6 June – 5 October 2014
by DARRAN ANDERSON
Whether this myth of musical purity and primacy is true is of secondary importance. What are of more significance are the moments when visual art seems to chime like music, to stir something in our souls, if we can be said to possess such things. These experiences come, crucially, without explanation or even the involvement of any intellectual process. They seem to connect instead with the gut and the spirit. They might take vastly divergent forms: the action paintings of Pollock, the tiny mythologies of Klee, the seascapes of Richter. Coherence is an obstacle to transcendence, and these paintings transcend. It is thrilling, with this superb exhibition at Tate Liverpool, to see the work of Nasreen Mohamedi recognised and rediscovered as a unique voice in the history of silent visual music.
The urge to explain the extraordinary yet focused imaginary worlds Mohamedi created in paint, photography, graphite and ink nevertheless remains. She was born in Karachi, Pakistan and grew up in Bombay (now Mumbai), India. She studied art at Central St Martins College, London in the 1950s and returned to her homeland to teach fine art at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. We might engage in conjecture about her sense of nationality, her femininity, her complex interactions with the west and with Indian artistic traditions, her cosmopolitan engagement with the world and its artists, and her occasional retreat from them. We might wonder, in addition, at what point linking biography to the creative process goes beyond being revelatory and becomes a case of casting nets. Mohamedi’s work is too multifarious and enigmatic to be explained away. Its power lies partly in its mystery.
It would be a mistake to assume that Mohamedi’s multiplicity was an absence of style. Across the 60-plus works and archival material on show here, impressively curated by Eleanor Clayton and Suman Gopinath, there is a discernible underlying voice that seems immediately and inexplicably hers. Her abandonment of titles and dates for the majority of her works reflects this continuity of discontinuity. There are, however, distinct phases as well as mediums. Her atmospheric early work suggests an exploration of forms, refracting back constituent parts of various landscapes (from deserts to woodland), but transformed in the process through blurring or fragmentation. Though it occasionally falls short in terms of appearing sketchily indistinct rather than intriguingly amorphous, when it works the effect is entrancing. In one untitled piece from the 60s, a whole submarine world is evoked with the slightest of suggested shapes and contours; a drowning horse, a coral reef, the paintings of Der Blaue Reiter submerged. Another piece, perhaps the finest work on show here, features a surging red triangle (reminiscent of El Lissitzky’s 1919 lithograph Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge), a building like a collapsed Lyonel Feininger and the suggestion of a hieroglyphic creature. It makes little conventional sense, which is the point and the appeal. It is as if Mohamedi takes the flotsam of the past and assembles it into work that appears invested with the sacred.
The grid work that made her name was created when Mohamedi had settled again in India. Though the exhibition is suitably paired with Mondrian and his Studios (also running at Tate Liverpool, 6 June – 5 October 2014), Mohamedi’s grids are notably different, even if both artists examine questions of harmony and balance. It would be limiting to focus solely on the undeniable influence of Taoism and Buddhism on these works when Mohamedi was equally enthralled with Existentialism and central European semi-mystic abstract art. The influence of Agnes Martin seems to loom large in this period when, in fact, it appears they created parallel art in isolation. This could be a case of chance or discovery. There is no denying that Mohamedi had a remarkable skill in terms of gaining, in her own words, “the maximum from the minimum”. With simplicity and a skilful control of monochromatic pattern, grain and vanishing points, entire environments are created. With the most basic of building blocks, impossible worlds are mapped. There is a gradually brightening sea of masonry. In another, pyramids rise from a mathematical landscape that reaches off into infinity. In the floating geometric forms, the extending horizons and undulating codes of her untitled 70s work, Mohamedi combined elements of Russian Constructivism, futuristic design vectors and ancient logographic scripts. It is akin to an Egyptian God dreaming in computer code.
Her photographs reinforce the idea that Mohamedi was one of the most unusual landscape artists we have ever had. Nature contains the abstract just as the abstract invariably contains nature. Her work demonstrates both. In an astonishing untitled photograph from the 70s, somehow life imitates art, with the grainy reproduction of shore-land resembling a charcoal drawing. A sense of yin-yang balance is apparent, yet the scene is more turbulent than that. The sea is eroding the land; the land is encroaching on the sea. The ripples, which extend along the sands and the water’s surface, indicate age-old battles beyond human conception. “Lines, circles, dots, traces of texture,” read a diary entry from 13 May 1968, “beatings on the beach, slow changes in rocks, weaving and polishing of pebbles, each wave a destiny which ends in one breath, a swaying of the palms and in one sway – all, everything. It all denotes change, change, change – nothing repetitive.” The works are thus as minimalist and harmonious as the ocean.
Allied to her evident fascination with Islamic and Modernist buildings, Mohamedi’s works could be said to have been unconventional blueprints. The worlds she hinted at could never be built, yet she demonstrated that they had echoes in our natural world. It was a question of how deep and how far we look. Even if dissolving or skeletal, elements of design and landscape are there, in a cyclical process of disintegration and rebuilding. Hers was a vision not of megalomania but lucid humility, linking past and future, the organic and the industrial, the rationale of geometry and the allure of the sublime. At its best, her art was, to paraphrase the poet Goethe, nothing short of frozen music.