One of the great things about “Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition” at the Museum of Modern Art is that “Object,” the little 1936 sculpture whose notoriety tended to overshadow the rest of her long, prolific career, gets lost in the shuffle.
“Object” of course is better known by its nickname — “The Fur-Lined Teacup.” It consists of a porcelain teacup and saucer and a spoon, all viscerally eroticized by being covered (except the cup’s handle) with the pale, lustrous fur of the Chinese gazelle, and it’s been famous ever since it arrived at MoMA shortly after being made. While looking something like a small animal curled in on itself, asleep, its oppositions of taste and touch, hard and soft, smooth and hirsute confuse and titillate.
By the time you work your way through this sprawling exhibition of paintings, abstract and not, collages, drawings and objects, “Object” may well be the last thing on your mind, even if it holds an important key to Oppenheim’s art. There is so much else to think about. And there is this restrained, cerebral sometimes irritating artist to factor in.
A consummate professional prone to emotional detachment in her work, Oppenheim (1913-1985) nonetheless gave herself permission to do exactly as she pleased. In the process she threw to the wind notions of artistic ego, stylistic consistency and originality. She stayed weirdly up-to-date, while also maintaining some connection to Surrealism (much as she came to deny the affiliation). She borrowed from and quoted other artists with the aplomb of a postmodernist. And throughout she maintained an unusual gift — exemplified by “Object” — for simply putting unlikely things together in convincing, somewhat unsettling ways. They could be anything — found objects, materials, mediums, motifs or styles. These conjoinings were always aided by a meticulous sense of craft that was undoubtedly enhanced by Oppenheim’s training as a conservator in Basel, Switzerland, during World War II.
Consider “Enchantment,” a relatively large painting from 1962. Its overlapping circles of red, gray and brown against black seem like a late form of Constructivism, although the sharp crescent of white implies a kind of nocturne (as befits the title). Contributing to this mood is a dark, rough-surfaced form that seemed to hover slightly in front of the painting. It resembles a piece of bark or of a small reptile just passing through, as if the painting were a dark river.
In contrast, “New Stars” (1977) seems to pay homage to — if not outright copy — Man Ray’s “Observatory Time: The Lovers” of 1936. Instead of the giant red lips that Man Ray floated above a low horizon, Oppenheim suspends a squadron of kite-like diamond shapes in red, orange and yellow, conjuring ’60s abstraction, Pop Art and commercial design. (Think of hood ornaments and the bright dotted packaging of Wonder Bread.) It’s a strange, haunted painting; and even better is its neighbor, “Dark Mountains, Red and Yellow Clouds at Right.” The mountains are implacable triangles of deep blue, softened by small, smudges of brighter colors, “at right.”
Thanks to both its inherent qualities and to happenstance, “Object” was fast-tracked to stardom, becoming almost overnight one of Surrealism’s poster children. Oppenheim was born in Berlin but raised primarily in Basel — her mother’s hometown — where she became familiar with modern art and started making macabre little drawings and watercolors quite early. A few are included here, along with a wall text that calls her a Surrealist before the fact. She went to Paris in 1932 at the age of 18 and rather quickly became an official one. She was memorably photographed by Man Ray, close to Max Ernst and within a year of her arrival, began to show in Surrealist exhibitions.
“Object” came about after a conversation Oppenheim had with Picasso and Dora Maar at the Café de Flore sometime during the first half of 1936. Oppenheim was supporting herself by making jewelry and was wearing one of her designs, a fur-covered bracelet that her companions admired. One of them said that anything could be transformed by being covered with fur. To this, Oppenheim responded, “Even this teacup!” and went home and made it.
“Object” was exhibited a few months later at the Galerie Charles Ratton in Paris. There it was seen by Alfred H. Barr Jr., the Modern’s founding director, who was apparently doing some last-minute shopping for his enormous “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” exhibition, that was to open in December, 1936. Barr bought “Object” and carried it back to New York. When “Fantastic Art” opened, Oppenheim’s work caused a furor. People loved or hated it; either way, it received more attention from the press than anything else in the show. It may have upset some of the museum’s trustees because Barr delayed presenting it to them for acquisition; not until 1946 did it formally enter the collection.
MoMA seems to have been shockingly ambivalent about Oppenheim’s achievement. She may have made one of its most famous artworks, but the museum clearly considered her as less than first rank, or second or third. In addition to “Object,” the museum owns one other substantial Oppenheim, a striking painting of a balloon-like figure titled “Blue Body, Red Head,” also from 1936, and given to the museum in 1991.
The real problem for MoMA, at least until now, is that most of Oppenheim’s work dated from the postwar era, when the golden years of high European modernism were past and American art dominated.
In 1937, Oppenheim returned to Basel, driven by her sudden fame, the rise of Nazism and financial precarity to endure an 18-year crisis during which she all but stopped making art. Several works in the show’s small second gallery, though, are from the 1940s, when Oppenheim took up an exquisite realism echoing Dalí, Tanguy and Magritte. One of the best paintings here is “Stone Woman,” a precise copy of a 1933 photograph by Man Ray of some small stones arranged on a beach to evoke a reclining woman. Oppenheim brought her to life, adding the ocean and submerged in it a pair of legs and feet in socks and Mary Janes shoes, conjuring Alice in Wonderland.
“My Exhibition” is the joint undertaking of the Kunstmuseum Bern (where it was seen last fall), MoMA and the Menil Collection in Houston, its final stop. The Modern’s display been organized by Anne Umland, a chief curator, assisted by Lee Colón.
There is much more within this show’s capacious boundaries that I’d like to point out: for example, Oppenheim’s wry 1974 homage, in gouache with a veil and sequins, to the great Swiss self-taught artist Adolf Wölfli — the one Expressionist work here, or her recurring use of pale stippling, as on the little plaster and wood sculpture, “Cloud on a Boat” (1963). Just to say, its extravagance rewards thorough exploration for it introduces a rare thing: an early female modernist who worked steadily over the course of several decades. Restless, undeterred, Oppenheim deserves a place in any modernist pantheon you can assemble.
Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition
Through March 4, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, (212) 708-9400; moma.org.
Meret Oppenheim’s work can also be seen in “The Virtues of Rebellion,” through Nov. 21 at Phillips New York, 432 Park Avenue.