A Master of Mute Forms

Nic Aluf/Bibliothèque Kandinsky, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris/RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource
Sophie Taeuber-Arp with her Dada Head, 1920

The story of twentieth-century art is crowded with chastened and disabused idealists. How could it be otherwise? Each of the great movements—Fauvism, Cubism, Constructivism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism—began with its own kind of evangelical fervor. These artists were rejecting quotidian experience as they pursued emotional states so unfamiliar or so overpowering as to call into question the fundamentally empirical and materialistic nature of a work of art. Painters and sculptors were raising hopes for artistic catharsis that no painting or sculpture, not even a masterpiece, could ever be expected to fulfill.

Sooner or later, the long, hard hours in the studio had a way of turning even cockeyed optimists into pragmatists. The spirit was rarely any match for the exigencies of clay, metal, stone, or oil paint. Picasso, at least for a time, renounced Cubism’s shape-shifting kaleidoscope in favor of the braggadocio of Neoclassicism. Mondrian, after the Olympian austerities of paintings with the tiniest handful of black lines and shapes, embraced the boogie-woogie rhythms of New York City. Hope wasn’t so much abandoned as transformed. Pessimism provoked new forms of optimism. If Duchamp turned disabused idealism into a radical skepticism, there was Donald Judd to come along and insist, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that you could still hope against hope. With the one hundred mill aluminum boxes that Judd arranged in two buildings in Marfa, Texas, in the 1980s, he reimagined an ancient perfection amid the parched landscape of the American Southwest. Judd’s industrial-strength idealism revived some very old dreams.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp, the abstract artist who died in 1943 at the age of fifty-three, was the most exquisitely chastened of all the idealists of her generation. Abstract art was in its infancy in the years around World War I when she was a young woman and became involved in avant-garde circles in Switzerland and Germany. She witnessed firsthand the arguments and struggles that attended the search for a new reality—one beyond everyday reality—that preoccupied Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian. Her career began gradually, with experiments in the decorative arts, involvement with the modern dance movement, and participation in some of the earliest exploits of the Dadaists. The ascetic paintings she produced in the last decade of her life—with their forceful rhythmic arrangements of circles, semicircles, and rectangles and their unequivocal orchestrations of color—are rigorous without being the least bit doctrinaire. Her finest work has the clean-lined beauty we associate with the art of Malevich and Mondrian, except that where they saw infinities and eternities she saw particularities and immediacies.

Roswitha Mair describes Sophie Taeuber-Arp and the Avant-Garde, which was first published in Germany in 2013, as a “sketch.” The writing, in a highly readable translation by Damion Searls, is lucid and direct. The…

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