Meret Oppenheim: Beyond

the Teacup

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through January 12

By Fred Camper

While still a teenager, Meret Oppenheim completed a simple ink drawing called Suicides’ Institute, one of the earliest pieces in a compact retrospective of the artist’s work now at the Museum of Contemporary Art. A young boy holding a ball observes a row of four people with nooses around their necks. Three of the figures are presumably dead; the fourth–about to kick away the support from under his feet–points upward, directing the boy’s attention to one of the nooses.

A year later, in 1932, Oppenheim moved to Paris and hooked up with the surrealists. Though she would exhibit with them, it’s unclear whether these mostly male artists not noted for their feminism were more captivated by Oppenheim herself or by her art. She had affairs with Man Ray, who would describe her as “uninhibited,” and Max Ernst, who called her a “naive libertine” in a fanciful introduction penned for the catalog to her first show. But Suicides’ Institute shows that even before meeting them she shared their goal of violating bourgeois sensibilities. The boy in the drawing is being instructed not in traditional or mainstream values but in the ultimate act of rejection, the complete removal of oneself from society.

That Oppenheim shared the surrealists’ interest in stripping objects of their functionality–“to hound the mad beast of function,” in Andre Breton’s words–can be seen in her drawings for jewelry and clothing. The displacement in these precisely rendered images can be creepy. Design for Necklace (1936) drapes the legs of a girl around a woman’s neck. The legs have carefully drawn socks; shiny black shoes reflect light. The “buttons” in Design for Buttons for Evening Jacket (1942-’45) consist of three dinner plates, each with fork and knife at its side. Oppenheim made several designs for gloves in the 30s and 40s that revealed the bones or blood vessels within the hand; for the Pair of Gloves that she finally had fabricated in 1985, the year of her death, she silk-screened bright red arteries–their multiple branches resembling the veins of a leaf–over gray suede. The gloves violate the whole concept of fashion, which aims to hide our animal bodies and to make us into products of culture. Oppenheim’s detailed design, with its sharp-edged tangle of tiny vessels, contradicts the suede’s smoothness, hinting at the beast within.

There’s also a hint of the beast in Object (Breakfast in Fur), the fur-covered teacup that was the hit of a 1936 surrealist exhibit and was quickly purchased by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The work’s instant fame eclipsed any recognition accorded to Oppenheim’s other work, and, according to several writers in this show’s catalog, it was ultimately not helpful to her career. In covering an ordinary cup, saucer, and spoon almost completely with thick brown fur, the 23-year-old artist created, according to Thomas McEvilley’s catalog essay, the hint of a werewolf as well as the opposite suggestion that nature will “ultimately somehow redeem the problems of culture.” This work’s almost preternatural strangeness was doubtlessly heightened by its context when first shown in Paris. In that exhibit, unlabeled works by Oppenheim, Duchamp, Ernst, and Picasso were displayed in glass cases alongside African and Oceanic art, crystals, carnivorous plants, and birds’ eggs.

While it was just one of many Oppenheim works that presented the dichotomy of nature and culture, Object (Breakfast in Fur) introduced another opposition that was to recur in her work over the decades. In her later years Oppenheim spoke of the difficulties women have long encountered, but she also asserted that “every person is both male and female” and she made many works that might be said to represent that principle.

There’s a phallic quality not only to traditional sculpture but to traditional (and modernist) tableware–precise, hard-edged forms that assert themselves, piercing space. Oppenheim’s covering of cup, saucer, and spoon makes hard edges fuzzy and replaces firm surfaces with a sensual, pliable layer that yields to the touch. This fur seems, when combined with the three concave shapes, almost perversely recessive; suggesting an undelineated vulva, it invites the viewer in.

Again and again Oppenheim placed hard, assertive phallic shapes and surfaces in opposition to more sensual, allover, decorative forms. The ten fingers in Fur Glove With Wooden Fingers (1936) are almost completely covered with fur, yet their red-polished nails emerge from the fur like a penis from a fly, replacing one association with its opposite. The work may not solely be a play on male and female forms, but that’s surely one of its dimensions.

Play is a good word for much of Oppenheim’s art, for not only does it exhibit a childlike willingness to see customary shapes in new ways but it also frequently displays an undercurrent of humor. The Couple (1956) consists of a pair of rather fierce looking women’s boots, fused at the toes so that their pointy ends are absent, seemingly buried in each other. This is often interpreted as reflecting the subservient status of women under patriarchy, with its allusions to forced marriages and Chinese foot binding, but one could just as easily see two phallic forms entering each other, buried, defused, neither in a dominant position.

There’s both fierceness and humor in Animal-headed Demon (1961), in which a rough and unfinished wooden wedge emerges from the center of an ornate wooden clock case. One joke is on the cuckoo clock, a wedge beast replacing the cute little bird. But the phallic demon also seems a little ridiculous, its untamed roughness rather boorish compared to the finely crafted symmetry of the case.

Several writers have suggested that the depression (the “destruction of self-esteem,” in her words) that dogged Oppenheim from the mid-1930s to the mid-’50s–when she often made little work, or destroyed what she did make–resulted from the social difficulties this woman artist faced in a male-dominated art world. Probably, but what has troubled critics–the so-called trauma of posing nude for Man Ray–seems less important to Oppenheim’s later art than the problem any woman artist faces in seeking a language appropriate to herself in the face of a long tradition of male-made art. The frequent jokes on the phallus in Oppenheim’s work are also signs of the difficulty the artist faced in finding alternative forms: if not an object that boldly declares itself, shaping the space around it, then what?

She increasingly turned toward abstraction in her paintings and drawings. In the crayon drawing Sun in Evening Clouds (1963), for example, a solid white circle in the center represents the sun; the clouds are reddish abstract diamonds. If the white disk lacks the spiritual luminosity of the sunlight in, say, a 19th-century romantic painting or a work by Vermeer, it’s because Oppenheim’s skills, like most of the surrealists’, were not quite up to those of the old masters. As a result, her objects are often stronger than her paintings and drawings. But with their simple colors and abstracted forms, the drawings and paintings seem meant to invoke the spiritual, the idea of a realm of experience beyond language that was so central to the work of Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian.

The idea of transcending language is central to Word Wrapped in Poisonous Letters (Becomes Transparent) (1970). Here, two rectangles of string hardened by resin are mounted so that they form a cross when viewed from above. From other angles, one can see letters within the intersecting forms–“O,” “D,” “C,” “X.” But the letter disappears as one’s perspective changes, and most of the work consists of empty space. Language destroys itself, leaving a void.

The fame of Oppenheim’s teacup notwithstanding, the best works here are later pieces that poetically and inseparably interweave the threads of her various themes. The small Flying Dog (1973) of objects mounted on a flat surface is a joke on the ambitions of its title–the “dog” is a tiny key joined to a shard of blue glass–and perhaps on heroic classical flight myths as well as on the false grandiosity of phallic forms in art. Curtain (1978), the finest work in this installation of the show, is easy to miss. Five segments of a broken cylinder are aligned horizontally at irregular intervals in front of a raised wooden surface that simulates the folds of a curtain. Some of the folds are white; others are painted pale yellow, gray, and pink. There’s an echo of Oppenheim’s surrealist past in the implied narrative of disruption, though one less showy than the werewolf in the teacup: some trauma has sliced the curtain rod. The fragmented rod, and its function as a failed curtain support, gently mocks the phallic form. But the curtain has managed to stay up on its own. Its vertical folds are often skewed a bit; its pale colors seem little different from its whites. Neither male nor female–or perhaps both–these folds emphatically eschew the formal geometric perfection of abstractionists like Malevich and Mondrian. By referring instead to the decorative wood carvings on furniture or in home interiors as well as to the curtain of the title, they suggest that spirituality can be found not only in the special creations of a master but in the ordinary domestic world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of “The Couple”.