Arabic alphabet

How the Arabic Alphabet Inspired Abstract Art

There is something exciting about the extreme flexibility of the Arabic alphabet. The graphic simplicity of its swoops, loops and dots means it can look like almost anything from a prancing horse to a pixelated TV screen.

Arab states have been increasingly visible on the international art scene in recent years, pouring wealth into auction houses and building museums as if they were going out of fashion. But the art of their own wider cultural sphere has still not received its fair share of all this new attention – at least not in New York.

It’s too big a topic to cover in one show, but you’ll find an exciting introduction in “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980sat the Gray Art Gallery of New York University. Focusing on the tumultuous few decades of decolonization and nation-building, curators Suheyla Takesh, of the Barjeel Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates, and Lynn Gumpert du Gray have brought together some 90 prints and paintings by artists Arabs, Berbers, Jews. and other artists from Algeria to Iraq.

Most of these artists had a European or American background, and alongside unusual sandy palettes and a few unexpected details, you’ll see plenty of approaches that sound familiar to you: lucid colors à la Josef Albers, crimson bursts of impasto similar early abstract expressionism. But unlike European artists, they also have an alphabet with an ancient history in the visual arts – 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 vector of secular identity, a way of appropriating Western painting. The animated blue and red swooshes in an untitled watercolor from 1978 are clearly reminiscent of letterforms as well as ancient Mesopotamian crescent moons. But the way the croissants are arranged, back and forth on the edges of the paper with an almost narrative movement, also makes one think of writing.

But the letters retain the religious associations of writing for the Egyptian artist Omar el-Nagdi, particularly Alif, a sharp vertical stroke like lightning that begins the alphabet and the Arabic word for God and sometimes replaces the number one. A cloud of these overlapping vertical marks, some long and jagged, others slightly curved, in an untitled off-white painting from 1970 offers a mystical vision of immanent divinity to all separated beings in the world. It is also a mystical vision of painting itself, a vision in which each brushstroke retains its infinite potential even as they all merge into a single image.

“Al-Muntassirun” (“The Victorious”) by Shakir Hassan al-Said, from 1983, a multimedia work on panel that resembles a badly abused section of wall, elevates the shimmering ambiguity of el-Nagdi’s alifs to a even more dizzying height. A black band at the bottom of the otherwise gray rectangle subtly hints at the notion of the horizon, while a series of grids and squiggles above appear as spontaneous as graffiti. Floating above it all, in what looks like black spray paint, is a chic bow. A brand so simple that it can represent the idea of ​​brand making in general, it also happens to be the letter waw, which means “and”.

Red, blue, orange and black lines scraped into another off-white surface are cluttered with vertical dashes like so many sutures in an untitled 1977 oil painting by Wijdan, the Jordanian princess who signs paintings with her first name. Each little dash, like a letter, emphasizes its granular sharpness, regardless of its overall effect. Palestinian scholar Kamal Boullata added high-level verbal content to cool but beautiful serigraphs, like 1983’s “La Ana Illa Ana” (There’s no “I” but “I”), a riff on the Muslim creed “There is no God but God. Working in the 1960s, Lebanese artist Saliba Douaihy paints with bright colors and crisp lines. But in two small canvases included here, he pushed almost all the action towards the edges – like Madiha Umar’s watercolour, they are unmistakably reminiscent of the irregular vertical movements of cursive writing.

Because you read letters and pictures differently, all those marks that look like letters but aren’t quite legible trigger a dynamic sense of open possibility. One has the impression of inhabiting the own brush of the artist who hesitates between writing and drawing. At best, as in Al Said’s “Al-Muntassirun,” this sentiment represents and encompasses so many contrasts – local identity versus pan-Arab, civil society versus religious society – that a single canvas becomes an open portal to infinity.

As it should be, it is the Moroccans Ahmed Cherkaoui and Jilali Gharbaoui who exploit this potential to its most electric effect with paintings inspired not by Arabic itself but by the North African Tifinagh alphabet. Bright spots of color, in Cherkaoui’s “Alea” and “Les Miroirs Rouges”, are divided by the thick black or pink lines of an intricate intersecting pattern similar to the Tifinagh letter yaz, which appears on the Amazigh (or Berber) flag ). The effect is to overload your eyes, as if the blank paper beneath this journal has come alive with a resounding message of its own.

Gharbaoui’s searing 1969 “Composition,” meanwhile, uses heavy curls and black bends to separate muddy explosions of unmixed yolk and white that resemble hot eggs on a celestial griddle. All the ambiguities remain: is it a letter or a drawing? Is it figurative or abstract? Do these bursts of red express joy or despair? But somehow Gharbaoui made them as solid as rock.

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

Until April 4. Gray Art Gallery, 100 Washington Square East, Manhattan; 212-998-6780,