On ViewThe Drawing Center
June 11–September 19, 2021
One of the questions posed by Huguette Caland: Tête-à-Tête (Head to Head) at the Drawing Center is how the artist's works link embodiment with experience of the built environment—or how they are, as one wall label notes, “at once bodies and maps.” Both of these terrains have been subjected to the kind of seeing, measuring, and regularizing that is the inheritance of colonial modernity, but Caland reorders this logic through soft, sensorily evocative form, winding continuous lines, and layered mark-making that yields densely hatched thickets vibrating with electric poppies. The oft-noted playfulness and eroticism of Caland’s work is found here too, but the judicious selection of works on view at the Drawing Center, as well as the show’s fine catalogue, offer us other paths of approach, providing critical terms for (re)considering Caland’s work through postcolonial theory, for instance, or Leo Bersani’s writing on spatial connectedness and self-dispersal. All this goes some way toward presenting Caland as a kind of sleuth of non-normative embodiment, which is not the same thing as locating this quest in her biography.
Excepting small solo presentations at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Art and Nathalie Karg Gallery in New York, a pair of group shows at Kayne Griffin Corcoran in Los Angeles, and a recent Tate St. Ives retrospective treating work made before 1987, Caland’s output has rarely been on view to American audiences. And so this powerful exhibition, the most comprehensive to date in this country, is an extraordinary if belated occasion to assess Caland’s contribution to the history of art as well as its microhistories, such as the history of abstraction. The show comprises 50 works on paper, 19 works on canvas (including four “Body Bits” paintings一the large, bright canvases of abstracted and fleshy fields for which Caland is best known), 14 drawings mounted on panel, four dress forms, five clay sculptures, and nine sketchbooks, all produced between 1967 and 2011 and almost wholly drawn from private collections.
Tête-à-Tête opens with Helen (1967), an oil on canvas in which the contours of a bent knee abut the profile of a bust, both bodily fragments rendered in stout black lines against a white ground. The leg probably, but not necessarily, belongs to the torso, and both presumably belong to Caland’s friend, artist Helen Kahl, for whom the painting is titled. Nipple just grazes upper thigh. Is this self touching self, or self touching another? Life for Caland seems predicated upon understanding the self through the sensation of touch. Like the phenomenological lesson of the right hand shaking its chiral counterpart, this sensation is reciprocal: a hand that touches is always also a hand that is touched. This insight serves as a guiding principle, since we find it everywhere in the show: in the kissing monoliths of Upside Down (1971), in the neatly-hovering, emptied-out textual registers of Untitled (1999) from the “Silent Letters” series, and even in the unusual grisaille Bribes de corps (Body Bits) (1973).
The white slit of this Bribes de corps (Body Bits), bisects a labial almond. Paradoxically, it reads not as a void but rather serves to emphasize the joining of upper and lower lip. Throughout the exhibition, Caland’s things are not on top or below, but alongside, in relation, radically. Curator Claire Gilman describes this beautifully in the catalogue, writing that Caland’s anti-hierarchical use of form suggests “connection rather than any kind of possessive closure,” fostering “an awareness that we are part of the world that we see.” For Caland this seems like a highly personal humanism rather than a politics of feminism; she was not an activist despite her 1931 birth in Beirut to the first president of the Independent Republic of Lebanon. Instead, she communed in other ways, through salons hosted later on for artists and intellectuals in her Venice, California home and studio.
Seen across four decades, the work derives great power from Caland’s ability to make line serve a variety of distinct purposes. Untitled (1972), for example, is a brilliant study in linear composition. Here, a continuous whiplash twists down the page, each bend harboring a single face in profile that alternately looks back and forth. Elsewhere, wiry lines in black ink coalesce into springy piles within a pinwheel of emerald, mustard, and scarlet elbows or butts (Homage to Pubic Hair, 1992). In the “Body Bits” works, line is conceptualized as a container. Witness the cerulean frame that hems in the spongy pink expanse in the diminutive sketch Bribes de corps (Body Bits) (1973). And in the 1970s caftans, which Caland designed to challenge Western sartorial traditions, the curvature of embroidered edges—the contour of a leg, the hem of a depicted shawl—gain buoyancy from the fabric’s gentle undulation, hung from mannequins Caland created.
Most revelatory are the paintings executed between 2008 and 2011—displayed in a small back gallery—of urban topographies, in which restless crosshatches, dentelles, and wonky grids reign. In a documentary by L’Or Puymartin on view downstairs, we see Caland carefully put down these tiny marks, rendered serially and discretely, a far cry from the exercises in continuous line that the artist carried out under the tutelage of John Carswell at the American University of Beirut nearly 40 years earlier. Here, Caland breaks her line, and the body is not imaged. Yet these works are no less indebted to the sensation of touch. In their making, Caland devised an anti-visual process by working one section at a time and then folding back the canvas to expose a new section so that she could not see the whole. Unlike earlier “Body Bits” that contain the crescent-shaped shoreline of the Bay of Beirut, here marks move seamlessly between abstraction and figuration, creating a palimpsest of layered, semi-transparent and non-specific referents. And so Caland’s universe stretches, across time and space.