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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Vertical-Horizontal Composition. 1916. Colored pencil, gouache, and pencil on paper. 9 7/16 x 7 3/4" (23.9 x 19.6 cm). Stiftung Arp e.V., Berlin. Photo Alex Delfanne


"I do hope this show isn't all textiles," I groaned before going to the Museum of Modern Art to see "Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction" (through March 12). I said this because I am more into fine arts than applied arts. But it turns out that Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889 – 1943) was really much better as an interior designer than she was as a fine artist, so the best of the applied arts in this huge and unwieldy show are for the most part the best thing about it.


To begin with a generality: this show includes some 300 works from over 50 public and private collections in Europe and the U.S., including textiles, beadwork, polychrome marionettes, architectural and interior designs, stained glass windows, works on paper, paintings and relief sculptures. 


Three hundred works is an awful lot, especially as strung out along the seemingly unending sequence of spaces that were occupied by MoMA's Cézanne drawings show last summer. That sequence was too unending even for Cézanne, and believe me, Taeuber-Arp was no Cézanne.


The show is so big that even Jason Farago, the New York Times critic who reviewed it, boggled at its size.  Normally, the Times rhapsodizes when one of the city's big museums goes all out with a monster production – and particularly when the choice of subject conforms to the latest fashions in Chelsea.


This being The Year of the Woman, and Taeuber-Arp being a Sophie, the choice of her to immortalize is clearly right in style. Still, in the issue of November 27, 2021, we find Farago saying of this show, "It sure is big….Maybe even too big?"


He even spotlights what for me too was the feeblest part of the whole production: the big double gallery space at the end hung with Taeuber-Arp's vacuous later paintings and constructions.  


When I looked around at this display, I found myself repeating what Clement Greenberg said of the 1960s paintings of Lee Krasner: "empty." And for the same reason: both Krasner & Taeuber-Arp were attempting to fill larger pieces of canvas or panel than their drive or talent could encompass…..


Even Farago could see it: "There are some longueurs in its later galleries," he wrote,"replete with dozens of later abstract paintings and reliefs: so many dancing circles, so many boogieing lines."  Then, not content with this put-down, he went on to lecture MoMA (and Tate Modern, and the Kunstmuseum Basel, which together organized this show) because it isn't suitably interracial. 


This is the other big fashion in Chelsea at the moment: celebrating the art and artists of socio-economically-deprived communities, so Farago deplored the omission of references to African and Native American sculpture and artifacts, even calling it (in the paranoid language of politics) "a conspiracy of silence."


Then at the very end of his review he backs away from his earlier opinion of Taeuber-Arp, and rhapsodizes even about that dreadful last gallery of late "fine art."  Did some editor land on his back?


My feeling is that the best way to review this show is to recommend that visitors to MoMA enter at the exit of the show and follow it back, back, back to the entrance.  That way one can perhaps recreate the inventive, dada-loving mademoiselle of Taeuber-Arp's youth. 


Born in Switzerland, she was raised in Germany as Sophie Taeuber, and attended at least one school of applied arts that was progressive for its day. After World War I broke out in 1914, she returned to Switzerland, and found work at a Zürich school of applied arts, teaching embroidery and design.


Zürich was also the site of the Cabaret Voltaire, where the sprightly if fundamentally skeptical movement known as "Dada" was just getting started, with the aid of Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara – and the sculptor Hans Arp (arguably the best sculptor Dada produced). 


Arp had been born in Strasbourg  in 1886: at that time, it had been part of imperial Germany since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71  He had come to Switzerland to escape the German draft, and met Sophie at an art gallery in 1915; they speedily became a team.


In 1922, they would marry, and Sophie would change her name to Taeuber-Arp.  She too had been part of the fun at the Cabaret Voltaire, dancing there and designing marionettes for performances either there or elsewhere.


In 1926, Taeuber-Arp and her husband moved to Strasbourg, which had been returned to France in 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles.  They both took out French citizenship and I would imagine this was when Arp changed his first name from the German "Hans" to the French "Jean."   


Thereafter they divided their time between Strasbourg and Paris, though Taeuber-Arp received numerous commissions for interior design in Strasbourg, not least for the interiors of a cultural complex called l'Aubette.


If you work your way back toward the entrance to the MoMA show, you can see in the middle of the show samples of the furniture Taeuber-Arp designed, photographs of the interiors of l'Aubette (both a tearoom and a bar), images of stained glass she designed, and marionettes. 


Everything is clean and simple and modern, in the best sense of the word.  The stained glass put me in mind of decorative windows by Frank Lloyd Wright, but l'Aubette took me back to my childhood.


For five years then I attended a progressive boarding school in the Adirondacks whose main building had been designed by Douglas Haskell (1899-1979), a gifted architectural critic. It was the same soothing, classical environment with no surplus anything anywhere: perfect machines for living in.


The last (aka first) two galleries are where textiles reign – evidently where Taeuber-Arp got her artistic start. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about them, but the rigid verticals and horizontals of the weave make the designs upon them seem just a bit mechanistic. 


However, the small "Vertical-Horizontal Compositions" done on paper by pencil, colored pencil and sometimes gouache, are delectable.  Seemingly they were intended as designs for textiles, but I liked them just as they are – created in 1916, when the artist was just 25

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