HOUSTON — Meret Oppenheim is best known for her iconic, irreverent sculpture “Object” (1936). The fur-covered teacup, saucer, and spoon have made waves since they were first exhibited internationally in 1937, and the piece was so controversial when it made its New York debut that Alfred J. Barr, then-director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), wrote, “The tension and excitement caused by this object in the minds of tens of thousands of Americans have been expressed in rage, laugher, disgust, or delight.”
Now considered a cornerstone of 20th-century Surrealist art, “Object” still has a strong effect on audiences, even if many don’t know the name of its creator. Oppenheim created the piece when she was only 23 years old, but its explosive notoriety and Surrealist roots have often overshadowed the rest of her 50-year career. Thirty-seven years after the artist’s death, a new exhibition proves that Oppenheim’s furry teacup was just one of her many daring artistic statements.
Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition reveals just how diverse and singular the artist’s vision and practice really were. Co-organized by The Menil Collection, where it’s currently on view, Kunstmuseum Bern, where the show opened in 2021, and MoMA, where it will travel this fall, My Exhibition features more than 110 works in a wide variety of media. This is Oppenheim’s first major transatlantic retrospective, and her first one in the United States for more than 25 years.
Oppenheim was born in Berlin in 1913 to a cultured family with Jewish ancestry. She began to draw as a child. By age 18 she was living in Paris, where she fell in with friends like Giacometti, Picasso, and the Surrealists. She quickly found her own voice in the group, establishing herself with works like “Ma gouvernante – My Nurse – Mein Kindermädchen” (1936/1967), composed of two white high-heeled shoes on a silver platter, bound like a roasting chicken, and “Fur Gloves with Wooden Fingers” (1936/1984), in which delicate fingertips emerge from shaggy animal fur. In both sculptures, the signifiers of a certain kind of conventional womanhood — tidy white heels and bright red nail polish — are integrated in surprising, witty, and even menacing material juxtapositions. While the first work critiques the restrictions of femininity, the second one asserts its wild power.
By 1937, Oppenheim’s ambition and vision gained her a place in exhibitions of Surrealist art in London, Paris, and New York. The artist’s star was rising, but so was Nazism in Europe. That year, she fled to her grandparents’ home in Basel, where her parents had already sought refuge after experiencing persecution in Germany. The war years in Switzerland saw Oppenheim’s smart and snappy early works give way to lesser-known, more enigmatic pieces, including figurative oil paintings, colorful collages, abstract drawings, found object assemblages, and wall-sized geometric paintings.
Oppenheim’s inventive, shape-shifting works are difficult to classify. Unexpected combinations of materials, like fungus, buttons, and dried pasta with wood, stone, and clay, speak to her sense of imagination and experimentation. Nature and transformation are at the core of many pieces, but her message to viewers is ultimately open ended. “Oppenheim strenuously objected to being claimed by any movement or category,” Kunstmuseum Bern director Nina Zimmer writes in the catalogue, noting also that, “Visual languages like Oppenheim’s defy the pressures of recognizability or branding.”
Throughout her life, Oppenheim recoiled from labels and predictability. When asked about the variety and singularity of her work in a 1983 interview, she explained, “I simply always did what I felt like doing, anything else wouldn’t agree with the way I work. Committing to a particular style would’ve bored me to death.” Her retrospective reveals an astounding breadth of materials and themes, a reminder that the tenacious artist’s work extends far beyond her famous teacup.
Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition continues at the Menil Collection (1533 Sul Ross Street, Houston, Texas) through September 18. The exhibition was co-curated by Natalie Dupêcher, associate curator of Modern Art, the Menil Collection, Houston; Anne Umland, the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; and Nina Zimmer, director, Kunstmuseum Bern / Zentrum Paul Klee.
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