Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 19, 2022
Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction Exh. cat. New York: Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2021. 352 pp.; 435 ills. Cloth (9781633451070)
November 21, 2021–March 12, 2022
Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction
Kunstmuseum Basel, March 20–June 20, 2021; Tate Modern, London, July 15–October 17, 2021; Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 21, 2021–March 12, 2022
Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Composition (Two Disks Cut by a Line), 1931, oil and metallic paint on canvas, 12 5/8 × 10 1/16 in. (32 × 25.5 cm). Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau, Switzerland. Gift of the Müller-Widmann Collection, Basel. Courtesy Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau, photo by Brigitt Lattmann

Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction was an exhilarating and expansive exhibition (and accompanying catalog) of the artist’s uniquely syncretic practice. Organized by Anne Umland (Museum of Modern Art), Walburga Krupp (independent curator), Eva Reifert (Kunstmuseum Basel), and Natalia Sidlina (Tate Modern), the project covers Taeuber-Arp’s nearly thirty-year career between World War I and World War II. As installed at MoMA, the exhibition was a knockout. It offered a thrilling vision of the artist’s work at every stage of her career—a presentation strikingly emancipated from hierarchies of patriarchy and media. The most surprising decision was the almost total exclusion of works by her better-known husband and artistic partner, Jean Arp. For instance, the couple’s purportedly collaborative abstract cotton embroidery known as Pathetic Symmetry (1916–17) and the series of “duo-collages” made from modular rectangles of black, gray, white, and silver paper in 1918 did not make the checklist. This quiet demotion of Arp was clearly strategic. I reveled at the feminist intervention implicit in Taeuber-Arp’s treatment in a standard, chronological modernist retrospective, a blockbuster exhibition type predicated only on a proper name. And the show had no trouble establishing that Taeuber-Arp’s work stands on its own—the sheer breadth of her production and the fastidious nature of her creations astonished every visitor I spoke with, bringing some to tears and necessitating multiple return trips.

To demonstrate the “living” nature of Taeuber-Arp’s abstraction, however, is a difficult task in the white-box environment of the museum. For most of her career, she made art while working in contact with diverse artistic collectives. The consequential network of people working across spaces and media that her objects construct, in many ways Taeuber-Arp’s most formidable contribution to the avant-garde, was conspicuously not on view. Here the monographic narrative of the exhibition is balanced by the catalog. In its introduction, Umland and Krupp explain their striking decision to marginalize Arp. Citing the possibility that Arp’s grief may have clouded the accuracy of the posthumous catalog of his wife’s work, they omitted those works he recorded as co-authored only after her death. Umland and Krupp affirm their focus on primary documents and the objects themselves to tell “the story of Taeuber-Arp’s artistic legacy on its own terms” (20–21). The essays are organized not chronologically or by medium, but according to ideas and distinct periods, a structure that reveals overlap in the artist’s long-term projects and interests. And the more than 400 illustrations make the catalog a trove of previously unpublished works, especially from her later years. The publication also adds context lacking in the exhibition, such as the artist’s use of Hopi figures and African mask motifs, addressed in essays by Natalia Sidlina and Leah Dickerman, respectively. Together the exhibition and printed catalog form their own kind of “duo-collage” and remind us that Taeuber-Arp’s many-threaded story itself requires interweaving.

The exhibition’s first gallery, commencing with dynamic color studies from Taeuber-Arp’s Dada years, contained graph-paper plans and gouache sketches alongside paintings, weavings, and needlepoints of the same or similar design. A chapel to the gridded matrices of cross-stitch and loom, the room established a kind of road map for the following six galleries and the artist’s cross-media migrations, spanning beaded bags, wooden marionettes, textiles, drawings, paintings, interior designs, and books. As colored weft moves under and over warp, and embroidery thread pierces forward and back through flat support, these objects preserve a sense of the heft and movement required for their production. T’ai Smith, in a beautiful catalog essay on the display’s beaded bags, describes crochet in particular as “a special kind of manual choreography in which, each step catches the gesture and turns, momentarily, backward . . . each new step or stitch grabbing up the circle beneath its feet” (38).

A dark, theatrically lit alcove, just visible to the side of the brightly illuminated opening gallery, presented the full cast of Taeuber-Arp’s 1918 marionettes, made for Zurich’s Marionettentheater. These characters, some nearly three feet in height and full of detail—spindled, spooled, wired, painted, and clothed—lolled and gestured anthropomorphically from behind their glass cases. With the help of a filmed performance projected on the room’s wall, visitors could imagine these wooden bodies as if escaping the control of their puppeteers. Unbalanced, leggy, and strung from only a few points, the figures’ personalities projected the carnivalesque, the absurd, and most definitely the abstract.

The following three rooms of the exhibition presented Taeuber-Arp’s interior designs, textiles, stained glass, and furnishings alongside not only photographs and blueprint sketches, but also a host of related abstract designs in gouache, pencil, cardboard, and cotton. By joining the artist’s highly constructivist abstractions to their visible execution as designs in space, these galleries thickened the connective tissues of the artist’s ideational process across media and location. A temporary wall placed in the center of the gallery devoted to the interior commissions in Strasbourg displayed one of Taeuber-Arp’s large stained-glass pieces—an effective nod to the transparency and overlay between many aspects of her production process. The installation also served as an invitation to move around and see through the abstract organization that her objects share. Perhaps most affecting in this section was a “Presentation Album” of fifty-two photographs compiled by Taeuber-Arp to showcase her design work for clients. Above the book (which was set under glass), a video slideshow enabled one to turn the pages of the album. Furnishings, murals, textiles, and architectural interiors appear in the album, as do marionettes photographed before the abstract sets she had created for them. This installation provided a small window into Taeuber-Arp’s self-presentation as both a business woman and an artistic creator. Jana Teuscher’s catalog essay explains that the album was “just one channel for the dissemination of the photographs collected in it” (129). This use of photography is yet another clue to the democracy with which Taeuber-Arp treated her varied modes of production. Each distinct creation, reproduced in black and white and scaled in equal proportion, anticipates avant la lettre André Malraux’s utopian “museum without walls.”

By the exhibition’s final rooms, the range and quality of Taeuber-Arp’s accomplishments overwhelmed. But here, the gallery spaces expanded to accommodate abstract paintings and drawings done while she was engaged with the international artist groups Cercle et Carré and Abstraction-Création, and editing the journal Plastique/Plastic. In more traditional MoMA territory, with flat works hanging on white walls, Taeuber-Arp’s reliefs stood out, as if embroidered in wood. Lathe-turned knobs protruded forward from the flat wooden support beside identically scaled holes that cut through the surface. Hanging nearby was the painting Composition (Two Disks Cut by a Line) (1931), a work that prompted Abstraction-Création painter Michel Seuphor to claim that “sophie taeuber weaves (never cheats) at her painting.” (Abstraction – Création, Art Non Figuratif 1932, no. 1 [January 1932]: 36). Indeed, the work appears woven in depth: two blue circles float on a white ground, linked and bisected by a black diagonal “thread” that seems both to cut through and to slip under the space between them, at the same time bisecting a rectangle formed by two triangles partially inscribed within the circles. The painting’s deceptive symmetry hovers poised for rotation and reversal.

Though strategic, the exhibition’s lack of comparative works from Taeuber-Arp’s many collaborators and colleagues ultimately felt unfaithful to the “livingness” evoked by the exhibition’s title. (Those with a smartphone could access additional curatorial audio clips online following cues in the wall text, but though I had a phone, I was disinclined to interrupt the experience with a screen and earbuds.) Still, where the exhibition largely offered Taeuber-Arp’s works as autonomous in their innovation, craft, and materiality, the catalog addresses more fully the vexing questions that impact women and other artist minorities within modernism. How do we acknowledge the works’ own modernist legacy while also acknowledging the particularity of Taeuber-Arp’s negotiation of and disidentification from the modernist myth of universalized wholeness in which form equals content. Using literary scholar Caroline Levine’s expanded idea of formalism, we can both marvel at how Taeuber-Arp marshals the aesthetic forms of concretion and the modernist grid, and value how her work intersects with rhythmic social forms of gender and political hierarchy. That is, her labor as caretaker, homemaker, and solution finder was patterned around Arp’s notoriously flighty “genius,” and her skilled craft ordered according to its relation with a fine-art Other. The forms of Taeuber-Arp’s multivalent ability and network of alliances bring competing systems into contact, and so disrupt and rewrite their fragile wholes, rhythms, and hierarchies. Here’s to more exhibitions that positively enunciate—without caveats, despites, or neverthelesses—the plural, opposing, and intersecting structural forms that inform all art making.

Nell Andrew, Associate Professor of Art History, University of Georgia