“Living Abstraction” brings together the art and design work of Sophie Taeuber-Arp – ARTnews.com

In 1916, Sophie Taeuber-Arp began a double artistic life: during the day, she taught textile design and embroidery at the Zurich Trades School, and in the evenings, she took part in the Dada antics at the Cabaret Voltaire as a member of the city’s radical association. avant-garde. Yet her resulting work—examined extensively in the Museum of Modern Art retrospective “Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction,” co-curated with the Kunstmuseum Basel and Tate Modern, London—clearly shows that these spheres do not weren’t as disparate as they might seem. This is evident, for example, in the machine-like puppets she created for a 1918 production of the satirical play King Deer: Taeuber-Arp formed their awkwardly articulated bodies from geometric pieces of turned wood, using a joinery technique more often associated with functionalism than fine art. Although the project was led by the director of the trade school, architect Alfred Altherr, under the auspices of the Swiss Werkbund (an association of artists and designers), the puppets were quickly adopted by his peers in avant-garde as the quintessence of Dada. The puppets also inspired Taeuber-Arp’s best-known contribution to the Zurich Dada canon, the so-called “Dada Heads” (1918–20), amusing and absurd wooden sculptures painted with abstract designs in place of facial features , the shapes of which recall hat racks – or perhaps the oblong turned wood powder box she made around 1918, on display in the adjacent gallery. Throughout his career, interrupted in 1943 by his accidental death from carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of fifty-three, Taeuber-Arp moved fluidly between mediums and disciplines without worrying about the divide fine arts/applied art that has long skewed the reception of his work.

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A purple vessel has a conical base resembling an inverted funnel, a rounded cylinder-shaped central compartment, tapering to a smaller cylindrical top.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Compactcirca 1918, paint and metallic powder on wood, 11 ¾ by 6 ½ inches in diameter.
Photo Peter Schälchli/Courtesy Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau/Private collection, on long-term loan to the Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau, Switzerland

Taeuber-Arp arrived early and decisively at abstraction, recognizing that the grid structure of embroidery, weaving, and other textile techniques naturally lent itself to geometric compositions. The exhibition, organized chronologically, opens in his mid-teens, by which time Taeuber-Arp was already creating varied arrangements of horizontal and vertical planes carefully arranged in irregular grids. Warm earth tones, reds and purples, anchored by large rectangles of black, dominate a group of small embroideries, preparatory drawings and compositional studies in gouache and pencil that she created after her return in his native Switzerland in 1914, after completing the applied arts. studies in Munich and Hamburg. In subsequent works, she adopted a freer hand. A set of gouaches, each titled a variation on Free vertical-horizontal rhythms (1919), features flickering asymmetrical patches of color, cut and pasted onto white paper backgrounds. Another group of drawings from the following year consists of quadrangular strokes of colored gouache distributed in various groupings on white backgrounds.

Having mastered the grid, Taeuber-Arp turned, in his late teens and twenties, to more complex compositions, often incorporating irregular shapes as well as abstract riffs on figurative motifs. She has also adapted these designs to suit a staggering range of functional objects – dazzling beaded necklaces and handbags, embroidered pillow covers and tablecloths, woven rugs and tapestries – by individually rendering these designs and patterns as small Gouache fragments that she combined in different configurations to fit the requirements of a given project. The results have a collage quality, underlined in the galleries by the presentation of several works alongside the modular preparatory gouaches. Among them is Oval composition with abstract patterns (1922), a woolen rug that intersects rectilinear planes of color with concentric circles, the most prominent of which vaguely suggests a standing figure with a halo. Other juxtapositions show how Taeuber-Arp translated designs from one type of object to another. Occupying the upper right corner of an embroidery from around 1920, for example, is the radically simplified silhouette of a woman’s head – half candy pink, half white – framed by neatly parted hair, with a single perforated circle suggesting an eye. The two-tone head appears again in a beaded bag from the same year, this time in a more aggressive – or festive – palette of contrasting pinks and turquoises, suitable for the transition from décor to wearable accessory.

A vertical composition represents an axonometric drawing of a gray room with several interior divisions with colored panels.  The background of the work is a yellowish beige.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Aubette, 127 (axonometric plan of the “Five O’Clock” tea room at Aubette, Strasbourg, France)1927, gouache, metallic paint, ink and pencil on diazotype, 48 ½ by 39 inches.
Photo Museums of Strasbourg, M. Bertola/Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Strasbourg, France

Taeuber-Arp left Zurich in 1926 to join her husband, fellow Dadaist Jean (Hans) Arp, in Strasbourg. Soon after, the Arps, along with De Stijl co-founder Theo van Doesburg, were commissioned to redesign the interior of the Aubette, a new multi-room entertainment center housed in an 18th-century building. Taeuber-Arp was in charge of the bar and the tea room. She created a program of gridded geometric compositions for walls and ceilings. At MoMA, his early compositional sketches, an axonometric drawing of the tea room, and related interior design commissions are juxtaposed with his contemporary works of art, including a striking group of photographs and works on paper depicting cityscapes from his travels across Europe with Arp in the 1920s. Just as the Aubette interiors allowed Taeuber-Arp to extend his design experiments between two and three dimensions to an architectural scale, the cityscapes adapt his abstract method to representing space, compressing each scene into a sequence of flattened bands and planes of color. . Indeed, throughout the exhibition, the curators insistently present his work of art and design as being deeply intertwined, thwarting a tendency – dating back to the posthumous catalog raisonné of his work Arp compiled in 1948 – to downplay his efforts of applied art as something like a secondary bustle. .

Ironically, Taeuber-Arp’s paintings and wood relief sculptures from the 1930s are vastly overrepresented, with around 50 examples spread across several major galleries. An active participant in the international constructivist group Cercle et Carré, founded in 1929, and its successor, Abstraction-Création, she mainly used in these works a limited vocabulary of brightly colored circles, rectangles and crosses floating on – or, in the case of reliefs, protruding from black or white backgrounds. The results are accomplished and elegant, but generically of their time and milieu. Among the few notable exceptions, a group of works dating from 1934-1939 play with iterations on the flared contours of a Greek amphora. A trio of these, all titled variations on Gradationfeatures these undulating silhouettes abruptly truncated on one side and arranged in vertical stacks, reminiscent of both glued paper and the scintillating movement of a film strip.

Equally noteworthy is a group of drawings in the final gallery of the exhibition, made during the last years of Taeuber-Arp’s life, when she and Arp moved frequently to escape advancing German troops. With few supplies at her disposal, she turned to pencil and paper, creating deceptively simple abstract drawings in which knotted arrangements of seemingly spontaneous lines are revealed, up close, to be meticulously composed of small strokes of pencil, superimposed to give the lines the opacity and fluidity of ink. Increasingly, as the couple’s exile dragged on, the looping curves of Taeuber-Arp became constrained by nets of intersecting lines, turning the railings into prisons.

Abdul J. Gaspar