at Garth Greenan Gallery

Howardena Pindell, Autobiography: Fire (Suttee), 1986–1987. Mixed media collage on paper, 90 x 56 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

In 1979, Howardena Pindell (b. 1943) had yet to turn 40 when a traumatic car accident interrupted her career. Cofounder of the pioneering feminist gallery A.I.R. and one of the first black women to be appointed curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Pindell was also an artist. When she began working at the MoMA in 1967, in the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books, Pindell had begun spending her nights creating her own pieces, drawing inspiration from many of the shows hosted by the museum. Her work explored texture, color, structure, and the process of making art. It also was often political, addressing the intersecting issues of racism, violence, exploitation, and feminism. The artist had cultivated a signature painting style: abstract canvases with colorful paper circles attached to neutral backgrounds, mashed with thick, protruding brushstrokes of paint combined to produce an effect like confetti sprinkled over a sidewalk. The crash left her with acute memory loss, but the years following her rehabilitation literalized a process of destruction and reconstruction in the artist’s work. Howardena Pindell: Autobiography, currently on view at Garth Greenan Gallery in Chelsea, presents a handful of paintings and mixed media works on paper from the artist’s “Autobiography” series, created between 1980 and 1995, when she plumbed her life and recollections in an effort to help herself heal.

Pindell had already been a tireless and diligent photo and postcard collector for decades. After the accident, these relics revealed their full usefulness to the artist. The first of the series, Autobiography: Oval Memory #1 (1980-1981) reflects Pindell’s initial attempts to amalgamate memories following the accident. Pindell cut images from her collection into strips before positioning them on the collage. She alternated between photographic imagery and acrylic paint, and integrated the printed fragments into layers of pigment and paper. The swirling combination of postcards, images, paint, and cibachrome forms a polyphony of perspectives—one that speaks to this period of the artist’s life when she was attempting to uncover and rebuild her memory. 

Hole-punched circles of paper meticulously attached to unstretched canvas are signatures of her work. Sometimes, the circles are caked together using globs of paint. Cutting and sewing strips of canvas into swirling patterns, she builds up the surfaces in elaborate stages. In Autobiography: Fire (Suttee) (1986-1987), Pindell used her own body as the focal point, referencing her silhouette on an irregular ovoid canvas by cutting and sewing a traced outline of herself onto its surface. Alluding to an ancient South Asian practice known as Suttee or “widow burning,” painted fingers of various colors (shades of red, yellow, and orange) overlap frantically with strips of photographic fingers all set atop a flame-blue background. The repetition of forms creates a vibrating, fractured feeling. This particular work can be seen as a form of purging: the artist is perhaps offering her own body and old self for sacrifice, same way as Suttee’s fire —which bears resemblance to the artwork itself—swallows the widow.

This particular period in the artist’s life was marked by reflection, influences, and changes in her path. Pindell has described being deeply influenced by the Black Power and feminist movements, as well as by exposure to new art forms during her tenure at MoMA and her travels abroad, particularly to Africa during the 70s, which were funded by the museum’s International Council. She became fascinated by African sculpture, and began to mirror the practice of three-dimensional accumulation in her own work. African art frequently embraces the use of objects in sculpture such as beads, horns, shells, hair, and claws, and these materials also informed Pindell’s work. She began to incorporate additional elements like paper, glitter, acrylic, and dye into her collages. The works on view echo the uncanny resonance between the artist’s embodied experience and her formal interests in fragmentation and integration.

Howardena Pindell, Autobiography: Japan (Hiroshima Disguised), 1982. Mixed media collage on paper, 60 x 118 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York. 

Patterns of rupture and healing are overtly present in Pindell’s life story: her sense of self as an African-American, and being a composite of many cultures and backgrounds (her heritage includes African, European, Seminole, Central American, and Afro-Caribbean roots, along with her position as ethnically Jewish, raised Christian) come together with her fascination with science, mathematics, and rationality on the one hand and her interest in spirituality, traditions, and rituals on the other. This synthesis is apparent in Autobiography: Japan (Hiroshima Disguised) (1982), one of the earliest works of the series. The artist created a composite of ten separate pieces that together form one artwork. Informed by the way a nuclear bomb shatters a geographical place, Pindell represented her own life that had been shattered by her memory loss. The ten irregular shapes are hung side by side, but unlike other works in this gallery, they are not stitched or bound together. This speaks to Pindell’s healing process: she found her mind and subsequently her life scattered around, and slowly began to piece them together. In Japan (Hiroshima Disguised), the elements started off separate, but then in later works she began to closes the distances, until the elements eventually fused.

Howardena Pindell, Autobiography: Red Frog, 1982. Mixed media collage on paper, 60 x 118 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

As Pindell ventured further into abstraction, the circle remained a constant shape. In a 2014 interview with ARTnews, the artist recalled a memory from the 1950s when, driving through Kentucky with her father, she spotted a root-beer stand where every mug had a red circle on its bottom. Asking her father about the meaning of the red circle, he responded that the circles were used to segregate the drinking cups because “we’re black and we cannot use the same utensils as the whites. I realized that’s really the origin of my being driven to try to change the circle in my mind, trying to take the sting out of that.”

The large-scale works on view in Howardena Pindell: Autobiography have the effect of looking totally flat and white from a distance but actually being made up of tiny dots (or circles) of colored paper, sequins, and paint. Pindell has likened this experience of viewing her paintings to whitewashing her own identity to make it more palatable for the art world. However, her thick-layered paint strokes tell a different story: they are loud, daring, and very much present. Her adoption and reconstruction of the circular shape additionally reinforces this resistance. In this exhibition, Autobiography: Africa (Red Frog II) (1986) comes closest to being a true circle. Bearing within it a red frog, a stitched oval shape, and short and thick brushstrokes of paint, the piece functions as portal to a different iteration of the artist’s life and history—one where she was younger, on the road, inquiring about the red circles.

Howardena Pindell: Autobiography remains on view through December 7, 2019 at Garth Greenan Gallery, 545 W 20th St, New York.



On Post-irony, Parafiction, and Other Distortions: Sahar Khraibani in Conversation with Hicham Faraj

Hicham Faraj is a multi-disciplinary artist and designer currently based in New York City. He holds an MFA from the Yale School of Art. Faraj’s work deals with friction and dissonance in an age governed by technologies seeking to eliminate them. He explores serious questions on the tension between the human and the post-human with a rather casual and humorous tone. He recently sat down with Sahar Khraibani to talk about post-irony and parafiction, repetition and immortality, and other distortions of time in the Internet age.

Sahar Khraibani (Degree Critical): You talk about post-irony and “parafiction” in your work. Can you tell me a little bit more about these concepts and how you apply them?

Hicham Faraj: I discovered post-irony independently of my work. I was in conversation with my colleagues at the Yale School of Art in 2017 that were engaging with research on post-irony, and the concept resonated with what I was working on at the time. One aspect of post-irony is that it is almost impossible to decipher people’s intentions. I grappled with the inability to tell whether someone is being sincere or being ironic in their statements. We witness many instances of post-irony online, with the way people engage with social media platforms, and the way they share their opinions or worldviews. I think there’s something very ironic about the Internet and social media in general. It’s a great platform for people to be ironic. The way I see it manifest with my work is less about how my work makes people feel but mostly in the way I describe other people’s work or the way I approach it.

DC: What do you mean by that?

HF: I frequently use the adjective “cute” to express my opinion about a project, or an artwork. While my intentions are sincere, they are often mistaken for being ironic, crass or indifferent. The misapprehension of intentions — what makes this situation post-ironic — is the result of the underlying ambiguity of cute. The term cute has three definitions. Cute can mean attractive in a pretty or endearing way, or sexually attractive. But cute can also be defined as cunning and clever, especially in a self-seeking or superficial way. The last definition itself sounds pretty ironic but it’s the only one that comes close to the original meaning of “cute,” which first appeared in English in the 18th century as an abbreviation of “acute,” which also meant sharp or clever. But it seems that over the years the word’s slang meaning caught on and the aesthetic sense has overtaken the intellectual values. Because of its ubiquity in teen magazines, and more recently, the Internet, “cute” is now chiefly used to refer to things we find attractive due to their tiny sizes, fluffiness, and irresistible smiles.

But I’ve also been using “cute” to describe work that isn’t meant to bring out a similar reaction to the one expected when looking at a video of a baby panda sneezing. My confusing choice of words spurs a knee-jerk, pejorative reaction that leaves me wondering about my real intentions in the first place. Have I been using it to mean clever and sharp? Is it a reaction expressive of my attraction to the aesthetic value of the artwork in question the same way I might use it to describe someone’s physical appearance? Could it be my own version of the equally dreaded yet possibly less problematic adjective “interesting?” Maybe I’m not as sincere as I thought I was.

DC: So how does “parafiction” function in relation to this? How does it manifest itself?

HF: What’s interesting to me about parafiction, very similarly to post-irony, is again the incapacity of being able to tell what one thing is. With post-irony, you can’t tell the real intentions behind something, with parafiction you can’t really tell if something is true or false. In my opinion, what makes parafiction successful is that something feels visceral and real, but then you come across minute details that make you question this reality. Parafiction is a term used to describe an emergent genre of artwork that plays in the overlap between fact and fiction. If a parafiction operates within that space between the fictional and the real, alongside this term we might position a second one: a “parafact,” an artwork that draws from the real, but a real whose narrative is so curious, exquisite, or implausible so as to call into question its own veracity. In my work, parafiction and post-irony are major influences. But my work doesn’t quite fit any of these categories fully. This is best embodied in the Immortality Record (2018).

DC: Can you tell me more about the Immortality Record?

HF: It’s a project that was a culmination of a lot of ideas and references related to immortality that I was exploring at the time. The main inspiration for the record was Shin Kubota, a Japanese marine biologist who researches the Turritopsis polyps[1]—the immortal jellyfish—and who also writes karaoke songs about the jellyfish and dresses up as a jellyfish to perform them in karaoke bars in Japan. The relationship between his research and music was intriguing, so I started looking at immortality through the lens of music. In pop songs, the theme of eternity or eternal/immortal love is very relevant. There are so many songs that talk about being immortal in their lyrics. The other influence came about when I was looking into immortality and reading biomedical research about cryonics,[2] rejuvenation, and blood transfusion. I was also looking at online life hacks on how to live longer. Those were more spiritual: drink more tea, look at more art, laugh more often, and finally, listen to more music. All these different references came together and I created the Immortality Record. The record had 12 songs that went chronologically backward from the most recent song to the oldest. They were all pop songs about love that included the word “forever” in the title. The record mimicked the life cycle of the immortal jellyfish and came with the premise that if you listen to it repeatedly, you would keep going back and forth in time, extending your life. In that sense, maybe the record works and fulfills its mission, but it’s a very exaggerated form of parafiction. The balance between fiction and reality here is steeper, and it’s more obviously fiction than it is fact.

Hicham Faraj, Outside Unit A5 (2017). Courtesy of the artist.

DC: Your work operates under specific themes, and you tend to think a lot about a certain idea—shadows, smudges, repetitions— and then create a body of work in relation it. I’m interested in knowing more about two of your projects Outside Unit A5 (2017) and Do you feel alone? (2017).

HF: When I start working on a project, there’s always a formal interest at the beginning. I try as much as possible—and that’s when I feel like I’m being the most successful—to follow where that takes me without being influenced by the ultimate formal result. And I think that was the case with shadows. I was initially just interested in silhouettes of shadows, but as I looked more deeply into them I started getting bored of the formal aspect, and became more interested in the verb “shadow” or what it means to shadow someone and follow them around. Do you feel alone? came from the idea of being watched all the time, or being followed around. It references different contemporary situations, the myth of being constantly watched through your webcam, or receiving targeted advertising, or walking alone at night and feeling as if someone is following you. It also references self-help books. At a time where people are talking and thinking about what it means to be lonely today, the short clip started off as a self-help audio book. Its purpose is to assuage the feeling of loneliness, to make you feel better, and to tell you that you’re not alone. But it’s not telling you this in the sense where you have friends you can reach out to, it’s telling you that you’re not alone because so many people are watching you—the Internet is watching you.

DC: Did this come after working on Outside Unit A5?

HF: It actually came before it and is what prompted Outside Unit A5. When I started becoming interested in shadows, and dove deeper into the topic, the research made me think more about digital surveillance and being watched by other people online. It was post-human in a way. Outside Unit A5 was a complete opposite reaction to that, where I was trying to actually get the attention of my neighbor in New Haven.

My neighbor would always leave their shoes outside the door of their apartment. For some reason, I started taking pictures and documenting their shoes whenever I would leave or come back. At the time I wasn’t working on shadows yet. But when I started researching and working with shadows formally, I looked back at these images and realized that the shoes themselves were an indexical image of my neighbor the same way your shadow is your indexical image—a trace we leave behind. I also noticed that my action of photographing the shoes was in and of itself an act of shadowing my neighbor. I wanted to push that and I wanted to make it a point to find out who my neighbor is just by looking at their shoes and putting clues together. The first step for me was to embody the persona of a private investigator instead of calling myself an artist. I started paying more attention to the habits of my neighbor and the traces of things they left behind until I was actually able to find out whom they were. Once I found out I wanted to reveal myself, which is ironic because I was functioning under the secrecy of a private investigator.

DC: Did calling yourself a private investigator make you approach the work differently? Why did you feel the need to work on this under the guise of an investigator?

HF: I think it was a way to exaggerate the fictional aspect of the project. At the end of the day, I was fetishizing this idea of them leaving their shoes outside when it’s actually a very normal habit. I wanted to exaggerate the shadowing aspect of the work and to push it to its limits. How far could I really go with this? I exaggerated this habit and I wanted to add to the fictional aspect of the work by pretending that I was a private investigator.

DC: What were you reading at the time you were working on these projects, or what were your influences? Whose work were you researching?

HF: At the time I was taking a class at Yale School of Art about German cinema in the 70s and the 80s, and we were looking and thinking about movies by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Haneke. Voyeurism is a big theme in their films. There are a lot of mirrors, the characters were often very melodramatic, and there’s always an aspect of sensationalized violence, or a characteristic of just being watched and looked at. With Haneke’s movies there’s always a feeling of things being on the verge of crashing, or moments of high tension. These influences made me want to tap into things that made me a little less comfortable in my practice. Like putting myself in situations of being a character in a movie. I think that’s why I wanted to exaggerate the fictional elements in the work.

DC: For a while, you did a lot of work about smudges like Compulsory Figures (2018). How did that come about and how did you become interested in smudges? How did you take this almost mundane aspect of everyday life—smudging your phone surface with your fingerprints—and conceptualize it? What was it about these smudges that made you interested?

HF: I always have an interest in one thing and then I let it guide me. With the case of smudges, my interest started with videos of figure skaters falling down. I was really interested in the emotional repercussions of the fall. There’s a millisecond, a tiny mistake, when they fall down, and it breaks the whole illusion of elegance that they are creating. The gracefulness of their movement gets interrupted. Because of the way figure skating is broadcast on TV, a tiny mistake gets extended in time, slowed down, repeated over and over again and there’s nothing the skater can do about it. As I was watching these videos, my attention started shifting from the figure skaters to the surface of the ice. When the lights hit the ice surface, I noticed how flawed the surface becomes with all the skate marks. You can see all the flaws in what otherwise seems to be like a smooth and pristine surface. I was able to create an analogy between something that I know nothing about and something that I do every day: browsing on my phone. That moment when I noticed the ice reminded me of moments where I’d be on my phone and I would notice how smudged the surface of the screen is because of the cracks and the fingerprints on it. And then I realized that the way I slide my fingers on a screen is somewhat similar to the way a figure skater moves on ice. For the longest time, I thought there was something so romantic and beautiful about the way we use our phones but I wasn’t able to pin it down. I was afraid that I was romanticizing and sensationalizing an everyday activity. And I think being able to draw this comparison with figure skaters gave me an excuse to explore this further, and look at the romantic aspect of how we use this technology.

DC: Can you tell me more about this worry of sensationalizing an everyday activity or a repetition of some form?

HF: What’s interesting about repetition is the fact that there’s something satisfying about an action being repeated. It gives one a sense of order, perhaps even some sense of control. There’s also something very visual and systematic about it. My interest in repetition is a result of a broader interest in time, and this is where immortality comes in. One way I witness repetition and deal with it in my work is through animated GIFs. There are so many types of GIFs. There are some that repeat seamlessly where you can’t tell when it starts and when it ends, but then there are the more humorous GIFs, normally sampled out of videos, where it abruptly stops and then begins again. When I interviewed John Williams, Associate Professor of English at Yale, he told me that there’s something childish about these GIFs but that doesn’t make them less entertaining or humorous for adults. That’s a small example of the satisfaction you can get from repetition.

Hicham Faraj, Any (2018). Courtesy of the artist.

DC: Is this what prompted your web-series Any (2018)?

HF: In a way, yes. When you repeat something an excessive amount of times, it becomes comical, for many different reasons. You begin noticing underlying and less obvious aspects of what you are scrutinizing. It’s all about temporal measures. I created the web-series Any with artist Ingrid Chen, and it also relates to repetition, and the exploration of how we experience time. There are three episodes so far and we essentially deconstructed the trope of online tutorials of unboxing consumer goods, cooking videos and other instructional videos that are taken from a top view camera where you can only see the hands of the performer. It’s called Anybecause these hands can signify anyone and can do anything. The first episode is from the point of view of the viewer watching the video, and how for them the person behind the scene is anonymous. Essentially, these hands become yours, and your phone screen where you’re watching becomes a cheap and dissonant portal into a different life. As you hold your phone screen, your hands disappear behind it and they emerge again in the screen through the video. The second episode is from the point of view of the person making the video. We found the subculture of unboxing videos where the people who perform for the camera have very elaborate nail art—their hands are the only way to show their identity in these videos. Conversely, in more mainstream tutorials the hands are supposed to be as neutral as possible. The third episode of Any was more of a speculation on virtual reality in relation to these videos. We were noticing how most applications of virtual reality today take on our human perspective. When you put an AI mask on you are transported to a different constructed reality but you still have somewhat of a linear perspective—the same you would experience it in your natural environment. We were speculating on a virtual reality that takes on other perspectives, like the very unnatural perspective of a top view, or omnipresent perspective. These tutorials bend time: an activity that normally takes a long time such as baking a cake would take 30 seconds on a cooking tutorial and is made to look so easy. Whereas an activity that normally takes 30 seconds such as unboxing, is extended to a 20-minute tutorial video. Time is warped in that sense. Tasks that we find laborious or difficult in real life are made to look easy, whereas tasks that are simple are extended. The excessive amount of these videos that you can find online relates to this repetition, you get to live vicariously through these hands and these videos. The Internet can stop time.

[1] Turritopsis polyps is a species of small jellyfish found in the Mediterranean Sea and in the waters of Japan. It is one of the few known cases of animals capable of reverting completely to a sexually immature, colonial stage after having reaching maturity as a solitary individual. This process can go on indefinitely, effectively rendering the jellyfish biologically immortal.

[2] Cryonics is the low-temperature freezing of a human corpse, with the hope that resuscitation may be possible in the future.


Phenomenal Nature: Mrinalini Mukherjee at the Met Breuer

This piece first appeared on

Mrinalini Mukjerjee, Installation view. Left to right: “Basanti (She of Spring),” 1984; “Yakshi (Female Forest Deity),” 1984; “Pakshi (Bird),” 1985; “Rudra (Deity of Terror),” 1982; and “Devi (Goddess),” 1982. Courtesy of Met Breuer.

Mysterious, sensual, grotesque: Mrinalini Mukherjee’s works in Phenomenal Nature, currently on view at the Met Breuer, are commanding in their scale and dominant in their presence. Organized by Shanay Jhaveri, Assistant Curator of South Asian Art in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, the exhibition marks the artist’s first retrospective in the United States, bringing together fifty-seven works spanning her forty year career, exploring her engagement with fiber, along with her significant forays into ceramic and bronze.

Mrinalini Mukherjee (1949–2015) who worked intensively with fiber, was among a group of post-Independence Indian artists who did not abide by the then dominant tradition of figure painting. While nonrepresentational forms of fiber art emerged in the West in the 1960s and ‘70s, Mukherjee was never part of that movement. She worked instead in near isolation in India, integrating traditional craft techniques with a Modernist visual vocabulary. 

The unconventional exhibition layout creates a labyrinthine, fantastical backdrop for her work. A grey stage curtain, envisioned by the exhibition designer Alejandro Stein, snakes through the entire gallery, enhancing drama. The works are democratically positioned next to one another, with some suspended from the ceiling or spilling onto the floor without a base. Written or archival material is absent from the show; the viewer walks through guided by the works. No solid walls or barriers separate the different phases of Mukherjee’s work. This disorientation, however, serves a purpose. The tensile presence of the artist’s intricately woven objects draws the viewer through in a spellbinding trance, like walking through a dense forest. 

The artist’s appreciation for the natural world may be traced to a childhood spent between the picturesque foothills of the Himalayas in Dehradum where her mother Leela (also an artist) taught at an all-girl’s school, and the rustic landscape of Santiniketan, West Bengal, where her father, the legendary scholar-artist Benode Behari Mukherjee, taught at Visva Bharati University. At age sixteen, Mukherjee enrolled at Maharaja Sayajirao University, where she earned a diploma in painting in 1970. She then studied mural design under her father’s former student K. G. Subramanyan, who advocated for engagement with the entire spectrum of historically Indian artistic and craft traditions, and encouraged the use of unconventional materials and techniques. Mukherjee’s attraction to fiber stemmed from this mentorship, where she was pushed outside the studio to find inspiration in earthly materials. Her earliest works were wall hangings evocative of scenery or flowering vine species.

Left to right: Mrinalini Mukherjee’s Black Formation (1977), Waterfall (1975), and Squirrel (1972). Image: Ben Davis.
The diverse references that populate her imagery go well beyond the representational to trouble the divide between figuration and abstraction. Using the tactile and laborious process of working with her hands, the artist’s forms draw attention to the marvels of growth and fruition in the natural world. Lotus Pond (1995), made up of thirteen terra cotta components with shifting earth tones, hints at the gradation apparent in nature. By deploying different kiln temperatures, she achieved a variation in hues that occurs through natural means. As with her early fiber sculptures, Mukherjee drew on floral. Some of the lotuses’ gaping buds and crevices resemble open mouths, while others are covered with twirling, petal-like foliage. On the other hand, some of her earliest fiber pieces, including Squirrel (1972), the first work on view at the entrance of the exhibition, are a testament to Mukherjee’s interest in the relationship between figuration and abstraction. The three-dimensionality of Squirrel, a bricolage creature with a crocheted head and a carpet-brush body, hangs by its tail from a net of loose jute, and appears to emerge from a knitted backdrop. Squirrel is Mukherjee’s first animal form, and foreshadows her later fiber works, which exist somewhere between the realms of plant and creature.

Mrinalini Mukherjee, Rudra (Deity of Terror) (1982). Photo: Ben Davis.
Representations of forest spirits and nymphs are part of the traditional iconography that the artist observed at temples and roadside shrines during her frequent travels, and later adopted in her fiber works. However, her evocation of such iconography is interpretative rather than imitative. Her biomorphic objects were symbols of metamorphosis, transfiguration, and a new way of looking at the natural world. She saw nature as a living thing: fertile, aggressive, and at times, erotic. Her extravagant and inventive visual language communicates irrepressible growth that is both grandiose and terrifying. Rudra (Deity of Terror) (1982) is a prime example of this interpretive and authoritative effort. The imposing, purple-hued fiber sculpture refers to the deity in the sacred Indian text Rig Veda, who personifies horror. Mukherjee was not timid about pushing her works into the realm of the frightening to induce a sense of awe in her viewers. Rudra’s central cavity stretches out symmetrically and extends into long tassels that pour forth onto the ground. The artifice and grandeur of Rudra suggests that of theatrical costumes seen in the classical Indian dance form Kathakali, which are sometimes used to project reverence, and occasionally fear, to their audiences.

In the second half of the 1990s, Mukherjee’s output of fiber sculptures diminished. A number of factors hindered her production: working with fiber was physically demanding; the manufacture of the rope that Mukherjee preferred was altered, the material now combined with synthetic fibers; and a ban was imposed on the dyeing units she needed to achieve her colors. As her production of fiber works decreased, she found refuge in ceramics. Unlike knotting rope, which was slow but malleable, allowing for control of the work’s form, handling clay required Mukherjee’s immediate reactivity and attention. Her transition to other media was not a rupture from fiber, but rather a continuation of her process of using natural materials. She worked additively by layering individual slabs of clay, and her use of contrasting glazes enlivened the ceramic works and heightened their artifice. Late works such as Outcrop VI (2007-8) and Palmscape (2013) demonstrate her layering of leafy scapes to create an invented species. These final works reversed the weight of her fiber sculptures: her bronzes appear not to wrestle with gravity at all.

Left to right, “Devi (Goddess),” 1982; “Lotus Pond,” 1995; “Vanshri (Woman and Tree),” 1994. Photo: Brittainy Newman/The New York Times.

Throughout her career, Mukherjee created extraordinarily diverse forms that bring forth the phenomenal forces of nature—lush, expandable, all consuming, and eventually, deteriorating. Phenomenal Nature demonstrates the artist’s radical interventions in her adaptation of craft, creating a new approach to modernism. Transgressing art-historical categories and imbued with contemporary ethos, they bask in undoing the distinction between the traditional and the modern, and blur the line between what is known and what can be imagined.

Phenomenal Nature: Mrinalini Mukherjee remains on view through September 29th at the Met Breuer, 945 Madison Avenue, New York


Simone Fattal:
Work and Days
at MoMA PS1

This article first appeared on

Start with the legs: thick, long, bowed, and unwieldy with texture resembling crusty cement on an unfinished sidewalk, or trunks of trees hemmed and ringed by time. Man and Companion(2004), one of Simone Fattal’s glazed terracotta and stoneware figures currently on view in “Simone Fattal: Works and Days” at MoMA PS1, bares the marks of the human hand—raggedy surfaces locked under a glistening coat. It is the case with most, if not all of her figures that their impurities engender a freedom in expression, a letting go of perfection akin to the waters of a torrential rainstorm leaving sudden and ravishing traces on sodden earth. The retrospective, curated by Ruba Katrib, is the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States.

Fattal’s work is influenced by the myriad ways history shapes individual lives and desolates landscapes, and her practice is informed in part by her own diasporic experiences. Born in 1942 in Damascus, Syria, she was raised in Beirut, Lebanon, where she studied philosophy at the École des Lettres before moving to Paris. She continued her philosophical studies at the Sorbonne until 1969, when she returned to Beirut and began producing visual work, exhibiting paintings and watercolors locally until the onset of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. “In 1980 I realized that the civil war was not going to end, so I decided to leave,” explained the artist during a recent talk at PS1, of her decision to flee Lebanon and settle in California. There, Fattal gave up her painting practice and launched the Post-Apollo Press—a publishing house dedicated to innovative and experimental literary work. In 1988, with the publishing house thriving, she enrolled in a course at the Art Institute of San Francisco, which prompted a return to her artistic practice—only this time in a newfound medium: sculpture and ceramics.

Simone Fattal: Works and Days, on view at MoMA PS1 through September 2, 2019 (Artwork courtesy of the artist and kaufmann repetto, Milan / New York; Balice Hertling, Paris; Karma International, Zurich / Los Angeles. Image courtesy MoMA PS1. Photo: Matthew Septimus)

“Works and Days,” which opened March 31st and continues through the summer, brings together a selection of over 200 abstract and figurative ceramic sculptures, paintings, and collages Fattal has created over the last five decades. Drawing from a range of sources and themes that resonate across the artist’s multifaceted practice, the body of work she has produced touches on geopolitical conflicts, landscape painting, ancient history, mythology, and Sufi poetry to explore the impact of displacement as well as the politics of archeology and excavation.

The show opens with Fattal’s first sculpture, Torso Found in Today’s Downtown Beirut, (1988), a marble torso that resembles archaeological objects native to her region of the Middle East. Deliberately choosing alabaster stone for this first sculpture, the artist said she felt guided by her senses and she worked on it gently, allowing its natural forms to direct her process. Her partner, poet and artist Etel Adnan, has written about Fattal’s encounter with this stone that:

“The pink alabaster, luminous, almost sensual, had become the bust of a statue one would have found on an archeological site, only this time the archeology was of a contemporary site. It was as if the war, which was still ravaging Lebanon thousands of miles away, was fusing with this unique piece.” [1]

Simone Fattal. Man and his shadow. 2009.
Courtesy of the artist and kaufmann repetto, Milan / New York;
Balice Hertling, Paris; Karma International, Zurich / Los Angeles

Standing characters are a recurring theme in Fattal’s work. At the beginning they were small, and she used Adam, the first man, as an early reference point. In the late 1980s, Fattal had immersed herself in Sufism, and Islamic mysticism, and as Adam was known by Muslim mystics to have been very tall. She soon started creating taller sculptures, with very long legs and disproportionate bodies. This prototype informed the works that followed. Her Standing Man(2012) is an example of the imprint that her first sculpture left: the atrophied heads and textured bodies makes these figures look as though they’ve weathered a great storm. Since she considers many of her standing figures “warriors,” they are rendered in a way that shows that they’ve survived. In her figurative sculptures, clay figures are rendered with just enough detail to be recognized as human attuning the viewer to the body’s fragility.

While working at Hans Spinner’s workspace in Grasse, France in 2006, Fattal had access to a large garden space, allowing her to create pieces of increased size. She made figures as tall as she could; characters who seem to come out of the mythology deriving from the Mesopotamian region in Syria. An ancient culture founded in the Mesopotamia region of the Fertile Crescent situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Sumerians are considered the creators of modern civilization as we understand it. But her sculptures, while reminiscent of ancient times, are simultaneously of today. For Fattal, history is continuous, and her practice involves a process of recovery. However, it is not only recovery but also a protest against forgetting.

Fattal’s influences come from epic historical texts as well as poetry, rather than a sculptural lineage. While in Grasse, Fattal made two works, The Guard (2006) and The Wounded Warrior (2008), two characters from the epic of Dhat al-Himma, each one-and-a-half meters high. The Dhat al-Himma is a little-known Arabian epic from the seventh or eighth century that depicts events that occurred under the Abbasid Caliphate of Harun al-Rashid, a period made legendary by Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights. The heroine of the epic, Delhemma, is a “woman of noble purpose”—a knight and warrior who dedicates herself to her ambition and wishes to remain unmarried, although it is against custom. A female djinn (a mystical spirit) falls in love with Delhemma and attaches herself to the heroine until she is eventually killed off. Fattal has depicted characters from this long and adventurous narrative in several sculptures, such as Djinn and Zhat el Himma (2010-2019), a glazed terracotta sculpture that represents two joined figures, and Rider on Mizna the Fabulous Horse (2009), which memorializes a horse celebrated for its beauty within the epic. The warriors in this series reflect Fattal’s reverence for archaeology and lore. Their sturdy arch-like formations become symbols of resilience and fortitude in the long history of struggle in the Middle East. The choice of this epic can possibly be understood as Fattal’s attempt to excavate hints of feminism in old Arabian epics—where chivalry and strength were only attributed to men. Perhaps she saw some parallel between herself and Delhemma: a woman who dedicated herself to her ambitions and who decided walk down a path different than the common one inscribed for an Arab woman.

Fattal’s work creates a microcosmic universe, an all-encompassing temple riddled with totem and ritual. It constructs a world emerging from history and memory, grappling with the losses of time. Grounded in the earth, her practice can be read as an unfinished project coming to form each time in a different medium. Straddling the contemporary, the archaic, and the mythic, Fattal’s work is at once timeless and specific.

Simone Fattal: Works and Days remains on view through September 2, 2019 at MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, NY 11101.

[1] Nayla Kettaneh Kunigk, Simone Fattal, (Beirut, Lebanon: Galerie Tanit, 2016). Accessed as .pdf file.

New York, Beirut