As soon as I stepped into the Museum of Modern Art’s chronological retrospective “Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction”, I felt delighted, like a kid again. I was captivated by the expressive movement, the pure geometric shapes and the exuberant colors. Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943) – one of the most inventive, versatile, and unrecognized artists of the first half of the 20th century – convinced me that this is how art abstract was meant to be: playful, theory-free, feeling-driven; deceptively childish and folkloric yet rigorously composed, elegant and complex – as disarming for its modest sophistication as it is for its sense of carnival joy.
Sophie Taeuber was born in Davos, Switzerland, in 1889, and learned textile crafts from her mother. She studied fine arts and textile design in St. Gallen and, later, woodworking, textiles and interior design and experimental art education in Germany. In 1914, she moved to Zurich, where she danced and choreographed, established herself as an artist and met her future husband, the sculptor Hans Arp (1886-1966).
Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living abstraction
The Museum of Modern Art until March 12, 2022
Throughout his life, Taeuber-Arp featured prominently in the European avant-garde. Les Arps participated in the Dada movement and she taught in the Applied Arts Department of the Zurich Business School. At the end of the 1920s, Taeuber-Arp carried out numerous architectural and interior design projects, notably the Maison d’Arps in France and, more particularly, with the co-founder of Hans Arp and Stijl, Theo van Doesburg, the Aubette entertainment complex in Strasbourg, France. Taeuber-Arp died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in 1943.
The traveling survey was organized at MoMA by Anne Umland, with Laura Braverman; at the Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland, by Eva Reifert; in London by Natalia Sidlina of Tate Modern; and by independent curator Walburga Krupp. The first major American Taeuber-Arp retrospective in 40 years, it includes some 300 works: paintings, drawings, textiles and sculptures; jewelry, handbags and abstract compositions of glass beads; furnishing and interior design, graphic and theatrical; containers, heads and puppets in turned wood.
The opening galleries of MoMA are pleasant, unpretentious, downright enchanting. Here is a handful of small abstract gouaches from 1920: pointillist grids made up of tiny colored mosaic rectangles – polyphonic rhythms running across the wall like twinkling, jerky attacks. We see beaded bracelets, necklaces and handbags, in which jovial shapes enliven their curved surfaces and meander over and around the shapes like sparkling barber poles; and asymmetrical grid compositions, with hard edges, in colored pencil and gouache and metallic paint, or made of pearls and shiny threads, or of embroidered and knotted wool.
“Abstraction with abstract motifs (notebook cover)” (circa 1917-18), in glass and metal beads on canvas, sparkles like a fantastic landscape adorned with jewels. “Vertical-Horizontal Composition” (circa 1917), composed of various multicolored rectangles in wool on canvas, economically introduces the diagonal, by reimagining and completing the patchwork plan. At the heart of these colorful abstractions are the “Dada Cup” (1916), “Amphora” (1917) and “Powder Box” (c. 1918) painted in turned wood, polished objects evoking abstract heads, totems and figures. chess pieces.
A gallery is devoted to the wonderful abstract heads of Dada – painted and scalloped wooden ovals, smooth and turned – and to the magical and mixed puppets (exotic humans, animals and trees suggesting angels, robots) and Taeuber-Arp theater sets. premiered in 1918 for the string puppet piece “King Stag”. In tapestries, rugs and abstract tablecloths, Taeuber-Arp merges folk art, neoclassical art and modernist abstraction. Its subtle color flashes and breathes, as if it weaves emotions, as if the fabric is reddened skin. In “Cross on Red Ground (Tablecloth)” and “Tapestry” (both 1924), the white fringed borders suggest stage curtains and architectural columns flanking abstract dramas. And in the stained glass windows designed for the Aubette and the private apartments, Taeuber-Arp employs rectangles of pure primary colors and black and white alongside those of mixed hues (pinks, oranges, grays, greens, browns). They are modern abstract distillations of nature, but also reminiscent of the blots and mixed tones of black painted details in medieval stained glass.
The last three galleries present abstract paintings, drawings and painted wooden reliefs by Taeuber-Arp from the 1930s and 1940s. Constructivist and Stijl paintings and bas-reliefs involve delicate balances between a few perfectly orchestrated and sharp geometric elements. In the oils “Broken Cross”, “Six Spaces with Four Small Crosses” (both in 1932) and “Six Separated Spaces” (1939), Taeuber-Arp juggles free lines and distorted flat shapes, and maintains the plane stretched and elastic with the precision of a tightrope walker. In the painted wood reliefs, circular holes and protruding circles and cones vibrate with a dynamic balance.
In the abstract “Head” in sculpted wood (1937), Taeuber-Arp evokes the tear, the knight’s helmet, the gaping beak, the seductive human mouth, the flirtatious chest. Most beautiful here, perhaps, are the non-objective biomorphic paintings and the painted wooden relief rectangles and tondos in which clean shapes interact – move, dance, rise, fall, spin and merge with each other. others – as naturally as waves, birds diving. and solar systems.
Everything in “Living Abstraction” is beautiful, alive. The exhibition reestablishes Taeuber-Arp at the height of early 20th century abstraction, because it painfully makes us aware of a life and a work cut short. To see absolutely this magnificent exhibition. But dig under the playful surfaces. Taeuber-Arp’s art first appeals to our senses, to our love of light, color, movement, rhythm. However, his real reward is the pleasure of discovery, that of unearthing the treasure that is the allusive brilliance of his art.
-Sir. Esplund, the author of “The Art of Watching: How to Read Modern and Contemporary Art” (Basic Books), writes about art for the Journal.
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