A retrospective of the artist Nasreen Mohamedi opened in September 2015 at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid MNCARs) and subsequently traveled to New York as one of the two inaugural exhibitions at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (MMA) as its newest space, The Met Breuer, in March 2016. Prepared in collaboration with the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi (KNMA), this exhibition of Mohamedi's work was of unprecedented scale, and brought together over 200 works from public and private collections located in India, the United States and Japan. A catalogue featuring new essays by Roobina Karode, Geeta Kapur, Deepak Ananth and Andrea Giunta accompanied the exhibition.
The organization of the exhibition opened up a number of art-historical and curatorial possibilities and included the close examination and reassessment of Mohamedi's oeuvre. Roobina Karode, director of the KNMA and a former student of Mohamedi's, and Geeta Kapur, art critic and the artist's friend, revisited the conceptual evolution and material complexity of her practice. One of the significant challenges was the mapping out of a chronology for Mohamedi's work, most of which remained untitled, unsigned and undated. In the consideration of a large number of her works, distinct preoccupations emerged, and "periods" became discernible, even as much of the work still needed to be placed within the broad categories of "circa". The exhibition at both venues followed a chronological arc in its presentation. In doing so, one could trace shifts in the artist's practice, beginning with her early works distinguishable by an exploratory impulse, loose brushwork and organic lines. One next encountered the carefully laid (mostly) straight lines that marked the surface of square and later rectangular sheets of paper, and finally, some of her late works that were often made in series and on a smaller scale.
It became clear that from her very earliest years as a practicing artist, Mohamedi was drawn to abstraction- the vegetal forms in her watercolours on paper were quickly distilled to sinewy lines that fanned out, latticed and described elemental shapes in the in-between spaces. In her move towards rigorous pictorial abstraction that dovetailed with her interest in philosophy, it was with V.S. Gaitonde, an older contemporary of hers at the Bhulabhai Desai Institute in Bombay, that Mohamedi developed what Deepak Ananth describes as an "elective affinity". This affinity would be evident in her approach to the few canvases she painted, yet, ultimately Mohamedi settled on exploring the possibilities of the line on paper, choosing as her focus this fundamental gesture of mark-making.
Prefaced by some of Mohamedi's early work, including canvases, watercolours, collages and prints, the exhibition largely focused on her ink and graphite works on paper from the 197os- 8os. Drawn with the aid of drafting instruments, her lines have a trajectile impulse and are rightly read as vectors. These precise strokes sometimes quiver in parallel proximity or intersect at measured intervals, marking contours and describing horizons, planes, textures, shapes and shadows. The lines created with the help of these mechanical tools appear to be incised, while at the same time her deliberate use of different ink flows invoked a more calligraphic form of inscription. Her lines- parallel, angled, dashed- stretched tautly across the surface and animated the linear interstices on square sheets of paper in two sizes. In her essay, Geeta Kapur recognized Mohamedi's interest in optics and the importance of light in the manner in which she deployed her line, and her use of the whiteness of the machine-made paper on which she worked.
In the chronological unfolding of her oeuvre, Mohamedi demonstrated directional turns rather than radical breaks in her approach to the picture plane, and by the late 1970s, she moved towards a more expansive rectangular format. Her works from this period boldly activated the diagonal, delineating polygonal forms (the triangle, the rhomboid, the chevron), which intersected and layered, suggesting a concern for movement in both space and sound. Mohamedi built geometric forms by the deliber ate and reverberating hatching of lines, which were sometimes startling in their density and at other times sublime in their subtlety. The chevrons, which first appeared in her early works as a graphic gesture, are a recurring element in Mohamedi's work, and were later disciplined into formation through the geometric intersection of ruled lines at acute angles (figure 2). They would be read as "contrapuntal" by the critic Rich ard Bartholomew, who would go on to describe Mohamedi's work in musical terms. The comparison is apt, but where Bartholomew recognizes visual similarities with the notational gestures of sheet music, Kapur reads a conceptual kinship between the artist's pictorial approach and the balancing of structural and improvisatory elements in Hindustani vocal classical music, which Mohamedi loved listening to. Indeed, Mohamedi would often create a series of related compositions in a manner akin to musical variations on a theme. Unsurprisingly it was the visual, conceptual and textual resonance of Mohamedi's practice that drew musician and composer Vijay Iyer to her work and diaries. Pianist Iyer and the trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith would go on to compose a suite of works in homage to Mohamedi, in an album titled a cosmic rhythm with each stroke. Reflecting on his interest in Mohamedi, Iyer observed, "Her work lives right at that fault line, that boundary between presence and absence, and there's something activating about that."
In the last years of her life, Mohamedi worked on a more intimate scale and moved away from the edge of the paper. Her lines remained deliberate and deter mined but newly described subtler forms- the chevron persisted but was joined by curves and ellipses. She distilled her forms to their barest presence and worked with the "restrained discipline" and concentration that she directed herself to maintain in her diaries. The precision and delicacy of contact (or near contact) between lines and forms was a remarkable achievement of balance and control in her artistic practice and stood in tragic contrast to the eroding motor functions of her physical life.14 The introspective quality of her final works, featuring forms centered on picture planes suffused with light, suggests a meditation on the void, or infinite space (figure 4).
The exhibition also included a number of Mohamedi's photographs, vintage as well as prints made from negatives in 2003. From the mid-1960s onwards, she had explored the possibilities of photography as a medium. Drawn equally to the striking geometry of built forms and to the intricacy of natural phenomena, her images focused on shapes, textures, shadows, planes and tonal variations. The deliberate manner in which she cropped and framed her compositions (often obscuring identifiable details of location) and her experimentation with developing techniques also confirms the seriousness with which she pursued photography as more than a form of visual note-taking or merely a reflection of the world around her. A detail from perhaps the most iconic of Mohamedi's photographs, a water channel that snakes across the paved terraces at Fatehpur Sikri, reappears as a ghost-like image in another photograph (figure 5a). On closer examination, the white bands punctuated by dark rectangles at irregular intervals that are overlaid on the background have numbers inscribed on them. Nora Kennedy, Senior Photography Conservator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, recognized the combination of the irregular rectangular shapes and number placement as being a match for old computer punch-cards (Hollerith cards), which Mohamedi had seemingly cut into strips and placed on her photo paper during the enlarging process.
Such approaches recur in other photographs, and although the constitu ent elements are not as identifiable, they nevertheless suggest that her image-making in this medium was also concerned with abstraction. Accordingly, her photographic practice is justly considered as a parallel and related endeavor, even though she did not exhibit her photographs during her lifetime. Although much more remains to be done on this aspect of her practice (she appears to have worked directly on the photo paper in some instances), the exhibition's curators at both venues recognized the need to juxtapose her photographs and works on paper, underscoring the artist's shared concerns across mediums. The galleries at The Met Breuer allowed for an exhibition de sign such that the photographs were displayed on three walls on the north-south axes, which intersected the walls on the east-west axes that displayed her works on paper and made possible some fascinating connections (figure 6).
Finally, the exhibition included a selection of a few bound diaries and loose pages from Mohamedi's pocket-sized daybooks. Many of the evocative ruminations that have given insight into the artist's life and practice come from these small journals.
While Mohamedi used them to record her observations, note her working principles and register exhortations to herself, she also engaged with their physical form, crop ping the leaves or overlaying text with inked lines and forms. The pre-existing structure and design of these unassuming notebooks appealed to her as a more intimate and informal working space. Often using a felt-tip pen, Mohamedi drew horizontal strokes that deliberately paused at a printed margin or purposefully extended beyond it at measured intervals. Her notations appear to be redacted but are in fact carefully drawn over, intentionally revealing chosen words or phrases at particular moments. It is in these phrases that one catches glimpses of the artist and the woman, and realizes that although she struggled with Huntington's disease, she found in its challenging ways to discipline her artistic practice. At the Reina Sofia, the diaries were installed in a large freestanding display case in the center of the penultimate gallery, while at The Met Breuer, they were separated out and displayed in four-angled wall cases. Each case also included a selection of digitized spreads from the bound diaries to give the viewer a fuller sense of the manner in which she intervened in these objects.
In its presentation at major metropolitan centers in Europe and America, not only did the exhibition create space to take a deep dive into a single artist's oeuvre, and trace Mohamedi's journey, but it also afforded the opportunity to bring her work into conversation with artistic narratives beyond South Asia. Its different presentation at two distinct art institutions and distinctive architectural spaces also spawned the possibility of new lenses through which Mohamedi's work could be approached.
The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid is housed in an 18th-century building that was originally the city's hospital designed by Francesco Sabatini during the reign of Carlo II. Epitomizing Enlightenment rationality, the building was never completed as designed, and after being used for a range of miscellaneous purposes, it was finally converted into a museum of modern and contemporary art in the late 1980s. Interestingly, one of the first exhibitions at the newly opened museum was Minimalist Art from the Panza Collection (1988). Panza himself noted: "It's a strong building...with powerful, simple shapes. It was an ideal space for the new American Minimal Art:' The reification of the America-centric, male-dominated story of Minimalism in its early years notwithstanding, more recently MN CARS has been invested in the presentation of exhibitions through an agenda described by its director Manuel Borja-Ville! as including "the interrogating of canonical narratives of modernity, the study of work made by women artists, and the consideration of local, apparently derivative manifestations".
The MNCARS took seriously the charge of considering Mohamedi on an arc of an "expanded discourse on female/feminist practice". By bringing into conversation interventions by artists from dispersed (albeit not necessarily disconnected) locations, a substantial exhibition of Nasreen Mohamedi's work contributed in a vital way to thinking about Minimalism. With its massively thick walls, barrel-vaulted long hallways washed in white paint, the MNCARs's galleries have a spare, clinical feel to them that would have surely appealed to Mohamedi, who was committed to expunging all excess and even color. In these broad, brightly lit interiors, with honey-colored floors, her works could be generously spaced and the crisp precision of the lines she inscribed on the picture plane were brought into sharp focus, even as the forms they described appeared to float, enhancing the evocation of space beyond the edge of the paper.
In New York, the museum designed by Marcel Breuer, a Bauhaus-trained Hungarian emigre, in 1966 was a Brutalist building intended specifically for the exhibition of modern and contemporary art. Upon becoming The Met Breuer in 2016, it was the newest exhibition space for one of the most venerable "encyclopedic" art museums in the United States, in which art from the 20th and 21st centuries could be situated within the continuum of global visual cultural production. In a self-conscious bid to break with linear narratives, the MMAS exhibition programming at this new space, which is set to function more as a Kunsthalle than a permanent museum, aims to contend with the vast geographies of modern art and contemporary practice. It is in this context that having a retrospective of Nasreen Mohamedi as one of the inaugural exhibitions was particularly apt. In the past few years, museums in New York have held exhibitions of Zarina and Gaitonde, but till recently the Met had scarcely dipped its toes into the waters of South Asian modern and contemporary art. Particularly in the context of the Met, Mohamedi's work defied expectations, and as such her sustained engagement with abstraction could serve to add a rich layer to the longer history of South Asian art more broadly, and to a more variegated understanding of Modernism in particular.
Located on the second and smallest exhibition floor of the inverted ziggurat shaped building, Nasreen Mohamedi at The Met Breuer had by necessity only two thirds the number of works that were on view at MNCARS. Nevertheless, the chronological narrative was continued, even as the exhibition spaces were designed to create a more tightly directed path of movement through the parallel placement of long temporary walls, which were intersected by the aforementioned photography walls at select intervals. The subtly tinted grey surfaces and the dark parquet floor creat ed a more intimate space that engendered close looking. At the same time, through much of the exhibition space was the incidence of the Modernist grid in the form of Breuer's concrete gridded ceiling. On the one hand, the grid was reminiscent of Mohamedi's own preoccupation with this structure (most evident in her use of graph paper) but its overarching presence, distorted through visual perspective, ultimately served to underscore the artist's own oblique and idiosyncratic approach to the grid. Mohamedi's deliberate deviation from the pure form of the grid is yet another important way in which her approach is distinct from that of Agnes Martin, an artist to whom she is often lazily compared.
At both venues, the exhibition concluded with a reading room where one could access supplemental material on Mohamedi, and also put a face to a name through the presentation of photographs. At the Reina Sofia, early sketches of family members and figures were also displayed, while at The Met Breuer, a series of graph-paper works was included where one could follow the manner in which she worked through the elaboration of an elliptical form and diagonal line on paper. In a final instance of architectural resonance, the reading room in New York also contained one of Marcel Breuer's iconic quadrangular windows, which set in a rectangular frame described a form that could have come straight out of Mohamedi's works.
The exhibition in Madrid and New York has catapulted the work of a little-known and underappreciated artist into the limelight.
Never having been part of any group or movement, and having steadfastly charted her own aesthetic course, Mohamedi largely evaded categorization, co-option, and domestication into 'canons' of art and perhaps it is because of this that such an exhibition holds the promise of having a catalytic effect on how to consider work such as hers. Hal Foster noted that the Mohamedi exhibition suggests ways to "exhibit modern art from different places in a way that frames modernism not as a chronological sequence of Western ideas that can only be imported colonially or imposed imperially, but as an anachronic relay of international practices in complicated conversation".Mohamedi could draw upon the lessons of early 20th-century Western Modernism (from Kandinsky and Klee, to Mondrian and Malevich), just as easily as the non-objective mode of painting espoused by Gaitonde. In the context of South Asia, her work also reveals sympathy with deeper Islamic aesthetics as seen in calligraphy, geometric abstraction, Sufi poetry and the imagery of light. Her work was parallel to the pre-vailing major movements in Indian Modernism and resonant with Minimalism in Europe and the Americas. Her practice was thus a distillation of sensibilities cultivated through the engagement with multiple approaches to art, and the rigorous exploration of the possibilities mark-making held for her. The determined linearity of her strokes not withstanding, she was less interested in binaries or polarities, but rather, in true cosmopolitan spirit, relished moments of encounter and experiences along a spectrum. The exhibition invites us to find elegant insights into the complexities of life through the lines that intersect and the arc that gently curves.