Conceptual Fine Arts recently spoke with Al Qassemi in Boston to discuss his vast collection of Arab modern art, a part of which is accessible in a travelling exhibition, “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s” that’s on view at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, through April 4, 2020.
I visited “Taking Shape” after “Theater of Operations,” and it was hard not to see the very optimism that permeated so many of these abstract works through the eyes of disillusionment.
Writing in 1964, the Algerian painter Mohammed Khadda (1930–1991) identified “that day in 1910 when the Russian artist [Wassily] Kandinsky created the first nonrepresentational work” as marking the birth of “nonfigurative (or abstract) painting.” (Note: For the sake of consistency, I have used the exhibition curators’ transliteration of artists’ names.)
WORKS ON PAPER FROM THE NYU ART COLLECTION Too little known is the Grey Art Gallery’s permanent art collection. New York University students, faculty, and staff might be familiar with some parts of it—over 800 works from the collection are installed throughout the campus. The collection dates back to 1958, when Department of Art Education […]
Download Taking Shape exhibition checklist. Download Taking Shape label text.
On the heels of the exhibition “Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish, and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Grey Collection,” which showcased works from the 1960s and ’70s, Grey Art Gallery’s first presentation of the year further widened the lens on 20th-century art from the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa. “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s,” curated by Suheyla Takesh and Lynn Gumpert, represented a joint effort with the Sharjah-based Barjeel Art Foundation to consider modernist movements from the region and the diaspora.
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.
One could not think of a more serendipitous backdrop — an acclaimed park, a cool neighbourhood and a cosmopolitan academic institution — for the exhibition billed ‘Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab world, 1950s-1980s’, slated to run from January 14 to April 4. On display is a collection of 90 works — all drawn from the Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah, UAE — featuring sundry artists from most countries in the Arab Middle East and North Africa.
Taking Shape was conceived as a visual journey into the creative minds of some of the Arab world's most prominent artists and their approaches to non-representational art. In her essay in the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue, curator Suleya Takesh quotes Algerian painter Mohammed Khadda’s compelling observations about the potential of abstraction and his argument in favor of the freedom inherent to the movement: "The history of painting had been one of successive revolutions and continuous liberation that eventually culminated in the emergence of abstraction, allowing painting to become an art unto itself, no longer reliant on a physical subject. There was no longer a horizon, but infinity."
Calligraphy is so deeply embedded in Arab communities’ lives that it has become something of a banal sight to most who live in its direct proximity everyday. But the history of the evolution of Arabic calligraphy finds itself intertwined with the origins of abstract art in the Arab world - and even its evolution beyond the region - for centuries.