There’s something thrilling about the extreme flexibility of the Arabic alphabet. The graphic simplicity of its swoops, loops and dots means that it can be made to look like almost anything, from a rearing horse to a pixelated television screen.
Arab states have been increasingly visible on the international art scene in the last few years, pouring wealth into auction houses and building museums like they’re going out of style. But the art of their own larger cultural sphere still hasn’t gotten its fair share of all that new attention — at least not in New York.
It’s too big a topic to cover in a single show, but you’ll find an exciting introduction in “Taking Shape: Abstraction From the Arab World, 1950s-1980s” at Grey Art Gallery at New York University. Focusing on the tumultuous few decades of decolonization and nation-building, the curators Suheyla Takesh, of the Barjeel Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates, and Lynn Gumpert of the Grey have brought together 90-odd prints and paintings by Arab, Berber, Jewish and other artists from Algeria to Iraq.
Most of these artists had some European or American training, and alongside unusual sandy palettes and a few unexpected details, you’ll see plenty of approaches that look familiar: lucid colors à la Josef Albers, crimson bursts of impasto similar to early Abstract Expressionism. But unlike European artists, they also have an alphabet with an ancient history in visual art — and this gives their abstraction a very different effect.
For Madiha Umar, who was born in Syria and studied at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington, Arabic letters were a vehicle of secular identity, a way of making Western painting her own. The bustling blue and red swooshes in an untitled 1978 watercolor clearly recall letter forms as well as ancient Mesopotamian crescent moons. But the way the crescents are organized, back and forth across the paper’s edges with an almost narrative motion, makes you think of writing, too.
But the letters retain the religious associations of scripture for the Egyptian artist Omar el-Nagdi, particularly alif, a sharp vertical stroke like a lightning bolt that starts the alphabet and the Arabic word for God and occasionally stands in for the numeral one. A cloud of these overlapping vertical marks, some long and jagged, some slightly curved, in an untitled off-white painting from 1970 offers a mystical vision of divinity immanent in all the world’s separate beings. It’s also a mystical vision of painting itself, one in which every brush stroke retains its infinite potential even as they all merge into a single picture.