By Raphael Cormack
Modern Arab art is having a moment; there is no question about it. In the past decade there have been large exhibitions of Arab artists at both the Centre Pompidou and Tate Modern, and a series of others across the world. Now, ‘Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s’, which starts at the Grey Art Gallery in New York and will spend more than a year touring East Coast and Midwestern universities in America, brings together some of the region’s finest modern artists. It is a real hit parade of work – some of it truly wonderful – from almost every country in the Arab world; Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Palestine are particularly well represented.
There is one central question: what is the genealogy of abstraction in the modern art of the Arab world? Should we trace it back to European artists such as Kandinsky and Malevich? Or should we look for influence in local traditions such as calligraphy, Islamic architecture and Sufi rituals that seek to transcend the physical world? The tension between these two possible answers animates the show.