Sophie Taeuber-Arp

Living Abstraction

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
11 W 53rd Street
Floor 3, 3 East
New York
Midtown
Nov 11th 2021 — Mar 12th 2022

Find out more | Timed tickets

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

  • Through
    Jun 6th

    A traveling exhibition of 69 oil paintings, watercolors and works on paper aims to chart Milton Avery’s trajectory and contextualize his work for a new generation.

  • Through
    May 29th

    Inspired by fractals, Renee Cox’s deity-like collages of Black figures constitute an Afrofuturist creation myth.

  • Through
    Jun 6th

    An economical survey of Jonas Mekas, “The Camera Was Always Running” serves as a touching introduction to the Lithuanian filmmaker and champion of avant-garde cinema.

  • Through
    May 28th

    The work in Valentina Vaccarella’s “Bless this Life” rests on a simple irony: monogrammed, embroidered French bridal linens pulled taut across stretcher bars and besmirched by rough images of modern madams.

  • Through
    Jun 6th

    Daniel Lie’s “Unnamed Entities” at the New Museum challenges the antiseptic aim of curation and conservation by imagining a different kind of organic art that needs to be nurtured rather than preserved.

  • Ongoing

    Dia’s recent acquisition of works by Charles Gaines forms the basis of this survey, which includes the artist’s first forays into mathematics-based grid drawings and other early experiments in medium and form.

  • Ongoing

    Day’s End, an elegiac memorial to and stubborn ghost of eras bygone, will also serve as silent witness to the inevitable changes to come.

  • Through
    Jan 2nd 2023

    The sonic encounters provoked by Camille Norment’s elaborate acoustic artworks serve as agents for social consciousness.

  • Through
    May 28th

    The words masterful and mastery assert themselves the instant one encounters the works in “My Body,” both for Nancy Grossman’s command of a wide range of skills and her active state of dominance, identity and selfhood.