The Met Breuer exhibits the work of an Indian modernist who rejected notions of modernity.
In conjunction with the opening of The Met Breuer, a new contemporary and modern art space for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the retrospective “Nasreen Mohamedi” looks at the prolific art career of an Indian modernist whose work rejected notions of modernity and figurative narrative.
As one of the most comprehensive exhibitions of an Indian artist in the United States, this exhibition looks to bring to an international audience the theories, life, interiority and enigmatic work of Nasreen Mohamedi by juxtaposing artwork and personal diaries. By delving into Mohamedi’s personal conceptualisation of the world, her work illuminates a careful and passionate understanding of life and death and the infinite and the void.
Nasreen Mohamedi was born in 1937 and spent most of her childhood in Mumbai. She studied at Central Saint Martin’s in London from 1954 to 1957. In the 1960s, she extensively travelled to Paris, Iran, Turkey, and all throughout India. She settled in Baroda to teach at the Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University. It was here that curator and director Roobina Karode of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art met and studied under Mohamedi.
As Mohamedi’s student, Karode notes how her teacher’s practice and life philosophy were one and the same. She led a minimalistic life, which she believed de-cluttered the brain allowing for pure and natural creativity and thought. Although her early work in the 1950s and 1960s was much more gestural and less minimalistic, there is a sense of purity in movement and space. Karode states that this early period of abstraction was much more nature-based, which gradually and seamlessly moved into her more linear abstract work. Mohamedi’s art career can be seen as an exercise in understanding space and movement to receive the light of pure knowledge obtained from a clear and empty mind: the void.
Not shown extensively, Nasreen Mohamedi used photography during her entire career. She deemed her photography as a part of her private domain, mainly used as a powerful tool of observation for her paintings and drawings. Her private domain consisted of her studio and house, which held similar aesthetics of minimalism and movement. Roobina Karode states that Mohamedi’s studio and home were spaces of contemplation away from the excesses of materiality.
Nasreen Mohamedi’s rejection of the material was partly due to her ailing body and illness; her work rejected the figurative body popularised by many modernists during this time. A minimal life allows for an interior and personal strength against physical ailments. She recognised the inevitable death of the physical, in spite of the prosperity of the mind. Thus death was a force in her artwork that she constantly negotiated. Through the collusion of the infinite and the void, a place of contemplation and inevitability: “the idea to empty out everything and receive the light of knowledge.”
In concert with her later paintings and drawings, there is a similar seeking in line, space and movement in her photography. According to Karode, Mohamedi’s photography exalted the same principles of the void and infinite in the use of line. The line was an infinite pathway with a sense of movement and impermanence. The simple line can span forever, constantly moving however receding beyond what the eye can capture. Her photography thus captures not the looming architecture, but often the lines on the ground with intimate and delicate consideration.
As case studies, her photography seamlessly meshes into her two-dimensional paintings and drawings. This is especially clear in the work she created towards the end of her career as seen in Untitled (1975). The subtlety of line, shadow and space is movement filled in spite of the minimalist aesthetic. There is a sense of temporality in the way lines vanish and reappear; and as you trace those lines from one side of the canvas to another, there is a peaceful meditation. This is a tranquility of harmony between dualities: visible, invisible; shadow, light; infinity, void.
The impact of Mohamedi’s work is even more startling in consideration to the scale of her pieces, which is typically around or smaller than 50 by 50 centimetres. Kiran Nadar, Chairperson of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and Trustee of Shiv Nadar Foundation states:
I thought anybody who could deal with such a small format and yet manage to put on the kind of soul in her [Nasreen Mohamedi] work was quite fascinating. The position and pristine quality she managed to capture on small size work is quite amazing.
This intimate, meditative and solitary method captured Kiran Nadar’s attention and is now being highlighted in the exhibition at the Met Breuer and later in Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, in a show entitled “Waiting is a Part of Intense Living”.
To have an exhibition of this scale of an Indian female artist at two world-renowned museums is a testament to Mohamedi’s artistic genius. This exhibition not only shows her talent as an artist, but the importance of her work to art scholarship. Her work expands static notions of modernity and provides an alternative to essentialised narratives of Indian modernity couched in figurative paintings. Mohamedi’s work revitalises the dialogue of what was and is possible in modernity and abstraction through harmony and poetry.
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