In 1916, Sophie Taeuber-Arp began living an artistic double life: by day, she taught textile design and embroidery at the Zurich Trade School, and by night, she took part in Dada antics at the Cabaret Voltaire as a member of the city’s radical avant-garde. Yet her resulting oeuvre—comprehensively surveyed in the Museum of Modern Art retrospective “Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction,” co-organized with Kunstmuseum Basel and Tate Modern in London—makes clear that these spheres were not as disparate as they might seem. This is evident, for instance, in the machinelike marionettes she created for a 1918 production of the satirical play King Stag: Taeuber-Arp formed their awkwardly articulated bodies from geometric pieces of turned wood, using a carpentry technique more often associated with functionalism than fine art. Though the project was spearheaded by the trade school’s director, architect Alfred Altherr, under the auspices of the Swiss Werkbund (an association of artists and designers), the marionettes were quickly embraced by her avant-garde peers as quintessentially Dada. The marionettes likewise inspired Taeuber-Arp’s best-known contribution to the Zurich Dada canon, the so-called “Dada Heads” (1918–20), playfully absurd wood sculptures painted with abstract motifs in lieu of facial features, whose forms recall hatstands—or perhaps the oblong turned-wood powder box she made circa 1918, on display in the adjacent gallery. Throughout her career, cut short in 1943 by her accidental death from carbon monoxide poisoning at age fifty-three, Taeuber-Arp moved fluidly between mediums and disciplines with little regard for the fine/applied art divide that long biased her work’s reception.
Taeuber-Arp arrived at abstraction early and decisively, recognizing that the gridded structure of embroidery, weaving, and other textile techniques lent itself naturally to geometric compositions. The exhibition, organized chronologically, opens in the mid-teens, by which point Taeuber-Arp was already creating varied arrangements of horizontal and vertical planes neatly organized into irregular grids. Warm earth tones, reds, and purples, anchored by large rectangles of black, dominate a group of small embroideries, preparatory drawings, and composition studies in gouache and pencil that she created following her return to her native Switzerland in 1914, after completing applied art studies in Munich and Hamburg. In subsequent works, she adopted a freer hand. A set of gouaches, titled each titled a variation on Free Vertical-Horizontal Rhythms (1919), features wavering asymmetrical patches of color, cut and pasted onto white paper grounds. Another group of drawings from the following year involves quadrangular strokes of colored gouache distributed in varied groupings across white grounds.
Having mastered the grid, Taeuber-Arp turned, in the late teens and twenties, toward more complex compositions, often incorporating irregular shapes as well as abstracted riffs on figural motifs. She also adapted these designs to suit a staggering range of functional objects—dazzling beaded necklaces and handbags, embroidered pillow covers and tablecloths, woven rugs and tapestries—by individually rendering these motifs and patterns as small gouache fragments that she combined into different configurations to suit the demands of a given project. The results have a collagelike quality, emphasized in the galleries through the display of several works alongside the modular preparatory gouaches. Among them is Oval Composition with Abstract Motifs (1922), a wool rug that intersperses rectilinear planes of color with concentric circles, the most prominent of which loosely suggests a standing haloed figurine. Other juxtapositions show how Taeuber-Arp translated designs from one type of object to another. Occupying the upper right corner of a circa 1920 embroidery, for instance, is the radically simplified silhouette of a woman’s head—half bubble-gum pink, half white—framed by neatly parted hair, with a single punched-out circle suggesting an eye. The two-toned head appears again in a beaded bag from the same year, this time in a more aggressive—or festive—palette of clashing pinks and turquoise, befitting the shift from decor to wearable accessory.
Taeuber-Arp left Zurich in 1926 to join her husband, fellow Dadaist Jean (Hans) Arp, in Strasbourg. Shortly thereafter, the Arps, along with De Stijl cofounder Theo van Doesburg, were commissioned to redesign the interior of the Aubette, a new multi-venue entertainment center housed in an eighteenth-century building. Taeuber-Arp was responsible for the bar and tearoom. She created a program of gridded geometric compositions for the walls and ceilings. At MoMA, her initial compositional sketches, an axonometric drawing of the tearoom, and related interior design commissions are juxtaposed with her contemporaneous artworks, including a striking group of photographs and works on paper depicting cityscapes from her travels across Europe with Arp during the 1920s. Much as the Aubette interiors allowed Taeuber-Arp to expand her experiments with designing between two and three dimensions to an architectural scale, the cityscapes adapt her abstract method to the depiction of space, compressing each scene into a sequence of flattened bands and planes of color. Indeed, throughout the exhibition, the curators emphatically frame her art and design work as deeply intertwined, countering a tendency—dating back to the posthumous catalogue raisonné of her work Arp compiled in 1948—to downplay her applied art efforts as something like a side hustle.
Ironically then, Taeuber-Arp’s paintings and wood relief sculptures of the 1930s are significantly overrepresented, with some fifty examples spread across several large galleries. An active participant in the international Constructivist group Cercle et Carré, founded in 1929, and its successor, Abstraction-Création, she primarily employed in these works a limited vocabulary of stark colored circles, rectangles, and crosses floating on—or, in the case of the reliefs, projecting from—black or white grounds. The results are accomplished and elegant, but generically of their moment and milieu. Among the few notable exceptions is a group of works dating from 1934–39 that play with iterations on the flared contours of a Greek amphora. A trio of the latter, all titled variations on Gradation, features these undulant silhouettes abruptly truncated on one side and arranged into vertical stacks, at once recalling papier collé and the flickering motion of a film strip.
Equally remarkable is a group of drawings in the show’s final gallery, made in the last years of Taeuber-Arp’s life, as she and Arp moved frequently to evade the advancing German troops. With few supplies at her disposal, she turned to pencil and paper, creating deceptively simple abstract drawings in which knotted arrangements of seemingly spontaneous lines are revealed, up close, to be meticulously composed of small pencil strokes, layered to give the lines the opacity and fluidity of ink. Increasingly, as the couple’s exile dragged on, Taeuber-Arp’s looping curves became constrained by nets of crossing lines, turning grids into prisons.