Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s Crafting of Abstraction

My first-ever solid take on Sophie Taeuber-Arp, the subject of a wonderful retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, occurred nine years ago, by way of a survey, also at MOMA, of the genesis of abstract art, circa 1910-25.

The execution secretes bits of fun that I hadn’t noticed before: a minuscule, eccentric off-colored shape in a brown field; an almost imperceptible checkerboard pattern of alternating horizontal and vertical stitches in a black area ; and a small lump of congested yarn that would seem to be a flaw if it did not so candidly emphasize the work’s tactility.

They were among the early members of Dada, which centered on a night club in the city, the Cabaret Voltaire, and convened artists and writers in revolt against anything that could be associated with the obscenity of the First World War.

Also scantily recorded, with set designs and a few photographs, is her hectic three-act marionette show of 1918, an adaptation of an eighteenth-century commedia-dell’arte play, “King Stag.” The production closed after three performances, amid the perils of that year’s deadly flu pandemic.

Further embroideries and gouaches of hers, also entitled “Vertical-Horizontal Composition,” develop a language of form so fluent that she could seem to have been born to it: intricately balanced, invariably surprising.

Her devotion to crafts can seem strategic, allowing her to evade comparison with the big-time fine-art styles of the era—in which, nonetheless, she was fully versed.

She exercised such technical subtleties as building up what appear to be freehand flurries of curling lines with tiny, almost undetectable strokes to give them subliminal physical mass.

In 1940, Taeuber-Arp and Arp fled their home, outside Paris, for the Unoccupied Zone of southern France, shortly before German troops entered the city.

Yoakum began painting at the age of seventy-one, toward the end of an obscure, knockabout life, and was warmly embraced by a cohort of wackily figurative Chicago artists who, flipping off New York influences, dubbed themselves the Hairy Who; they have lately been coming in for recuperative justice themselves.

Far from incidental in her epoch, she was integral to the wholesale expansion of what art could be and how it could alter the world at large.

The New Yorker may earn a portion of sales from products that are purchased through our site as part of our Affiliate Partnerships with retailers.

…Read the full story