NASREEN MOHAMEDIUntitled, ca. 1975, Ink and graphite on paper, 24.1 × 24.1 cm. Courtesy Met Breuer, New York.

Nasreen Mohamedi

India USA
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Nasreen Mohamedi (1937–1990), born in Karachi, India, left the Subcontinent in 1954 to attend St. Martin’s School of the Arts in London, and continued her studies in art in Paris during the 1960s. One might, therefore, point to her Western education as the cause of her fiercely abstracted work; yet her style is in fact the result of an array of factors. Mohamedi’s life was seemingly devoted to her work, as she never married nor had children, and she traveled extensively over the years, from Europe to America and throughout the Middle East. By the time she had honed the abstract, linear painting style she became known for in the 1970s and ’80s, she was also a successful instructor of art at the MS University of Baroda, India.

The storied career of Mohamedi is the subject of the inaugural exhibition at the Met Breuer in New York. Though often compared to American abstract painter Agnes Martin, in reality Mohamedi’s works do not visually or psychically bear much resemblance. Her line work is elegantly impersonal—all of her works are untitled—and almost relentlessly repetitive. Nonetheless, her hand is overtly apparent in her work, as she employed various types of technical rulers to draw lines with fine-tipped drafting pens. Her photographs, which she used as inspiration for her drawings, were also extremely abstract with their nonfigurative lines, black-and-white contrast and framing.

Organized chronologically throughout the Met Breuer’s second floor, Mohamedi’s artworks vaguely match the gray concrete floors and walls of the high-modernist building. One room, significantly brighter due to a window emitting natural light, displays a large series of circular drawings on graph paper from the 1980s. Meanwhile, custom-built glass-topped cases dotting the floor contain Mohamedi’s journals, in which one can observe her poetry-like diary entries.

The journals are, in fact, pocket calendars that Mohamedi had carried around on a daily basis. Here, viewers are finally presented with works coming from a more emotive place, as Mohamedi had written these diary entries every day throughout her career. Interestingly, these journals were heavily edited by Mohamedi, who blacked out certain thoughts and words in ink, creating grid-like patterns inside the already gridded calendars. They are works of pure visual poetry that artfully guide our eyes and mind to skip over what she wished to omit.

Before Mohamedi solidified the stark, black-and-white lines of her late-career pieces, traces of nature appeared in her earlier works from the 1950s and ’60s. A recurring theme from this period, when her pieces were looser and more colored, is the arch shape of a fan, though still depicted in her signature steady lines.

By the late 1970s and ’80s, Mohamedi’s style became set in hard black and white, barely acknowledging any tangible or knowable world in the imagery she created. The only truly identifiable subject in her works during this time is a photographic piece that features the Kuwait Water Towers from 1976. Like her diaries, which offer a carefully constructed look into her personal world, the appearance of the towers is almost a shock due to their immediate familiarity. Thereafter, simpler triangular shapes became the subject of Mohamedi’s drawings. These painstakingly created works included the most minute of pencil markings, which were carefully laid out and plotted in compelling, geometric order.

With the Met Breuer positioning itself as a space to present modern and contemporary art in context with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s treasure trove of historical art and artifacts, it is becoming clear that curatorial practices across the United States are globalizing more and more. In New York City alone, in the last decade, both the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art have established programs of international art studies, claiming to give equal billing to arts from the West and regions beyond.

That Mohamedi’s work was selected for the opening of the modern and contemporary art programming at the Met Breuer is telling. The exhibition certainly places her work in line with other Euro-American modernists who were her contemporaries—a pivotal step in pushing forward the important project of filling gaps in the global narrative of modern and contemporary art histories.