New York

Sonia Delaunay, Design B53, 1924, gouache on paper, 39 3/8 x 29 1/2".

Sonia Delaunay, Design B53, 1924, gouache on paper, 39 3/8 x 29 1/2".

Sonia Delaunay

Sonia Delaunay, Design B53, 1924, gouache on paper, 39 3/8 x 29 1/2".

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Robert and Sonia Delaunay together developed what their friend Apollinaire would baptize “Orphism” and what the couple named “Simultaneism”—the infusing of Cubism’s fractured planes with side-by-side, contrasting colors to effect the sensation of movement that the Futurists were concurrently pursuing. Their subsequent output, however, as if a parable of one of modern abstraction’s hardiest paradoxes, diverged on the road to the real. He took the idealist fork—believing his “Fenêtres” (Windows), 1912–13, paintings to be transparent to pure light and immediate vision—and she the materialist: At once more intuitive and more practical than her husband, she rechanneled her energies into designing fabrics, clothing, interiors, painted ceramics, and neon-light sculptures. In part this was a choice born of necessity. The Ukraine-born, St. Petersburg–raised artist’s fortunes fell with the 1917 revolution, and her enterprises would help support her family through two world wars. Yet Delaunay split few hairs between art and applied art, and as this dazzling exhibition (her first major American museum retrospective in more than thirty years) establishes, the textiles she created between the 1920s and the 1940s were not only her fundamental means of chromatic innovation but form a significant body of work on their own terms.

Organized by the Cooper-Hewitt’s Matilda McQuaid and Susan Brown, “Color Moves: Art & Fashion by Sonia Delaunay” assembles more than three hundred objects in rough chronological order throughout four galleries. The show begins by situating Delaunay’s interest in color as rhythm within the milieu of the early avant-garde, presenting watercolors of the artist’s robe-poèmes—dresses adorned with text by Tristan Tzara, among others, that were worn to Dada soirées—alongside her best-known project, La prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France, 1913. A collaboration with poet Blaise Cendrars, whose account of modern hustle-bustle is stenciled with Delaunay’s lambent prisms, the artists’ book was one of few major works in a show that, remarkably, evinced virtuosity through an accumulation of ephemera: Its bulk was dedicated to bits and bobs of textile. Interspersed with period photographs and a scattering of finished products (scarves, swimsuits, driving caps, the resplendent Robe Simultanée [Simultaneous Dress], ca. 1925–28) are dozens of gouache studies, design cards, fabric and embroidery swatches, and final yardage samples. What emerges is a visual précis of the design process—all aspects of which Delaunay oversaw at her atelier—from initial sketching to tinkering with various color arrangements for a given pattern. Color is the marrow of her work of the ’20s, a startlingly exuberant palette (featuring shades she labeled “crocodile, cactus, corinthe, and capucine”) that made her big geometries buzz and pop.

Delaunay shuttered her Paris workshop and fashion house after the stock market crash of 1929, but soon found a lifeline in Joseph de Leeuw, whose luxury Amsterdam department store, Metz & Co., would produce about two hundred of her textiles. In some respects the Metz designs are more restrained, the earlier jarring adjacent hues supplanted by subtler tonal variations, and brazen stripes and diamonds reduced to intricate grids; yet the 1930s also saw the increasing use of organic motifs, with florals and fronds printed on silks, cottons, and linens. Also on view here is work by other artists and architects commissioned by the Dutch emporium. Though suggestive of vague cross-pollination—the hard primary lines of Bart van der Leck’s carpets and Gerrit Rietveld’s Zig-Zag chair, 1934, for example, recur in some of Delaunay’s schemes—De Stijl pales in the juxtaposition.

Robert Delaunay called his wife’s art “atavistic” in reference to the brilliant folk color of her Russian ancestors. But generation-skipping happens in the other direction, too. In her fabrics one recognized advances (color liberated from line and description; opticality) that abstract painters would not fully exploit for another few decades; in a different register, the fabrics anticipate the styles of houses such as Vera Neumann and Marimekko. Most telling for the current moment’s efflorescence of craft-based work, they exemplify a practice unruffled by the distinction between one medium and another, and, indeed, between art and life.

Lisa Turvey