By Dmitry Samarov
It’s rare for me to be surprised by a painting show, but I didn’t see “Taking Shape” coming. The exhibition is a generous survey of abstract art made from the 1950s to the 1980s, drawn from the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation based in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. “Taking Shape” includes the work of over 50 artists, representing more than a dozen countries throughout the Middle East and North African (MENA) region. Some of the artists have had successful art careers, but none enjoys name recognition in America like Pollock or Kandinsky. I know of few prior attempts to take a snapshot of nonfigurative art from midcentury MENA artists.
In many parts of the world, art has traditionally been employed to illuminate faith or governmental sovereignty. That’s not to say that Malevichs weren’t used to promote the Soviet state or that de Koonings weren’t employed as propaganda for the U.S., because they were, but that wasn’t always the intent of either of those artists. The idea that an artist’s work is solely an expression of their own feelings or ideas, apart from the society they belong to, wasn’t common or accepted in the countries represented in this show.