Is the Artwork of Sophie Taeuber-Arp Still Avant-Garde?

Decades after she painted this canvas, a new show reconsiders a misunderstood Swiss artist

Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Composition, 1930.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Composition, 1930. The Museum of Modern Art, NY / Kunstmuseum Basel

A pioneering abstract painter, Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943) was also a skilled crafter of beautiful objects, from intricately beaded handbags to minimalist marionettes. That dual focus, says Eva Reifert, a curator at Kunstmuseum Basel in Taeuber-Arp’s native Switzerland, may be part of why her work has long been overlooked: “If artists try to bridge categories, people don’t know what to make of it,” she says. But this year a new exhibition, on view at the Kunstmuseum through June before it travels to the Tate Modern in London and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, aims to make amends. Through some 400 works, including jewelry, textiles, drawings and paintings, the show tells the story of an artist whom Reifert calls “a hub” of the avant-garde scene in the 1920s and ’30s, deeply involved in the Dada movement and later geometric abstraction. “You can’t put her in a box,” Reifert says. “Once you immerse yourself in her visual language, you realize how playful and balanced and animated each and every composition is.”

Is the Artwork of Sophie Taeuber-Arp Still Avant-Garde?
Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Bewegtes Kreisbild, 1934. Kunstmuseum Basel, Schenkung Marguerite Arp-Hagenbach, Photo: Martin P. Bühler
Is the Artwork of Sophie Taeuber-Arp Still Avant-Garde?
Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Composition à cercles et demi-cercles, 1938. Art Museum Bahnhof, Remagen / Kunstmuseum Basel
Is the Artwork of Sophie Taeuber-Arp Still Avant-Garde?
Left, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Equilibre, 1932. Right, Nic Aluf, Sophie Taeuber, 1920. Stiftung Arp e.V., Berlin/Rolandswerth, Photo: Alex Delfanne / Kunstmuseum Basel; Stiftung Arp e.V., Berlin / Kunstmuseum Basel
Is the Artwork of Sophie Taeuber-Arp Still Avant-Garde?
Left, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Construction d’un cercle noir et segments bordeaux, rouges et bleus, 1942. Right, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Farbige Staffelung, 1939. Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck, Remagen / Kunstmuseum Basel; Kunstmuseum Basel-Kunstmuseum Bern, Schenkung Marguerite Arp-Hagenbach, Meudon

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This article is a selection from the April issue of Smithsonian magazine