Sophie Taeuber-Arp

Back-to-back exhibitions of Sophie Taeuber-Arp at the Museo Picasso Málaga, Spain, and the Kirchner Museum Davos, Switzerland (the artist’s hometown), illuminated a relatively overlooked modernist whose exposure at the Museum of Modern Art in New York nearly thirty years ago left the impression that hers is a slight oeuvre. It is not. Taeuber-Arp may, in fact, be the most visible artist of the twentieth century: Her face adorns the Swiss fifty-franc bill, handled daily by millions. How odd that power and money adhere so strongly to her legacy, belying her beginnings as one of the original Dadaists. In the exhibition in Málaga, “Caminos de vanguardia” (Pathways of the Avant-Garde), works relating to architecture, travel photographs, and exquisite-corpse collaborations added new elements alongside her more familiar marionettes, textile designs, paintings, wood reliefs, and chance-derived works on paper. Architecture in particular loomed large, culminating in the great Café L’Aubette, Strasbourg, France, ca. 1927. Taeuber-Arp’s quotidian concerns informed a deft negotiation between a mostly German education and her latter French working reality. She balanced certain seemingly opposed Dada and Constructivist tendencies while expressing her own humanistic interpretations of space and luxury in easy opposition to mass production.

Much has been made of the fact that as building commissions dried up, Taeuber-Arp also relinquished her teaching position in Zurich in order to devote herself full-time to art. But was this break so significant? Given her years in textiles, sewing, weaving, and beadwork, along with her pioneering participation in Laban dance, Taeuber-Arp may have lost interest in the utilitarian execution of craft objects, but she never broke the thread of line and movement that preoccupied her. She used her craft vocabulary to continue her investigations in painting and sculpture. Even in her most cerebral (though always engaging) works, such as the wood reliefs and the paintings of circles in nearly perfect juxtaposition with other circles (but always slightly awry), we can see an ongoing study of embroidery in microcosm; pure abstraction encapsulates the tiniest undulations and imperfections that emerge from the irregularities of material substances, the density and double-sidedness of fabric. In the oil-on-wood Relief rectangulaire, cercles découpés, cones surgissants (Rectangular Relief, Cutout Circles, Emerging Cones), 1936, the metaphoric needle-and-thread designator (the cone) pierces the hole, becoming smaller (seen at an angle), creating a seemingly flat ground when the circle heads are viewed frontally. Thus when the tensile “thread” is released, the puncture is filled by the subsequent expansion. Likewise, the magnificently modulated line in her works on paper shows dance threading movement, just as weaving provides movement through thread.

Art history has had a difficult time placing Taeuber-Arp. Neglect is being superseded by hagiography. Neither drudge nor saint, she still struggles to escape the luminous personality portrayed in Jean Arp’s writings, likely prompted in part by his own guilt at the passive hand he played in her accidental death by gassing at Max Bill’s house in 1943. The best way to judge her is to ignore personal myth, and focus on the work alone—as did the Brazilian avant-garde, who were wowed by it at the São Paulo Bienal in 1951. One wonders why it didn’t have as big an impact on American artists. Could Frank Stella, for instance, have known of her? If so, knowing this would change the way we see what Donald Judd called the “local history” of art in New York. With this exhibition, and the one in Davos, Taeuber-Arp’s muscular oeuvre leaps from the beginning of one century to the next, looking as taut now as it must have then.

Jonathan Hammer