“Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab Art World, 1950s to 1980s” at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University


Westerners often make the facile assumption that abstraction’s development has been geographically constrained to their part of the world–but this is a mistake, as “Taking Shape” points out so well. There is no inherent reason why we should limit the development of so impartial a style to one region and area–moreover, given that many of the artists in the show travelled and studied outside their native countries, or attended international exhibitions, learning how to strongly sustain a creativity that was, in essence, common knowledge, indicates that the particular attributes of a style–especially a style so so broad as abstraction–belong to a shared ownership: word travels fast when the innovations are as exciting as they were in the period evoked by this show! In truth, the best third of “Taking Shape” is as achieved and original as any abstract art made during this time; thus, we are subject to a body of work whose intelligence and verve matches advances made in places such as Paris and New York. There is a larger question suggested by the show: How do we make sense of a manner of painting that so easily travels across cultures in so short a time? It can be argued that the very success of abstraction is in some ways an indication of a certain superficiality–the quick, even facile duplications of a style may be considered problematic, even should they also be demonstrative of the largeness and breadth of a way of working still being practiced successfully today, two generations after the focus of the exhibition’s survey. But this is a theoretical question–one we cannot answer so much as describe. It is true that the broad array of brilliant paintings in the show argues for a moment that, at the time, carried even the moderately inspired into places of real exception, much as what happened early in the 20th century in cubism.

Yet problems persist. The end of the focus of this show, the 1980s, is not so very far away from our lives now. Abstract art has advanced, but only a little, so that the changes do seem connected to what we see in “Taking Shape.” This probably means that nonobjective art is here to stay, across the passage of time and among radically different cultures. The internationalization of a particular style is not without its problems, since it is a sharp break with the legacies of the culture practicing contemporary abstraction. At the same time, this makes good sense–how can we not consolidate interests in light of the current ability to access any image from any time, via the Internet. Interestingly, the differences in abstraction, from place to place, is slight but genuine–art from the Arab world does not look exactly like work from other sites. But of course the differences are minor and do not truly challenge the overall gestalt of the style. Even so, the slight amount of breathing room let in by cultural differences within the field of abstract painting makes it clear that the genre of abstraction, from person to person and region to region, survives due to variations that are human, traced to the very limits of what we can and cannot do. A style is not so much a template as it is a house with many rooms, in which interrelated activities are practiced. So the slight variation in expressiveness we find in much similarly inclined art is both a consequence of inherently human difference and a recognition that art can survive only (and indeed succeed) if it does change, to however small an extent, the rules of the game.

The most accomplished third of the work included in “Taking Shape” examples as achieved a style as any art of the same kind found in other cultures. This fact points out how even as early as the middle of the last century, Arab artists were taking the ubiquity of the expressionist style to heart–in ways that strongly identified them to the American colleagues. All the elements of a great ab-ex style are there, in examples of work from places most of us had little idea that such art was being practiced. This makes it clear that, most likely beginning with modernism, the trail of art has been international; people from all over the world were practicing similar kinds of imagery at the same time. How this was achieved is beyond the scope of the article, but one senses that the Arab artists were traveling to look at shows, as well as reading the art magazines, and studying in places where lyric abstraction was already well advanced. No image can maintain a perfect autonomy anymore, as it tends to be immediately borrowed (or stolen!) from within the Internet community. But appropriation was clearly a linchpin in the transmission of a manner of painting that for several decades seems to have been dominant worldwide. Indeed, from the look of the show, there is little in the art that can be read as specifically Arab–instead, a dialogue is present with similar works of art made in faraway geographies. It can be questioned whether such internationalism is useful; this writer, at least, wants the art history of different cultures to stay autonomous and alive within the current art being made in a particular place. But this is a far-fetched idealism in light, especially today, of the current immediacies of communication–the Internet, social media–available in most homes everywhere.

Even so, the global practice of a style does not mean the examples of the style are popularly known in places far away from the Western imperial centers of culture.  Nor does the art reflect the cultural specificities of places like America, where lyric abstraction originated. We must remember the historical upheavals of the Arab world during this period–the press materials list them as “decolonization, the rise and fall of Arab nationalism, socialism, rapid industrialization, wars and mass migration, and the oil boom.” Any one of these transformations would easily have upset the intelligentsia of the countries represented in this show, but given the onslaught of so much change in the same period, we can only marvel at the presence and steady curiosity of the artists on hand. Some change may positively affect the cultural landscape, but too much change can return culture into the grasp of the politically powerful, whose tastes most usually are hardly liberal and almost never revolutionary. There may be other reasons why abstract art succeeded so well in the Arab region–Arab culture, in particular design and architecture, has always enjoyed extraordinary achievement for centuries. Perhaps the transformation of the historical Arab impulse into a contemporary idiom was an inevitable result of all the social change surrounding the artists at the time. Whatever the reasons may have been, they resulted in remarkable accomplishment in the hands of highly sophisticated people–women as well as men–who made wonderful use of the visuals attending the spirit of the time.

Let’s examine the actual work. One of the most successful works in the show is the painting Autumn in Yosemite Vallery (1963-64) by Etel Adnan, now in her nineties and living in Californina. Born in Beirut, she attended French schools there, studying philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and then attending graduate school in Berkeley. The painting, with its reference to Yosemite Valley  in central California, is a beautiful abstraction of squares and rectangles, in a broad array of colors: red, green, gold, black. The colors nearly overlap, but perhaps the triumph of the painting is its faithfulness to the hues of fall, rather than its abstract construction. The spirit of the season is alive in the painting, if not the actual forms. While it is a nonobjective painting, at the same time, It can hardly have succeeded were it not for its fidelity to the autumn colors–a figurative perception and not an abstract one. In contrast, the complete nonobjectivity of Samia Halaby’s schematic painting, called White Cube in Brown Cube (1969) is as simple as the title describes: a white square takes up the center of the painting, and is framed by the partial depiction of a larger brown cube, as bands that frame the central image. Halaby, who is considered one of the best Arabic female artists working today, has lived in America since 1951, but it has not stopped her very actively participating in the modernist and contemporary Arab art movements for decades. She has done this very well–indeed, her current work amounts to a manifesto on how to maintain the modernist impulse and interest of Arab painting.

The Egyptian painter Omar El-Nagdi, who died last year, was a colorist, but the painting exhibited in this show is much more limited in hue–it looks like an abstract of close to myriad Arab calligraphic marks, in which a peg-like form with a narrowed end is repeated many times in black on a tan ground. The overall figuration of the group of forms is ovular, slightly rounded, but the individual forms composing the gestalt make the piece visually assertive to the point of being aggressively meant. Arab culture has not made inroads into the American imagination the way East Asian art, in particular the art of China, has, but little matter–Arabic calligraphy is equally established, and accomplished, as its similar expressions in the Far East. This brings up an interesting point in interpretation–just how accurate can we be in our reading of El-Nagdi’s art if our understanding is limited by distance and the omission of knowledge? The neglect cannot be entirely ascribed to the West–it is inherently hard to master the forms and themes of a culture far away from you and not your own. In Huguette Caland’s painting City II (1968), we see a series of slightly curving lines defining what we would likely perceive as mostly rectilinear forms in blue, gray, off-white, and black. They back up each and slightly overlap, creating the impression of standing buildings set close by one another in an urban setting. It is often said that there is neither pure figuration nor abstraction on any painting, and so this painting appear to merges the two manners of working.

Mohammed Melehi, from Morocco, spent ten years (1955 to 1964) traveling in the West, studying in the major cities of Spain, France, Italy, and the United States. His efforts resulted in an immediately identifiable style–one of “waves,” in which rippling, highly colored abstract patterns were painted for self-autonomous reasons. His contribution here is untitled, from 1970; it is a slightly angled cross image (not religious, centered by a thin, curving read line. The images cuts the background into four spaces, colored either red or blue. This image is essentially, even inherently joyous, with the slightly darkened colors nonetheless establishing a pleasing harmony of hue. One senses a certain light-heartedness in this and many of the works of the artists in the show–we don’t find so much the melancholic display of more than a little American art of the same period. Can emotional qualities be seen as being beholden to, even dominant in, a particular culture? This is very hard to say and demands a kind of speculation that inevitably generalizes, often prejudicially. So despite the instincts of the viewer or writer to cast a sweeping eye over the culture hidden in the work he sees, it is likely best that we accommodate the image as it is, by means of a close reading rather than a clumsy effort to ascribe what we see to generalized qualities in  a particular culture. There is something wrong in overthinking, in seeing the surface of a resolutely abstract painting like Melehi’s as more complex than it is, when after all, it feels very much like it is only referring to itself.

The Lebanese-born painter Nabil Nahas received his MFA from Yale in the early 1970s and has pursued his long career in New York, America’s only truly international art city. This untitled work (1983)–why are there so many paintings without titles in this show?–looks very much like a close relative of Jackson Pollock or Clyfford Still’s art, or even the drip paintings of currently active New York artist Pat Steir: long, narrow, white verticals of paint cascade like rain down the black background. It is a lyric painting of considerable beauty, but perhaps a slightly anachronistic one, having been created two full generations after the high point of the movement Pollock and Still were so prominent members in. Is this work a scholarly repeat of the past? Given its relatively recent production, how does Nahas’s audience internalize its visual values and structure? To repeat a point suggested earlier in this review: the meaningfulness of abstract expressionism may well be moot, having been worked and re-worked to a point of near nausea and lost interest. Like Impressionism, it is so inherently attractive a style that it is hard to determine the actual weight of the work we see. Looking at other paintings by Nahas, the one described seems a bit of an anomaly, and may have been chosen to make the point that the painting style of this show is in fact very much tied to the American position. This may well be true, but the work’s inclusion does not do full justice to a painter whose art is more independent–despite his Yale education and New York home–than we experience here.

“Taking Shape” is primarily a painting show; the small number of sculptures available do not regularly live up to the achievement of the two-dimensional art. Mohamed Chebas, from Morrocco, presents a bas-relief composition, made around 1970, which consists of abstract patterns cut into a thin, light-brown panel of wood: a series of upwardly angled wave-like lines rise above an octagonal shape with a thin strip ending in a circle in the middle of the geometric form. It is schematic and pleasing, but lacks the deep emotive quality of much of the work found in here. The other wood sculpture to be mentioned is Interform (1960), made by Saloua Raouda Chocair, from Lebanon. Only a half inch in depth, the work is palette-shaped, rounded on the top and with a flat bottom. It is some six windows–or openings–that engage the audience: three rounded apertures on the top and three rectangular openings beneath them (in both the upper and lower groups, these openings are asymmetrically arranged). This work moves more in the direction of real sculpture than does Chebas’s piece, but it too seems like an impression of other people’s art rather than being an independent statement of its own. We recall that abstract expressionism, as adumbrated by its American originators, primarily consisted of working painters rather than sculptors–David Smith, the major three-dimensional artist of the period, was a formalist whose austerity pushed him far into the direction of classicism.

In summation, this fine show, while resolutely visual, also contributes to an ongoing social and political dialogue, in which it is being proven decisively that movements like lyric abstraction or, more recently, conceptual art were internationally driven and not constrained to a single city like New York. We can no longer challenge this point of view. “Taking Shape” makes it very clear that the Arabic artists included in this show were cultural purveyors of the highest order, and that the quality of their work resulted from education (often abroad), internalization of values that may have seemed, at first, foreign, and an ongoing curiosity the New York art world, then and now, does not always share. In my city, we offer lip service to diversity but often relegate artists from foreign backgrounds to the margins. In the Gray Art Gallery show, this is not the case. It is of the utmost importance that we are introduced to different points of view, maybe especially in New York, where our interests in otherness tend to be superficial. Samia Halaby and Nabil Nahas and other Arabic painters remain in New York, nurtured–not always recognized!–by progressive elements in the art world. As it stands, New York art is expanding more widely and deeply into areas of growth, in which a person’s background–his or her nationality in particular–is neither forgotten nor dismissed. We can say that “Taking Shape” goes a long way to dispelling the assumption that New York centrism is the gauge of lyric abstraction, an art very quickly taken up by the usually geographically distant wonderful painters and sculptors shown here.

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