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What can art teach us about austerity?

How some of our finest abstract artists can train our eyes to look differently at the world during lockdown

‘Untitled’, c. 1960, by Nasreen Mohamedi
‘Untitled’, c. 1960, by Nasreen Mohamedi (Photo courtesy: Kiran Nadar museum of art)

Two weeks ago, when I heard of the artist Zarina’s death in London at the age of 83 (she preferred to go by her first name), I was reminded of her contemporary Nasreen Mohamedi, who died in 1990, in her early 50s, of a rare neurological disorder. It was through Mohamedi’s work, specifically after her retrospective at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi in 2013, that I discovered Zarina. But there was another immediate trigger to recall the twinned legacies of these artists, especially the minimalist ethos of their work, which had the power to move viewers viscerally in spite of their relatively sparse content. Emptied of human figures, their art held entire worlds —memories, histories, voices—that could only be accessed through patience and perseverance.

Nasreen Mohamedi.
Nasreen Mohamedi. (Photo Courtesy: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and the artist's family archives)

In recent weeks, as the world has succumbed to a lockdown, images of literal emptiness have flooded the internet. In press photographs and those shared by social media users, megacities like New York and Paris looked like ghost towns. The iconic Trevi fountain in Rome, always brimming over with tourists, stood barren. Closer home, the streets of Mumbai and Delhi were bereft of their usual boisterous traffic. Instead of the press of humanity, aerial photographs taken by drones show us the bare bones of cities, the erect grandeur of tall buildings and rows of lamp posts, criss-crossing wires that form a canopy over us, the interplay of light and shadow on nooks and crannies. Our lives, shorn of people but full of angular walls and crevices, had begun to look like the art of Zarina and Mohamedi.

Born in 1937 in undivided India, both artists had cultivated a visual language that was spare but also richly suggestive. They executed their art with a geometric precision, using eloquent lines and curves. While Zarina added Urdu words to her work, Mohamedi drained hers of all ostentation, until only the essence remained. Perhaps this draining away of figurative references was also a subtle nod to the classical tradition of Islamic art and architecture, with its injunctions on representation, where beauty was embodied in calligraphy and patterns.

The practices of these artists illuminated each other, without setting out to do so, and their austere styles put them in the league of the great abstract artists from India and afar: painters like V.S. Gaitonde and Jeram Patel, who were mentors to Mohamedi; the American painter Agnes Martin, best known for her cryptic grids of solid colours; the German-born American sculptor Eva Hesse, an early pioneer of minimalism who worked in three-dimensional forms, among others.

Photo: Gallery Espace
Photo: Gallery Espace

Turning life into art

Abstract art, devoid of the comforting anchor of human figures and recognizable forms, may seem inscrutable and unyielding. Yet, as the lockdown stretches on and life seems to stand still, this may be a propitious time to venture into the mysteries of such art, to lose yourself in the synergy of colours, lines and grids that create it. To borrow a line from a work by Mohamedi, there is now “a need for real austerity", in life as well as art. The meditative vistas of abstraction can teach us new ways of seeing, to notice the hitherto unseen.

As the fear of death and disease has forced us indoors, it has also given us a push to recalibrate our senses. For those of us lucky enough to eke our days in the safety of four walls, this moment might be a chance to hone our eyes to look beyond electronic screens. An opportunity to notice, for instance, the shifting textures of light through the day, the interplay of shadows on walls, or the blurry haze of the ceiling fan spinning overhead—to discover the art that lurks in the everyday and identify the traces of the everyday that find their way into art.

For over a century—from Kazimir Malevich’s intense Black Square (1915) to Yves Klein’s iconic blue canvases (painted in the 1960s)—minimalism has spoken in a variety of accents. Malevich, for instance, believed that art was not meant to serve state or religion; rather, it “can exist, in and for itself, without things". In his stridently secular footsteps walked artists like Robert Rauschenberg, whose plain white canvases (1952) dared viewers to make sense of their blankness.

After the death of his father, Barnett Newman painted a single black stripe against a dark field and called it Abraham (1949), enacting a literal emptying out of bilious grief on canvas. As modernism took ever bolder strides, masters like Mark Rothko unlocked the possibilities of a style that abjured figuration, with concepts and ideas hanging entirely on a robust scaffolding of colours and suggestions. In 1959, Frank Stella showed the first of a series of paintings with nothing in them but stripes at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the UK, Bridget Riley also undertook a plunge into a symphony of patterns and colours that would come to be celebrated as Op Art and be embraced by many.

Everyday drama

Although distinctive in their approaches and not widely known for years, Mohamedi and Zarina came out of this tradition of Euro-American avant-garde. Their memories of real places and people morphed into something rich and strange. Few artists from the subcontinent have captured intangibles in such resonantly embodied forms—such that Mohamedi’s work seems to be engaged in a dialogue with Zarina’s.

The loss of her ancestral home in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, due to Partition, and her subsequent peripatetic life with her diplomat husband, became the abiding themes of Zarina’s work. Her search for a home in exile collided with remembered images of the one she had lost in India; this clash of memory and desire suffused her work with an air of tragic reserve. It was almost as though she could recover the past only through subtle hints and allusions, never in its full materiality.

In Home Is A Foreign Place, Zarina pieced together fragments of her personal history: a skeletal floor plan of her family home, the bare contours of a room, the stick-like arms of a ceiling fan, the juxtaposition of light and dark on the walls. These vignettes teemed with unspoken stories: the whirr of fans during summer, the cooling shade of a curtain, the tears in the fabric of time, the sutures that sealed those wounds. Intimate details conveyed a sense of decades lost and recovered.

Like Zarina, Mohamedi also harvested the drama of the everyday. Be it the angle of light streaming through a window or the intersection of two surfaces, she was alert to the fine inflections of time and space. At the end of her working day as a teacher at the M S University in Vadodara, Mohamedi would meticulously clean her studio, then sit on the floor before a low-lying desk and work by the light of a lamp hanging down. As she began losing control over her fingers due to the debilitating disease, she adopted instruments like set squares and T-squares to execute perfect lines. Her mind’s eye remained alert, seeing meanings in empty space, as is evident in many of her photographs.

At their most rarefied and difficult, Mohamedi and Zarina created art that was almost impossible to see. While the former made work using only the nib of her pen, forging textured relief out of the pristine emptiness of paper, the latter pricked the surface of the medium with pins for a series of “pin drawings" in 1976-77. Both artists gave us new ways of seeing; they proved that there is more to emptiness than meets the eye, long before life forced us to reckon with the very same notion under lockdown.

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