Nasreen Mohamedi used the grid as a scaffolding to order her thoughts, feels Meera Menezes, as she moves through a major retrospective in New York. Nasreen Mohamedi’s lifelong romance with light and line was clearly underscored in Nasreen Mohamedi, the first museum show of her works in the United States, held from the 18th of March to the 5th of June. It was also one of the two exhibitions, with which the Metropolitan Museum inaugurated its new space, the Met Breuer, to showcase its modern and contemporary art program.
The retrospective charted Mohamedi’s artistic trajectory in a chronological manner spanning her practice from the 1960s to the 1980s, before her untimely demise in 1990. Several of the works on display had already been shown in Nasreen Mohamedi: A view to infinity (1957-1990) at New Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in 2013. The show curated by Roobina Karode had then traveled to Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía with the title Waiting Is a Part of Intense Living before moving on to New York. At the Met Breuer, Sheena Wagstaff, Leonard A. Lauder Chairman of The Met’sDepartment of Modern and Contemporary Art, made a focused selection from the much larger show in Spain that included more than 130 paintings, drawings, photographs as well as the exquisite but rarely exhibited diaries.
The exhibition opened with several of her early ink and watercolours on paper, which demonstrated expressive brushwork with clear references to landscape. One of her untitled monochromatic musings from the 1960s (Mohamedi never titled or dated her works) depicted blurry swathes of black and grey, while in another ink on paper work, a cobweb of lines showed more than a hint of agitation as it tried to crawl away from the greyish ground. This latter painting hinted at what would subsequently become an abiding fascination with lines. A rare canvas on display, awash in muted, translucent shades, spoke immediately of a shared sensibility with V.S. Gaitonde, a kindred spirit and mentor during her years at the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute in Bombay. Mohamedi spent some years at the Institute after finishing her studies from St.Martin’s School of Art in London (1954 to 1957) and like Gaitonde, she would plow a solitary furrow of abstraction in a field dominated by narrative-figurative painting.
What strikes the viewer in the show is that Mohamedi saw lines and geometric forms everywhere – in both natural and urban landscapes. This is particularly apparent in her photographs, which Wagstaff likens to a form of note-taking. Whether it is the orb of the setting sun, the threads of a loom or the electric lines and poles, her fascination with geometry is clearly evident. Often the shapes that she espied in nature, such as the leaf fronds in a drypoint work, are mirrored in urban structures like the striated water towers in Kuwait. This sensibility also reflects in her diary entries, one of which reads: THE FULL MOON – A PERFECT CIRCLE – COMPLETE SERENITY. Equally compelling is her fine handling of light in the play of negative and positive spaces in the drawings and photographs.
As she gravitated towards geometric abstraction, Mohamedi started privileging graphite and ink over watercolours. The paintbrush made way for the Rotring Rapidograph pen and precision instruments such as the compass, divider and protractor. This move from a free-flowing to a more deliberate and ordered mark-making was probably a device to counteract the onset of Huntington’s disease, a neuromuscular condition that had also afflicted some of her siblings. Certainly, the rigour and restraint manifest in her lines give no hint of the increasing clumsiness brought on by the debilitating illness.
In many of Mohamedi’s works the modernist grid makes an appearance, either in the form of drawings or through the use of graph paper. While in her early grid drawings of the 1970s she harnesses the entire sheet for her complex weave of lines, in the 1980s the lines move inwards to the centre from the margins of the sheet. The open grid ceilings of the Breuer building serve as a perfect foil to the works on display, fortuitously echoing the mesh of lines that populate the artist’s works on paper.
While the grid bestowed on Mohamedi an independence from narration and contextuality, it also facilitated her progress towards an absolute visuality. By virtue of the grid, a work of art is presented as a mere fragment, since its basic structure of horizontal and vertical lines is potentially endless, extending to eternity. According to American art critic Rosalind E. Krauss, “The grid’s mythic power is that it makes us able to think we are dealing with materialism (or sometimes science, or logic) while at the same time it provides us with a release into belief (or illusion, or fiction).”1 Certainly this reading would have appealed to Mohamedi, whose abstraction was informed by spiritualism, whether Sufi thought, Zen Buddhism, the Upanishads or abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky’s treatise on the spiritual in art.
Mohamedi also used the grid as scaffolding to order her thoughts. Her minimalist works and quest for purity could be seen as a means of counteracting the inner turmoil she was going through. She appears to have sublimated her trials and tribulations – which apart from her illness included the loss of her mother and siblings as well as heartbreak at an early age – condensing them into taut lines, aquiver with a delicious tension. A telling entry in her diary reads, “Each line, texture (FORM) are born of effort, history and pain."
Mohamedi’s diaries enshrined in glass vitrines were undoubtedly a highlight of the show. In one, her ruminations alternated with bands of solid black ink producing complex patterns. In another, the ruled lines carried thoughts that ranged from brief Haiku-like verses on depth and form to a complete paragraph on Tyeb Mehta’s preliminary sketches. Equally compelling were her drawings in which she invested her lines with a sense of propulsion and speed. Several of her diagonals, chevrons and planes appear to take flight, floating above the surface of the paper, mirroring as it were the very transcendence she hoped to achieve. It is works such as these that enunciate Mohamedi’s significant contribution to modern art and the global discourse around it.