Nasreen Mohamedi (1937 – 1990), born in what is now Pakistan, trained partly in London (1954 – 57) and Paris (1961 – 63), was a Muslim who traveled to Bahrain, Iran, and Turkey while she lived and worked in India. During the last decade of her life, when she suffered from Huntington’s disease, her motor functions gradually deteriorated, and so she was forced to restrict herself to small-scale art. As yet, she is not much known in this country. And so this exhibition of approximately 130 drawings and photographs, all of them untitled, which occupies one full floor of the newly inaugurated Met Breuer, is a major event. Mohamedi only painted a few canvases—none are in this show. There is one very early figurative drawing (1950); a few early colored watercolors made in 1960; and some photographs of bodies, industrial structures, and what look like water towers from 1967. The photographs were never displayed during her lifetime. Nearly all of her works are black-and-white, and almost always her drawings are completely abstract.
On ViewThe Met Breuer
18 – June 5, 2016
When I first walked through this exhibition, I was, I confess, a little disappointed. Mohamedi isn’t a flashy artist—she makes Agnes Martin look boisterous. And so, too easily distracted, I went upstairs to Unfinished, the museum’s exciting, vast survey of art that is in some sense not-completed. It wasn’t until I returned and refocused that the virtues of Mohamedi’s exhibition became apparent.
Mohamedi’s individual lines are not particularly attractive; nor are her grids or other patterns especially satisfying in themselves. What, however, is very striking is her extreme sensitivity to visual variations. Within the narrowly chosen range of her art, there is surprising variety. In the 1970s she frequently constructed fields of parallel horizontal ink/graphite lines. Sometimes, also, she drew rising verticals, doubled these horizontals in the upper-right quadrant or made them gently curve, dissolving on the left-hand side of the paper. Her drawing is almost always faint. By stages she moved from doing all-over drawings, which typically ran the entire width of the paper, to displaying geometric forms in the center of otherwise empty sheets of paper, presenting a section of the grid in isolation. She teaches us to be sensitive to slight differences, turning what might seem a limitation, her inability (or refusal) to use color, into strength.
Just as it’s the variations in the arrangements of his bottles which explains the subtlety of Giorgio Morandi; and the very varied employment of surfaces and their supports that makes Robert Ryman great; so Mohamedi’s uncanny ability to construct varied abstract compositions from extremely restricted means defines her success. Her drawings renew your powers of seeing. This is why her photographs also are important: once you look closely, you see the marvelous comparisons between these drawn lines and the scenes she photographed. In 1972, for example, she photographed a section of street pavement and some architectural elements, which in 1980 became the source for an ink-and-graphite drawing. And around 1970 she photographed an architectural structure, which reappears in a drawing from 1980.
It is interesting to consider how biographical details color the work of an artist whose formal rigor is so primary. How does Mohamedi’s personal identity affect her art making? Is she an abstract artist who was a Muslim working in India—or, rather, someone whose personal identity (as Martin also insisted) is essentially irrelevant artistically? That question is oddly difficult to answer. Islam has often had conflicted views of representation, and India has a distinctive visual culture; but it’s not obvious that her late-modernist drawings have much to do with either of those traditions. And yet, what might be called her aesthetic, that sensibility which I have tried to identify, is substantively different from that of any American or European artist I know.
The expensive catalogue is oddly unhelpful. (The wall texts are more revealing.) It reproduces Mohamedi’s works without any labels, so that you need to turn backwards and forwards to identify them, looking in a listing out of chronological order. American audiences, unfamiliar with the intricacies of her identity, need a more accessible, insightful document to engage with. And I would have welcomed fuller selections from her diaries, since some were on display in the exhibition. But these are minor problems. What matters is that our art world is becoming proudly multicultural, which is a great achievement. When I started publishing art criticism around 1980, almost all displays of contemporary art in galleries and museums in New York were exclusively of North American and Western Europeans. Now, as that situation dramatically changes, this challenging, ultimately rewarding exhibition, which opens up our art world, is an important step in the right direction.