Taking Shape

Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s

January 14–March 13, 2020

Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s

This exhibition was originally slated to be on view through April 4, 2020, but closed early on March 13, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s explores mid-20th-century abstract art from North Africa, West Asia, and the Arab diaspora—a vast geographic expanse that encompasses diverse cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious backgrounds. Comprising nearly 90 works by artists from countries including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the exhibition is drawn from the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation based in Sharjah, UAE. The paintings, sculpture, drawings, and prints on view here reflect the wide range of nonfigurative art practices that flourished in the Arab world over the course of four decades.

Decolonization, the rise and fall of Arab nationalisms, socialism, rapid industrialization, wars and mass migrations, and the oil boom transformed the region during this period. With rising opposition to Western political and military involvement, many artists adopted critical viewpoints, striving to make art relevant to their own locales. New opportunities for international travel and the advent of circulating exhibitions sparked cultural educational exchanges that exposed them to multiple modernisms—including various modes of abstraction—and led them to consider their roles within an international context.

The featured artists—a varied group of Arab, Amazigh (Berber), Armenian, Circassian, Jewish, Persian, and Turkish descent—sought to localize and recontextualize existing 20th-century modernisms, some forming groups to address urgent issues. Moving away from figuration, they mined the expressive capacities of line, color, and texture. Inspired by Arabia calligraphy, geometry and mathematics, Islamic decorative patterns, and spiritual practices, they expanded abstraction’s vocabulary—thus complicating its genealogies or origin and altering how we view non-objective art.

At its heart, Taking Shape raises a fundamental question: How do we study abstraction across different contexts, and what modes of analysis do we use? Looking critically at the history and historiography of mid-20th-century abstraction, the exhibition rethinks art-historical canons and expands the discourses around global modernisms.

#TakingShapeNYU #BarjeelArtFoundation


Starts Tuesday, Jan 14, 2020
Ends Friday, Mar 13, 2020
Curator Lynn Gumpert, Suheyla Takesh
Organized by Grey Art Gallery, Barjeel Art Foundation
Travel Grey Art Gallery, New York University: Jan. 14–March 13, 2020; McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College: Feb. 1–June 13, 2021; Tampa Museum of Art: Sept. 30, 2021–Jan. 16, 2022; Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University: Feb. 12–June 12, 2022; Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University: Sept. 22—Dec. 4, 2022

Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s is organized by the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, and curated by Suheyla Takesh and Lynn Gumpert. Major support for the exhibition is provided by the Barjeel Art Foundation. Additional generous support is provided by the Charina Endowment Fund; the Violet Jabara Charitable Trust; the Grey’s Director’s Circle, Inter/National Council, and Friends; and the Abby Weed Grey Trust.


Exhibition Types: Global Middle Eastern Art Sculpture