Sophie Taeuber-Arp at MoMA

“Only when we go into ourselves and attempt to be entirely true to ourselves will we succeed in making things of value, living things, and in this way help to develop a new style that is fitting for us.”

— Sophie Taeuber-Arp

Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s costume for a housewarming party for Walter Helbig, Switzerland, 1925

The Swiss artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889–1943) will always be linked to her husband, Jean Arp (born Hans Peter Wilhelm Arp), whose sculptures and paintings have overshadowed her own immense range of work for decades. In intro art history texts, it’s Jean you’ll read about for pages, whereas Sophie may get a greyed-out box that features one of her works from the 1930s, like “Composition

“Composition” 1930

But Sophie was a vivacious, immensely talented woman whose skill and curiosity commanded media from puppets to magazines, dance to textiles, painting to interior design. Her work contains colors, arrangements, and textures that are mesmerizing to see in-person, and she adds to the possibilities of abstraction a more equalitarian vision.

At MoMA “Living Abstraction” exhibition [now through March 12, 2022)], we clearly see Sophie’s love of materials, her hope of blending form with function, and her love of humanity — in all its folly and arrogance. Co-curator Anne Umland says: “Taeuber-Arp’s primary insight as an artists is that that that grid, that simple organizing structure, could become the basis for a new language of abstraction.” Viewing this exhibit today expanded my ideas of abstraction and its connection to justice and beauty.

“Living Abstraction” starts with “Vertical-Horizontal Composition with Reciprocal Triangles” (1918). This gouache collage with pencil on paper shows an intriguing playfulness with weight; Sophie balances pyramidical figures atop of the pointed tips of what could be a factory or church. (Some abstractionists will exhort you to abandon any figural interpretations, but Sophie seems pretty chill; if you want to point to an element and dub it a figure – she’s down. She even prefaced some early abstractions as “Towards figuration”). The dark lucent blue in the top-right flickers, thanks to the gouache, which is watercolor mixed with more gooey substances so that the pigment absorbs more light, meaning some layers are darker, some lighter; the interplay in this little corner is fascinating to watch.

“Vertical-Horizontal Composition with Reciprocal Triangles” (1918)

Sophie applies wool or cotton to a canvas. She makes beaded purses and snuffbox sculpture for her siblings. Openness, humanity, and creation – these are Sophie’s values — art objects made with little (if any) considerations to capitalistic demands or genre as defined by a syllabus.

“She didn’t see the barriers between different mediums,” Amah-Rose Abrams writes. “It’s her flexibility that I feel is very radical.”

You see this in “Cushion Panel” (1916), made from wool:

Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Cushion panel. 1916. Wool on canvas. 20 7/8 × 20 1/2″ (53 × 52 cm).

Zoom up to bottom-right to see alternating vertical and horizontal weaves. I love this pattern within a pattern. It produces a dynamism to this simple pillow cover. It’s also emblematic of Sophie’s constant search for the vitality beneath surfaces.

You can see this search for the nature of substances in “Free Rhythms” (1919), another work on gouache, pencil on thick paper. Each block of color has a curious pulsation because of the gouache, and hangs like a flag or a garment on a laundry line (free association from this darling of Dada is welcome). You can also imagine this as a plane on the ole space-time continuum. What’s underneath?

Free Rhythms (1919)

What does Sophie add to the language of abstraction? Perhaps a more benign relation between elements. There are no non-negotiable vanishing points in her work, no areas where one must look. Her palate is faded and playful, not monochromatic or domineering.

These early forms reminded me of Elaine Scarry’s thoughts on the democratizing power of beauty. In On Beauty and Being Just (1999), Scarry proposes that the forms of beauty – whether an individual, the sky, a flower, or “art” – emotionally prepare one for a system of justice tending toward fairness and equality:

“Beautiful things give rise to the notion of distribution, to a lifesaving reciprocity, to fairness not just in the sense of loveliness of aspect but in the sense of ‘a symmetry of everyone’s relation to one another.’”

— Scarry, 95, also quoting John Rawls’ definition of fairness)

This is the vision that Sophie shares. She wants art to imbue our days not as a gift shop frenzy but as a key pattern of thought that welcomes vitality and meaning. She wants her work and those who behold it to become “living things.” In 1927, Sophie wrote:

“The desire to enrich and beautify things cannot be interpreted materialistically, that is, in the sense of increasing their value as possessions; rather, it stems from the instinct for perfection and the creative act.”

— Sophie Taeuber-Arp, “Guidelines for Drawing Instruction in the Textile Professions

The first wall of the show has a beautifully-written description of Sophie’s life. I wrote down one quote quickly in my notebook (please note I dropped the u in her last name 😉

& if you have no patience to decipher my handwriting:

“Only when we go into ourselves and attempt to be entirely true to ourselves will we succeed in making things of value, living things, and in this way help to develop a new style that is fitting for us.”

— Sophie Taeuber-Arp


Swing by MoMA before March 12, 2022 to enjoy “Living Abstraction.”

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