Entanglements and Exchanges: Calligraphic Abstraction’s International Pull at Midcentury – MoMA – Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi
Our newly opened fourth-floor collection exhibition Calligraphic Abstraction focuses on artists from around the world who turned to the expressive possibilities of calligraphy in abstract art in the 1950s and ’60s. Calligraphy invoked tradition, having existed in various styles in many cultures for millennia. But it was also an opportunity for innovation, as it makes an art of handwritten text through stylized lettering. Post–World War II anxieties and a changing world prompted a new moral and artistic imagination that was transcultural and transnational. Artists looked within and beyond their immediate cultures for new creative strategies, incorporating scripts, symbols, automatic gestures, graffiti, cursives, and geometric shapes in otherwise abstract compositions.
Many created personal iconographies using elegant lines that resembled written language but were not actual words, letters, or ideograms. Some artists deliberately made calligraphic elements illegible because they were in search of a pictorial vocabulary that would convey emotion rather than meaning. Art historians Iftikhar Dadi and Salah Hassan identified the trend of calligraphic abstraction in the Islamic world, persuasively arguing that the innovative treatment of Arabic script became the foundation for abstract painting by artists in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia during this period.”1 Building on that insight, Gallery 404 proposes that calligraphic abstraction can be understood as a larger global phenomenon. It features artists such as Erol Akayavas (Turkey), Ibrahim El Salahi (Sudan), Sarah Grilo (Argentina), and Dorothy Dehner (USA), whose works exemplify different calligraphic modes and systems of writing in mid-century modernism.
For many Arab and Muslim artists, avant-garde practice involved reclaiming moments in history as a form of nationalism as their countries gained political independence. In The Glory of the Kings (1959), Erol Akayavas looks back at the historical Ottoman Empire that ruled Turkey and its surrounding regions for centuries. Akyavas creates glyph-like forms that evoke Islamic calligraphic letters. On closer inspection, however, they take the shapes of musical notations, pitchforks, human figures, tiny knots, spirals, and punctuation marks. The artist carefully crafted these ambiguous details, applying rust-like, metallic, and oxidized color effects to distinguish the calligraphic abstraction in the middle of the composition from the wild brushstrokes of white, yellow, and blue along the picture’s outer edges. Akyavas painted The Glory of the Kings (1959) in Detroit, following his move to the United States to study architecture and design in the 1950s. It takes its title from La Gloire des Rois (1948), a collection of poems by the French diplomat and poet Saint John Perse, and represents the artist’s attempt to reconcile the sentiments of home and exile (like Perse, who settled in the United States during the period of World War II).
Ibrahim El Salahi looked toward his Sudanese and Islamic roots for a style that reflected his heritage while marrying together abstraction and figuration, modes sometimes assumed to be at odds in modernist painting. In The Mosque, El Salahi adapted Arabic scripts and ornamental patterns of Islamic architecture to create a composition that is commanding despite its small size, measuring only about 12 × 18 inches. Architectural minarets, geometric motifs, and stylized figures are combined with delicate swirling lines. A contrasting palette of brown and white suggests negative and positive spaces. Through the abstracted rhythmic shapes of calligraphy, El-Salahi reflected, “I have been led to visualize the presence of objects, the human figure and a whole world of imagery.”2 The artist produced The Mosque in 1964 during a trip to New York City, sponsored by a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, that included a visit to MoMA. It was not El Salahi’s first engagement with Western art; he had studied at the Slade School of Fine Arts, London, in the 1950s. But his international travels to New York and elsewhere in the 1960s suggest that his experiences abroad inflected his calligraphic abstraction.
The Latin American artists in this gallery employed disguised language, abbreviated texts, and metaphorical writings. This subversive tactic was a response to the unstable political climate and recurrent military coup d’état that led many to leave their countries. Already well known in the Buenos Aires art scene as an accomplished abstract painter and a member of the Grupo de Artistas Modernos de la Argentina, Sarah Grilo moved to New York on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1962. During her decade-long stay in the city, the artist incorporated imagery from the urban landscape—signs, billboards, torn posters, newspaper headlines, and graffiti—in her work. “Here I find everything I need for my painting,” she wrote. “Things are constantly happening that can be incorporated as abstractions; all you have to do is to look out the window or walk down the street.”3 Add is a defining work of her New York period, painted a year after she moved to the city. It is characterized by free-flowing lines, illegible scribbles, graffiti-like inscriptions, scratches, grids, arrows, numbers, and heart signs. Fragments of texts from magazine advertisements for movies and women’s accessories punctuate the composition.
During this period, Grilo devised a brilliant method of transferring text on canvas that involved painting the back of text fragments with black oil stick to achieve an impression on the surface of the painting. The impression is further outlined with a pencil and colored such as the text “add” in small red letters sticking out toward the top of the painting. To the right of “add” is “I miss you” handwritten in cursive, with the Y in “you” extending into an arrow that leads to the Ñ character at the edge of the painting. Grilo never became fluent in English, although she extracted English letters from magazines. The Ñ character, which is the Nh sound in Spanish, may well have been her way of representing her nostalgia for home.
New York was equally a source of inspiration and a fresh start for Dorothy Dehner after her separation from the Abstract Expressionist sculptor and painter David Smith in 1950. No longer burdened by the shadow of her famous husband, Dehner, who had been making abstract drawings and paintings using improvisational methods since the 1940s, began constructing sculptures in wood and bronze from 1955. “The minute I started doing sculpture I felt that it was something that I had done all my life,” she explained.4 Her bronze works are a complex dance of formal investigation and self-referential iconography, as in Encounter, created in 1969 at a time when the artist had firmly established her sculptural vocabulary. It consists of six lean, totem-like forms of differing heights. Each individual object seems to be a combination of abstract elements and geometric motifs attached to a vertical spine. They exemplify the pull between abstraction and metaphorical imagery that ground Dehner’s work, which evokes a kind of calligraphic writing in space. Dehner never welded steel; her meticulous approach involved pouring molten bronze into wax molds to create sculptures that appeared to be assembled from disparate parts. As Encounter shows, the artist’s mastery of the lost-wax process helped her invent structurally complex icons.
Akyavas, El Salahi, Grilo, and Dehner’s works demonstrate the unrestrained vigor and communicative possibilities of calligraphic abstraction. Together with the other works gathered in Gallery 404, they attest to the cultural entanglements, artistic exchanges, and international travels that infused mid-century abstract art.
1 February 2023