With her otherworldly geometric designs, Sophie Taeuber-Arp was an artistic original. A show at MoMA explores her boundless creativity.
In 1922, Sophie Taeuber-Arp posed what now feels like an oddly prescient question: “In our complicated times, when the struggle for existence has become so difficult, I have frequently asked myself, why conceive ornaments and color combinations when there are so many more practical and especially more necessary things to do?” The artist’s response was, likewise, comfortingly apt: With moments of crisis, Taeuber-Arp argued, came the “urge to make the things we own more beautiful.”
Born in Davos, Switzerland, in 1889, Taeuber-Arp was a textile artist, sculptor, dancer, painter, and marionette maker; her sprawling body of work united in a cheerily colorful abstraction. Her wonderfully varied attempts to inject even tablecloths and cabinetry with beauty and a kind of geometric whimsy constitute “Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction,” a sweeping survey that has made stops in Basel and London before arriving at the Museum of Modern Art this month. Taken together, the exhibition’s 300-odd objects, all constructed between 1914 and 1943, make the case for Taeuber-Arp as one of modern art’s most enterprising and delightfully surprising figures. “Lots of things have long gestation periods, and this one ended up being longer than any of us expected,” says Anne Umland, the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA. First slated for the fall of 2020 but delayed by COVID, “Living Abstraction” was to open at the museum not long after a $450 million expansion, a moment when the staff was rethinking “the stories of modern art,” Umland says. Taeuber-Arp’s reappraisal puts her in league with Hilma af Klint, Anni Albers, and Lee Krasner, all subjects of major shows in recent years.
Indeed, like Albers and Krasner, Taeuber-Arp was for many years overshadowed by her more famous husband, Franco-German sculptor, painter, and poet Jean Arp. The couple, who married in 1922, were mainstays of Zurich’s fledgling Dada movement; Taeuber-Arp’s expressive, absurdist Dada Head, 1920, the mask-slashprop-slash-parody-portrait-bust pictured above, was used— cheekily—to obscure her own face when she was asked to provide a clear photo.
With Taeuber-Arp’s sudden death, in 1943, came the problem of preserving her life’s work: Because so much of it had gone into people’s homes rather than to dedicated collections, large swaths of her output were missing. “There still are, to some degree, these boundaries that people draw, separating fine art from craft and design,” Umland says. (Arp, whose legacy has fared much better, was guilty of this himself, producing a catalogue raisonné for his wife in 1948 that favored her work as a painter and sculptor.) “I think in her mind, textiles and painting had the same value,” adds Walburga Krupp, an independent curator who also contributed to the new exhibition, “but the audience saw things differently.” Today’s audience, thankfully, is another story. Part of what young women are drawn to is Taeuber-Arp’s restless sense of freedom, says Krupp. “She was not keeping herself only to one thing. She was liberated to do what she wanted.”