. These abstract shapes interrupt five red birds, flattened and simplified into icons of a new age. Their wings are jazzy misaligned. Their necks are adorned with triangular plumage that is as consistent as the teeth of a comb.

This is not a painting. It’s a pillow: something beautiful and practical, something new for the eyes, but suitable for the head.

Modern art right on your sofa! Opening after a year of pandemic delay, “Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Lively abstraction” offers the view of an artist who would not have cared about the differences between the art on your wall, in your living room, on the stage or on your back. Free-running and full of colors, the Taeuber-Arp show takes its rightful place as a pioneer among the Dadaists of the Zurich war. It mixes her abstract watercolors and painted wooden sculptures with necklaces, marionettes, pearl bags and stained glass windows. She could do everything and was therefore underestimated for decades.

Their multimedia appetite makes them the ideal subject for a blowout in the extended home of MoMA, where curators are now mixing painting, photography, design and even cinema in individual presentations. The show, exquisite if unbalanced, is from here Art Museum Basel and Tate Modern in London. It is certainly large, with more than 300 loans from 50 collections. Maybe too big? There are some longueurs in his later galleries, replete with dozen of later abstract paintings and reliefs: so many dancing circles, so many booging lines.

It’s also strangely fainthearted about the sources of their art, particularly their clear guilt for Native American textiles and African sculpture: influences shared by many of Dada’s anarchic rule-breakers who put their colors and patterns in a dialogue with Colonialism and ethnography emerge. There is so much to discover here, and I’ll bet Living Abstraction will bring forth a lot of younger Sophie Stans. But would there have been a little more grit in that regard?

She was never an obscure character. She was a regular at Cabaret Voltaire, danced and drank next to Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball and her future husband, the artist and poet Jean (Hans) Arp. Her face used to be on the 50-franc note in Switzerland, wore a cloche hat that made her look eerily like one of her own symmetrical turned wood Dada heads. (It was retired last decade and replaced on 50 with some Alps and a dandelion.)

It’s not even new at MoMA: Taeuber-Arp had a smaller retrospective here in 1981 and was shown in the museum’s Dada exhibition in 2006 and in the “Inventing Abstraction” exhibition in 2012. Too often, however, she is relegated to the lower league of art history not only because of her gender (and her famous husband). In New York in particular, critics and curators claimed for a long period of the 20th

Any suggestion that an abstract canvas shares DNA with textiles, furniture design or the “little arts” was therefore anathema. The biggest insult one could inflict on 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 provide the pattern for a women’s handbag?

But there was an entirely different direction of modernity, in which women were far better represented, that mixed Painting and sculpture with the decorative arts. These blunt triangles, which she has woven for this indispensable pillow, appear in delicate gouaches on paper that snap into gray and salmon-colored parallelograms like the teeth of a zipper. A beautiful painting, syncopating rectangles of black, red, and blue-green, hangs here next to a larger fabric with the same geometric arrangement. The painting follows the rectangular grid of the warp and weft of the loom. But the painting is not just a preparation for the tapestry, nor is the tapestry just a translation of the painting.

What Taeuber-Arp saw was that abstract shapes can serve as equal elements in a single creative system. They could be modular and shape-changing; Forms could migrate at will. She designed ceiling paintings for them Aubette Cultural Center in Strasbourg have the same grid structure as their textiles, which in turn reflect the grid of the paintings.

And for them this cross-media engagement had an ethical and spiritual dimension. “Why in our complicated times,” wrote Taeuber-Arp in 1922, “why design ornaments and color combinations when there are so many more practical and, above all, more necessary things to do?” For her, the answer was not external, but internal, in a “ deep and primeval urge to make the things we own more beautiful ”.

Taeuber-Arp came to this cross-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 predominantly female student body learned well and applied the arts together. Returning to Zurich in 1914, she founded a craft business, began teaching and also took dance courses Rudolf von Laban.

She had returned to Switzerland to escape the war, and soon many foreigners did too. When the First World War pulverized every last European claim to civilization, these expat artists transformed Zurich into a compression chamber of western madness, christened with the nonsensical name Dada. Taeuber-Arp, Dada’s only Swiss member, threw himself into her satirical accusations, especially through the most delightful objects here: loose-limbed, reduced marionettes from a parodic play, “King Deer”, in the form of courtiers and palace guards, parrots and deer and kings of the unconscious named Freudanalyticus and Dr. Oedipus complex.

The puppets are wonderful relics of Dada distractions. There are also sculptures, naturally inspired by the stylized geometric forms of Central African sculpture – just like the round Dada heads, their substitute self-portraits, which look like Congolese or Gabonese masks rotated around a central axis. There is no word here in any wall text about Africa or indigenous America (as well as Swiss folk art, another influence); From the title onwards, the MoMA focuses primarily on abstraction. Yet as I moved on, the show’s indifference to its cross-cultural influences felt more like a conspiracy of silence than a choice of emphasis.

Only one photo survives of Taeuber-Arp dances wearing a geometric mask on one of the many wild Dada nights where Europeans sang in false African languages ​​and performed fake tribal dances. The curators call the mask “Cubist inspired” and bury the photo on a ten centimeter card that is hung below eye level.

The ornate necklaces by Taeuber-Arp are strongly reminiscent of Zulu pearl embroidery; fringed textiles share color schemes and geometric patterns with those of the southwestern United States; it all goes by without notice. The silence becomes even stranger when you consider that Walburga Krupp, one of the curators of the current MoMA show, mentions Taeuber-Arp’s passion for Indian textiles in the catalog of “Dada Africa”, A rigorous exhibition of Dada and non-Western art that was on view 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.)

In fact, some of Taeuber-Arp’s best-known works before this exhibition were costumes, the geometric patterns of which she modeled on the Hopi Katsina dolls – those that Carl Jung, her Swiss compatriot, bought on a trip to New Mexico. The costumes appear on the cover the catalog “Dada Africa”; one was only this summer in “Women in abstraction“At the Center Pompidou. But they’re neither here in New York nor in the MoMA publication. Only the most attentive reader will find, buried in footnotes, a revelation that the garments “have been omitted from this publication out of respect for the Hopi and Pueblo peoples”.

Excuse me, I’m really not a fan of the demolition culture, but we’re in serious Trouble when our premier museum of modern and contemporary art finds it necessary to hide the colonial inspirations of European art from its visitors – or, worse, thinks its visitors are not cultured enough to recognize them. (The images are already widely available; Hopi art lovers also have Google.) Umland, the MoMA curator, told me that the pseudo-Hopi textiles were “not essential to the thesis of the exhibition,” although she admitted that ” the important reason given in the catalog “also weighed on her decision.

I wonder. The abstract impulse that Taeuber-Arp brought into her art and her life was not just color and line. Her “deep and primeval urge” went straight through colonial anthropology and ethnography. Instead of covering it up or condemning it, why not analyze it historically, with all the intellectual resources these Europeans did not have and the voices they could not hear? Almost 40 years after its infamous exhibition on “primitive” art and its modernist influence, has MoMA really not found a better approach to this era than concealment?

In itself, this show is almost too beautiful, and in its later sections we encounter acres of nifty abstractions that the artist painted in France in the 1930s, saturated with floating circles, rectangles, curls and crescents. When the war broke out a second time and canvases were harder to come by, she made smaller but no less ambitious drawings in which sideways curled circles with sharp angles were juxtaposed. Back in Switzerland, she stayed at her friend Max Bill’s house in 1943; She lit a fire in the guest room, did not notice that the stove fireplace was closed, and never woke up. She was 53.

The density of crosses and curves has a clear goal. You are here to establish the artist as a first-rate modernist – a modernist of MoMA caliber. This “Living Abstraction” succeeds perfectly, and Sophie Taeuber-Arp almost seems to be a self-contained paradigm of the latest reinvention of this museum: an artist who was able to make abstraction a high calling, in the visual and applied arts alike. It also has its place in a more global museum, in which images and people commute through endless encounters and no abstraction is pure.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Lively abstraction

Until March 12th at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, Manhattan; 212-708-9400,

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