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A Swiss Dada pioneer finally gets her spotlight
Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Composition of Circles and Overlapping Angles. 1930. Oil on canvas. 19 ½ x 25 ¾” (49.5 x 64.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Riklis Collection of McCrory Corporation. Photo: The Museum of Modern Art, Department of Imaging and Visual Resources. © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

by Ted Loos

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In 1937, Swiss artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp wrote a letter to a friend, noting her exclusion from an avant-garde exhibition in Paris. While a male Belgian artist in her circle was refused entry too, “as a woman it is ten times harder to hold your position in this caldron.”

And therein lies a tale, one that may be receiving an updated ending. Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943), a pathbreaking artist, is the only woman on a Swiss bank note, and she has been featured previously in major museum exhibitions. But her name is hardly bandied about — certainly not with the frequency of her husband’s, Jean (Hans) Arp — and some influential people in the art world are collectively looking to change that.

Among her advances was using interior design as an artistic tool, an early version of installation art, and when she wasn’t painting she made textiles, costumes and sculptures and edited magazines. She was a dancer, too.

Beginning with a current online show from the gallery Hauser & Wirth, the artist is getting a too-rare spotlight, which intensifies next year with the museum survey, “Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction.” That exhibition is scheduled to debut in March at the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland and then travel to the Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Jointly organized by the three institutions, it was originally scheduled to begin this year and will be the most comprehensive show of her work to appear in the United States.

During her lifetime, Taeuber-Arp excelled in many media, and the exhibition shows her lifelong devotion to abstraction, represented in canvases, works on paper and gouaches on cardboard that range in style from assemblages of slightly biomorphic shapes to hard-edge geometries.

She and her husband, the noted French German painter and poet, were key members of the dada movement just after World War I, and both had avant-garde careers well after dada petered out.

For a while now, museums and galleries have been assiduously scouring the past, looking to highlight artists who weren’t given their due in their lifetime, particularly women and people of color. The constant question is: What did we miss or gloss over too quickly?

According Anne Umland, the curator at the Museum of Modern Art who co-organized the show that will stop there, Taeuber-Arp was a multidisciplinary artist when it was radical to be so and not de rigueur as it is today.

“She proposed a both-and model,” Umland said. “Applied arts and abstraction, not one or the other. She conjured a language of abstraction from a background of arts and crafts.”

Umland said too that the show did fit the larger trend.

“With the clarity of hindsight, we can see who’s left out, how incomplete the stories we have told are, and how exclusionary they are,” she said, adding, “We have a huge task.”

Hauser & Wirth recently took over representation of Taeuber-Arp’s estate, which had never been commercially represented. The online show features Taeuber-Arp works made from 1916 to 1942, the year before she died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. Mostly a non-selling exhibition, the survey is a useful Taeuber-Arp 101 course.

It also gives a sense of her 3D work, which is even more varied. Her marionettes of 1918, tiny and elaborately constructed, seemingly derived from a dark fairy tale, will be a revelation for many. So will “Pompadour” (1920), a purse in silk, cotton and glass beads.

“People always ask why she is not more known,” said Iwan Wirth, Hauser & Wirth’s co-founder, who is Swiss himself. “She’s one of the great known-unknown artists of the century.”

He added, “She’s on the 50 franc note, but still many people in Switzerland don’t know who that is.”

The Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp Foundation administers both estates, and Wirth, who already represented Arp’s estate, had been pursuing hers for a decade.

“There’s a small but impressive trove of works,” Wirth said, adding that he thought her geometric reliefs of the 1930s — like the 1936 “Rectangular Relief with Cutout Rectangles, Applied Rectangles and Rising Cylinders” in the online show — were her strongest mode.

Arie Hartog, the coordinator of the Sophie Taeuber-Arp Research Project and a scholar of Arp’s work who advises the foundation, said that Taeuber-Arp’s known oeuvre is around 1,200 works.

Hartog, who is also the director of Gerhard-Marcks-Haus in Bremen, Germany, has spent much time in the couple’s archives. Having a renowned artist for a husband and collaborator helped ensure that her work would be known to a certain degree — but also overshadowed. “She was a strong woman in a milieu of modernist males,” he said.

Hartog pointed to a famous 1928 collaboration of Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg with Arp and Taeuber-Arp for the design of L’Aubette, a leisure complex in Strasbourg, France, meant to be a complete work of art and a showplace for the new de Stijl movement.

“I’m a Dutch art historian, and when we learned about this in school, we were told it was by van Doesburg, who brought his friend Arp, who brought his wife,” Hartog said. “She was unnamed.”

Taeuber-Arp, he added, “made the color scheme for one of the spaces.”

“She was one of the first artists in Europe who understood that with color, you can make space,” he said.

Born in Davos, Switzerland, Taeuber-Arp studied art in Munich before returning to her native country. She met Arp in 1915 in Zurich and from 1916 to 1929 she taught textile design at the School of Applied Arts there.

“She kept the couple afloat,” said Pipilotti Rist, a contemporary Swiss artist who admires Taeuber-Arp.

“I’m absolutely inspired by her,” said Rist, perhaps best known for her video installations. “The idea of doing applied art, fine art and things in between, that was big for me as a young artist.”

Zurich was a hub of dada activity, and Taeuber-Arp’s 1920 painted sculpture “Dada Head” is one of her key works, Umland, the curator, said.

“It represented the cross-pollination that Taeuber-Arp was so deft at, combining turned-wood construction and painted abstract patterns over the visage,” she said.

Umland said that she discovered the artist’s works in the early 1980s, guided by an older colleague, and then included Taeuber-Arp’s art in a 2006 dada show. But that exhibition covered the work only until 1920, and “I wanted to see more,” she said.

After 1929, Taeuber-Arp and her husband lived much of their life in France, in and around Paris and then later in Grasse, in the south. The relationship between husband and wife is a source of fascination for scholars.

“From reading her letters, and letters from people who knew her, my impression was that she was friendly and organized,” Hartog said. “Hans was more impulsive.”

If Arp was sensibility, Taeuber-Arp was sense.

Hartog quoted a letter that Taeuber-Arp wrote to her husband in 1919, when the dada movement was at a fever pitch, with its devotees penning manifestoes left and right:

“I’m furious. What is this nonsense, ‘radical artist.’ ... It must only be the work, to manifest oneself this way is more than stupid. ... Nobody cares if you’re always hopping around on your vanity like this.”

Los-Angeles based artist Christina Forrer, who is Swiss and makes tapestries among other works, said she had always admired that Taeuber-Arp was “unpretentious,” attributing it at least partly to heritage. “Swiss Germans aren’t flowery,” she said.

In particular, Forrer cited Taeuber-Arp’s use of color in textiles, an approach that suffused her work in other media. “With her, color is part of the material,” she said. “It’s not additive or superficial.”

Although eclipsed by her husband during her lifetime, Taeuber-Arp’s reputation was tended by Arp himself.

“He did amazing work for her after she died by writing about her, publishing a catalog raisonné,” Umland said. “He donated her work to European institutions, and he made sure she stayed in the public eye.”

Taeuber-Arp’s complicated legacy is exactly what appeals to contemporary artists like Sheila Hicks, who is known for her sculptural textiles and counts herself as a Taeuber-Arp fan.

But Hicks — who is based in Paris, a foreigner in the city as Taeuber-Arp was — has her own take on the gender politics of the past.

“Her husband had a powerful personality, and it was a free ride into the inner circle,” Hicks said. “She wouldn’t have had that without him.” She added, “It was a challenge to live in those times and achieve her goals.”

“I hope they don’t make her out to be a tragic figure,” Hicks said of “Living Abstraction.”

“I love the agility of this person who was multitalented and who was partnered with this super-popular guy,” she said. “It was a win-win.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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