“Women’s Work” as an Aesthetic Provocation

Living Abstract, the retrospective of the Swiss artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943) at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is filled with eye-catching art and objects. But while I cheered at the idea that a largely forgotten woman Dadaist — in fact, the only female member of the Zurich Dada group, founded in 1916 — was finally getting her due, I couldn’t help but wonder why the art world’s recognition of her has been so spotty.

The answer lies partly in Taeuber-Arp’s biography. Warburga Krupp and Eva Reifert, the two German curators who co-organized the show alongside MoMA’s Anne Umland and Tate’s Natalia Sidlina, told me during the preview that Taeuber-Arp’s husband, the sculptor Hans (or Jean) Arp, shaped the early critical reception of her work. Born in 1889 in Davos, Switzerland, and educated in the applied arts, Taeuber-Arp was teaching at the School of Applied Arts in Zurich when she married Arp, in 1922. According to the curator and writer Roswitha Mair’s Sophie Taeuber-Arp and the Avant-Garde: A Biography, the Arps’ was a happy marriage, albeit compartmentalized. They collaborated on Arp’s projects (she was the practical one, he — surprise! — the prototypical restless genius). From 1916 to 1929 Taeuber-Arp supported herself and Arp by teaching, a mostly fulfilling career that afforded them stability, though it also made her feel tied down in Zurich.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean (Hans) Arp with her marionettes for King StagZurich, Switzerland, 1918, photographed by Ernst Linck

Like many in Europe, the Arps faced food and energy shortages and dislocation before and during World War II. Taeuber-Arp died in 1943, at the age of 55, of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. (The story goes that Arp claimed the guest bedroom at the house of their friends, Max and Binia Bill, that night; Taeuber-Arp took the garden room with a potbelly stove she didn’t know how to work.) After her death, Arp made sure to include her works in his shows. He also oversaw the first monograph of her work, a labor of love not free of aesthetic bias, as it deemphasized her craft-based practice. Arp presented the image of Taeuber-Arp as the quiet artist in the background, though according to Mair, some Dadaists found her too outspoken. It seems she kept herself apart in the men’s world of art (the Surrealists never welcomed her as they did Hans) to preserve artistic autonomy. Still, the notion of her as “the wife of” stuck. Arp’s patron, Peggy Guggenheim, for example, gave considerable credit for The Aubette, Taeuber-Arp’s ambitious design project, to Arp.

“She’s no Kandinsky,” I overheard a visitor say at MoMA, a judgment that in many ways reveals just how hard it is for women artists to be evaluated on their own terms. And yet, if you consider Taeuber-Arp’s rigorous design for a woven textile that hangs in the second gallery — its sense of systematic logic, its permutations, or its broken, irregular grid — you may see her as a precursor to minimalist artists such as Sol LeWitt. It’s a notion of Dada far from the prototypical reading of the movement as a hotbed of anarchic provocateurs (a description fit mainly for the early activity of Cabaret Voltaire or the politicized Berlin Dada).

Sophie Taeuber-Arp, “Design for an Embroidery” (c. 1915-23), colored pencil and pencil on graph paper. Private collection on long-term loan to the Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau, Switzerland

If Taeuber-Arp is prime for recognition now, in MoMA’s first solo exhibition of her work since 1981, it’s because the art world’s hierarchies are (once again) being shaken up. After MoMA’s overhaul of its permanent galleries, design no longer languishes in a separate, cramped section, like a poor cousin, but is instead integrated throughout the art galleries, like the one dedicated to Bauhaus. Encompassing painting, embroidery, jewelry, marionettes, dance, sculpture, interior and furniture design, plus architecture, Taeuber-Arp’s production — represented at MoMA by more than 300 works — makes her an ideal poster child for the revamped MoMA, particularly as other large museums also mount exhibitions centered on craft — the Whitney’s recent Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950-2019 comes to mind.

Taeuber-Arp’s production thrived on myriad tensions: between abstraction and figuration, applied and fine arts, a constructivist rigor and gestural fluidity. Add to these her love of ornamentation, of beauty, as a primal pleasure. Take “Embroidery” (1918) in the first gallery. The same year Marcel Duchamp infamously battered glass in “To Be Looked (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour” (on view in MoMA’s permanent galleries), Taeuber-Arp placed a tiny study in wool in a gilded historical frame. Framing is everything indeed. Hers inverts hierarchies, elevates craft. It evokes industry yet bears authorial marks (stepping in closer to some works you see the weave’s “errors,” the knots). It declares official art to be bloated and academic, and does not accidentally poses so-called “women’s work” as an aesthetic provocation. Whereas Duchamp smashed the existing order, literally, Taeuber-Arp took a pun-edged approach to question the status quo.

Installation view of Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction at the Museum of Modern Art

Two 1917 works, both titled “Elementary Forms: Vertical-Horizontal Composition,” the first wool on canvas, the second gouache and pencil, repeat similar shapes (pinched rectangles, wavy geometries). If you saw them reproduced in a catalog, would you know which one is destined for a museum and which might become a pillowcase? In our Ikea age, such “gotcha” conflation registers as minor jest. More invigorating is the sense of Taeuber-Arp’s consistent spatialization of geometric form. Her early series Quadrangular Strokes Evoking Group of Figures (1920), in gouache and pencil, appears incredibly kinetic, a pre-Mondrian boogie-woogie. Spatialization pops up again in her gouache and pencil geometric compositions — for example, two works titled “Paris, Montmartre Cemetery” (1926), in which she adds volumetric form and perspective to the composition. In another gouache, “Figures” (1926), she overlays shapes to a pulsating prismatic effect.

Taeuber-Arp’s experiments served her well when, in 1926, after moving to France, she designed the restaurant-dancehall at the Hotel Hannong in Strasbourg, aka The Aubette. Designs and photographs convey the breadth of the artist’s constructivist sensibility and feel for color, translated into three-dimensional space. In an interplay of mass and light, Taeuber-Arp finally married her love for ornament — a pleasure wedded to function — with recognition of a more austere ethos, later embodied by the treatise “Ornament and Crime” (1931) by the architect Alfred Loos (whom she knew and admired). Nothing else in the show quite matches this all-encompassing representation of her abilities. The artist’s late dot paintings and reliefs, by contrast, are cliffhangers, a developmental stage cut short.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction Continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan) through March 12. The exhibition was organized by Anne Umland, the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art; Walburga Krupp, independent curator; Eva Reifert, Curator, Nineteenth-Century and Modern Art, Kunstmuseum Basel; and Natalia Sidlina, Curator, International Art, Tate Modern; with Laura Braverman, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art.

Leave a Comment