New York Times, October 4, 1981
Art View: MOMA PRESENTS A NEGLECTED ABSTRACTIONISTby Hilton Kramer
In the history of the European avant-garde in the years 1910-20, the decade in which abstract art first emerged to challenge so many traditional beliefs about art and its meaning, one of the names that tends to get lost is that of the Swiss artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943). By all accounts, she was a remarkable figure, much beloved by her contemporaries and recognized by them as having achieved something very distinctive in her work. Yet the exhibition that Carolyn Lanchner has now organized at the Museum of Modern Art (through Nov. 29) is the first retrospective to be devoted to her art in this country. In addition to giving us our first coherent view of Miss Taeuber- Arp's oeuvre, it is a show that casts an interesting light both on the early history of abstraction and on its subsequent development in Paris in the 20's and 30's.
Sophie Taeuber was born of a German father and a Swiss mother in Davos, Switzerland, in 1889, and in the years 1908-10 she was enrolled as a student of textile design at the School of Applied Arts in Saint Gallen. Between 1911 and 1913 she divided her time between studies in the experimental art studio of Walter von Debschitz in Munich and the School of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg. Three years later, at the age of 27, she commenced her teaching career as professor of textile design and techniques at the School of Applied Arts in Zurich, and remained in that position until 1929. All of her early contributions to abstract art appear to be closely linked to her knowledge and mastery of the techniques of textile design. In the kind of metaphysical, theosophical and utopian doctrines that governed the early abstract painting of Mondrian, Kandinsky, Malevich and others, she appears to have had little interest.
Nor, despite her close attachment to Dada in the war years and to other socially oriented avant- garde movements in the post-World War I period, does the artist appear to have conceived of her work as fulfilling any radical or high-flown social functions. She was anything but an idealogue or theoretician. Yet it would be a mistake to overlook the critical element in her work. The impulse to unburden artistic expression of weighty precedents and moribund conventions and place it at the service of pure feeling was central to everything that she aspired to in her art. So was the determination to create new pictorial disciplines that would lend themselves to this goal.
It was in Zurich in 1915 that Sophie Taeuber met Jean Arp. Almost immediately they entered into a program of artistic collaboration. Arp was always very frank about what he owed to his wife's artistic ideas. (They were married in 1922.) ''The pictures she was doing at that time,'' Arp wrote of their first years together in Zurich,'' exercised a decisive influence on my work.'' One has the impression, too, that it was her salary as a professor at the School of Applied Arts that kept them afloat in what were otherwise very lean years for artists working in an abstract or avant-garde style.
Zurich, of course, was one of the capitals of the European avantgarde during the war, and both Sophie Taeuber and Jean Arp were very much a part of the Dada movement that flourised there. In addition to her work as an artist and teacher, Taeuber also won a considerable reputation as a dancer in this period. In the catalogue accompanying this exhibition, Mrs. Lanchner quotes from a memoir by another member of the Zurich Dada group , Emmy Ball-Hennings, who wrote: ''She was studying dancing at the Ecole Laban .... I can still see Sophie Taeuber dancing at the Galerie Dada. There, several dancers who went on to become famous, such as Mary Wigman, showed us their talent. But none of them left us with such a vivid impression as Sophie Taeuber.'' This was at a time when modern dance was quite as avantgarde as abstract art, and from the point of view of the School of Applied Arts in Zurich, even less respectable. Taeuber was thus obliged to use a pseudonym when she performed at the Dada soirees.
The hallmark of Miss Taeuber-Arp's art, then and later, was an extreme simplicity of design most often achieved through the use of pure geometrical forms. So hackneyed have the conventions of geometrical abstraction since become that it nowadays requires a certain leap of the imagination to appreciate the intensity of effort that its first practitioners lavished on its realization. The whole artistic process, from their point of view, had to be stripped of its fictions and pretensions, of all of its accumulated rhetoric and associations, if it were ever to be made new again. It had, in other words, to regain its innocence. It had, therefore, not only to reject the world of appearances but - perhaps more importantly - the very methods that art had traditionally employed to achieve its familiar effects.
Arp has left us with a very moving account of how he and Taeuber set about this task of denuding the artistic process of its more cumbersome methods and associations. Speaking of the period 1916- 18, he wrote: ''Sophie Taeuber and I resolved never to use oil colors again. We wanted to discard any reminder of oil painting, which seemed to us to belong to an arrogant, pretentious world ....During the years that we abstained from oil painting, we used in our works exclusively paper, cloth, embroidery, as spiritual exercises, as a discipline that allowed us to recapture painting in its original purity.''
There is something very poignant about this studied effort to achieve a state of innocence, both in art and in life, at the very moment when the rest of Europe was embroiled in one of the bloodiest conflicts in its history, and I doubt if the inner life of this art can ever be fully understood without some sense of the historical conditions that engendered it. Hanging on the walls of the museum today, Miss Taeuber-Arp's abstractions - paintings, embroideries and pictorial constructions - are totally devoid, of course, of any references to the war, yet there is a sense in which they, too, constituted an anti-war gesture, an avowal of innocence in the face of worldly evil and catastrophe.
The end of the war inevitably left Miss Taeuber-Arp somewhat isolated in Zurich. The artists and writers who had gathered there to escape the war departed, and Arp, too, seems to have traveled about a good deal while Miss Taeuber-Arp remained at her post at the School of Applied Arts. It was not until the late 20's, when she was able to give up teaching and she and Arp settled in France, in a house that she herself designed for them at Meudon-Val Fleury, outside Paris, that her career regained its momentum. In the late 20's she was commissioned by the architect Paul Horn to design the interior of a cafe and tearoom in Strasbourg - the Cafe de l'Aubette - and she invited Arp