exhibition review

A Colossus of Abstraction: Online Exhibition Review of Sophie Taeuber-Arp at Hauser & Wirth

A new online retrospective of Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s astonishingly accomplished and varied oeuvre at Hauser & Wirth marks her not only as a trailblazer of abstraction, but as a progenitor of the constant refinement and progression which defines the form to this day

by Jonathan Hart | 26 January 2021

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Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889—1943),  Personnages, 1926

“As a woman, it is ten times harder to hold your position in this caldron [sic]”, wrote the Swiss artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp in a 1937 letter to a friend, lamenting her exclusion from a Parisian exhibition of avant-garde art. It is disheartening to say the least that, nearly 85 years later, those sentiments still ring true; the absurdly-inflated, eight-figure (and beyond) sums paid for art at Sotheby’s, Christie’s et al are still almost solely afforded to the practice’s male exponents. Taeuber-Arp’s pioneering abstract work was not only marginalised and disregarded during her lifetime – which cannot have been anything other than the result of it having been created by a woman, given its assuredness and sophistication – but has been virtually forgotten since her premature passing. Revisionism undoubtedly has its benefits, and one hopes that a new online exhibition by Hauser & Wirth, including some 30 works spanning over 25 years and viewable from the comfort of your home, might go some way to redressing the balance and claiming her rightful position as a figurehead of abstraction. It should be noted that this is apparently a precursor to a major collaborative retrospective jointly organised by MoMA, Kunstmuseum Basel, and Tate Modern – however the scheduled March 2021 opening seems rather optimistic given current events.

This excellent and varied exhibition reveals not only Taeuber-Arp’s flawless mastery of her chosen forms, but also leaves the viewer questioning how an artist whose work presages acclaimed movements of years and decades later can remain so critically overlooked. As it would in the works of De Stijl painters, and later 1960s minimalism, the grid was a formidable compositional element in Taeuber-Arp’s early work. However, where future practitioners would allow themselves to be tethered to the grid, drastically restricting their palettes in the service of rendering Plasticism as a pure, emotionless realisation of formality, here the unbridled joy of colour reigns supreme. Contrast a Mondrian or a van Doesburg with this exhibition’s Composition verticale-horizontale, a pencil drawing from 1916, which positively radiates with cyan, purple, red, green and tan hues. The unfussy, imprecise divisions do not in any way detract from the visual experience the way they might had Broadway Boogie-Woogie been composed without its creator’s signature clean, sharp delineations; this is not about order, precision or flawlessness, but pure creativity. Similarly, Composition à carrés, cercle, rectangles, triangles, from 1918, simultaneously thumbs its nose at traditional notions of embroidery as a humble ‘craft’ defined by connotations of gender, rather than an extension of fine art, while also evoking the ways later artists such as Herbin sought to energise the spare austerity of Constructivism through vibrant colour.

Despite her continued synonymity with the Dada movement – one which she openly acknowledged, as in her Tête Dada, included in this retrospective – Taeuber-Arp represents one of the best cases for any argument against the practice of codification and alignment of artists with specific genres and movements. Dada’s subversive wit and pop culture allusions represent a 1920s analogue to the fury and disillusionment of punk; the works displayed here are so ineffably exuberant that to take them as part and parcel of a movement which also encompasses the chaotic scrawls of Picabia, or the wilfully-obtuse theatrical obfuscations of Tzara, is to rob them of their power and purpose. Though they subvert both established artistic mores and the antiquated idea that a woman should be permitted to practice them, it is difficult to imagine anybody perceiving the cool, pristine geometric configurations of 1931’s Composition à rectangles et Cercles, or the following year’s Equilibre, as anything but a celebration of the thrill of applying colour to a substrate; anti-establishment they may be, but anti-art they emphatically are not.

So wide-reaching is Taeuber-Arp’s work that it is naturally difficult to truly afford it justice within the confines of a review, or indeed a small, online retrospective. Credit must go to Hauser & Wirth for their curation here; despite the relative paucity of work, the exhibition is thoughtfully arranged, pairing works of comparable thematic and visual qualities rather than restricting them to purely chronological order; juxtaposing, for example, the flatness of the irregular curvilinear forms in the 1935 gouache work Forme bleue with three-dimensional approximations of the same idea in 1937’s Sculpture conjugale, makes for a collection which is both neatly-ordered and easy to take in, both in part and in whole. If anything has to be offered by way of criticism, it is that perhaps a little more contextual and biographical detail might have added to the overall experience, but it is a minor gripe and not one which substantially detracts from its enjoyment.

Whether it was her intention or not, this exhibition also embodies an artist whose multidisciplinary practice would likely have situated her in good stead in the intransigent art-buying market of the 2000s. Arguably, it is no longer possible to dissociate the post-millennial art world from the proliferation of knowledge in an internet-dominated age. Where once the consumption of art in its various forms was restricted to specific locations, and the necessity of purchasing it or viewing it in person, in the 21st century the vast history of visual art is but a click away. Abstraction, now guided so prominently by the notions of process and innovation, has particularly suffered from the hyper-saturated communicative overload of the information age. Richter’s Abstraktes Bild works, for example, would have seemed groundbreaking on their 1988 debut, but in 2021 entering #squeegeepainting into Instagram returns hundreds of thousands of identikit works by trained and amateur artists alike, all bearing those tell-tale striations and smears of colour. No longer are the eye and mind left to ponder the hows and whys of the creative process. Any artist with genuine careerist ambitions can no longer expect to achieve, and sustain, success by simply perfecting a formula and subtly refining it over time. The attention spans of the audience and the art market are shorter than ever before, and the fresh becomes passé virtually overnight.

By the time of her tragic passing from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in 1943, Taeuber-Arp’s oeuvre spanned not only the painting, drawing, textiles and sculpture previously alluded to, but also dance, architecture (she designed the Strasbourg home to which she and her husband would relocate in 1926, and its attendant furniture) and stained glass. Picking a random year and observing its wildly-varying work becomes a revelatory experience; 1928’s Composition pour l’Abette reconfigures the burgeoning De Stijl movement within the asymmetrical strictures of embroidered cotton, while the simplicity and elegance of the wood relief Envol, less than a decade later, almost scans as the work of an entirely different artist. The latest work exhibited here, 1942’s Lignes d’été, offers a tantalising glimpse of what might have been; while there is an allusive quality to its title, its deep greens, blues and reds evocative of the skies and fields of summer, those curvilinear forms are now rendered in sharp focus, indicative perhaps of a more precisionist approach to painting. Unlike much of modern abstraction, there is no temptation to parse the technical aspects of its construction; the mind and eye is preoccupied with the grace and sophistication of its visual language. We can only speculate where she may have gone from here, but it is difficult to imagine that it would have been anything less than utterly compelling – and, in today’s world, it is encouraging to surmise that, were it the work of a contemporary artist, it ought to have been embraced by critics and buyers alike.

While a 30-piece sampler of such a far-reaching yet underappreciated legacy merely scratches the surface – and nothing, of course, can compare to the experience of viewing the works in person – one hopes that this might serve as a jumping-off point for a deep-dive into the catalogue of an artist who should realistically be a household name. Untethered by trends, unbothered by assumptions of her role as a woman and an artist, and seemingly incapable of falling short in any of her pursuits, Sophie Taeuber-Arp was, and remains, a colossus of abstraction, and this is as good an opportunity as any to familiarise yourself with her work.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp is available to view online at hauserwirth.com until 31 December 2021.