In a 1925 photograph, Sophie Taeuber-Arp wears a homemade corrugated-cardboard breastplate and hat with thick paper streamers. She smiles and lifts her chin toward the sun. The first major survey of the Swiss artist in the United States in more than four decades, “Living Abstraction” at the Museum of Modern Art contains 300 works spanning beadwork, stained glass, architecture and stage design. The comprehensive and multifaceted exhibition highlights Taeuber-Arp's exploration of abstraction, how she contributed to its development in turn, and how her art and life were ultimately inextricably fused.
The exhibition takes place between two World Wars, moving chronologically from the artist’s move to Zurich, Switzerland, in 1914, through the artist’s death in 1943. Taeuber-Arp was a craftswoman before she met her husband, Jean Arp, and the grid—that staple of abstraction—finds a form-function symbiosis in her embroidered open-weave canvases. The wool-on-canvas Cushion panel (1916), for instance, combines panels of feathery lilacs, pinks and orange in a pattern resembling a Fair Isle sweater with its squares and half-squares.
Taeuber-Arp made forays into interior design, notably with the Aubette entertainment complex and then her own studio-home. From afar, an axonometric drawing for the tearoom of the Aubette from 1927 could pass for an abstract Modernist painting spun along its axis: gray grids share space with white rectangles and intricate red and blue detailing, pocked with doors and windows. Indeed, Taeuber-Arp herself mused on the possibility of transmuting her intimate watercolor drawings into beaded bags, wall coverings and carpets. Her Composition of Quadrangular, Polychrome, Dense Strokes (1920), with its irregular angles, anticipates the light-transfused Off-Center Abstract Composition (1928), a stained glass window made for an apartment in Strasbourg, France.
But her explorations were not just bounded by interiors or even stasis—she performed a dance at the opening of Galerie Dada in 1917 and went on to design stage sets and make marionettes. These last would become her iconic “Dada Heads”; one sculpture from 1920, for instance, combines metallic paint and oil on turned wood. The words “1920” and “DADA” revolve around planes of curved navy and taupe shapes. A lovely photograph made by Nic Aluf in 1920 depicts Taeuber-Arp behind the object, gazing out with one eye behind a veil of honeycombed lace. Notably, the work bears some formal resemblance to an unrelated household object of utilitarian beauty, Powder Box (c. 1918).
Taeuber-Arp’s work, ultimately, was not only formally motivated, but fused with the functions of life and the pursuit of joy. Working in the interim between two terrible wars, she posed a rhetorical question in an essay while employed at Zurich’s Trade School: why make ornaments, she asked, during a time of greater need? Because, she answered, of a “deep and primeval urge to make the things we own more beautiful.” —Lisa Yin Zhang
Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Cushion panel. 1916. Wool on canvas. 20 7/8 × 20 1/2 inches. Museum für Gestaltung, Zürcher Hochschule der Künste, Zurich. Decorative Arts Collection. Courtesy Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, ZHdK