Nasreen Mohamedi

Joshua Mack on the inaugural Met Breuer show in New York by the Indian modernist artist

By Joshua Mack

Untitled, c. 1975, ink and graphite on paper, 24 × 24 cm. Sikander and Hydari Collection


The Met Breuer, New York, 18 March – 5 June 2016

The work of Nasreen Mohamedi (1937–1990) seems both a textbook example of the complex fusion of intellectual, cultural and personal experience that constitutes international Modernism, and an ideal opportunity, particularly as one of the inaugural offerings at the newly opened Met Breuer, for the Metropolitan Museum of Art to demonstrate how it might expand both the museum’s and the public’s understanding of the ‘global’, the ‘local’ and the ‘individual’.

Born in Karachi before the partition of the subcontinent and raised in Bombay, Mohamedi followed a degree course at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London between 1954 and 1957, and studied printmaking in Paris during the early 1960s. She travelled extensively in the Gulf (her family maintained a business in Bahrain); spent time at the Bhulabhai Desai Institute, a centre of the avant-garde in Bombay; and taught at the prestigious Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda from 1972 until 1988.

She worked almost exclusively on paper and predominantly in greys and blacks. During the 1960s she made drawings and watercolours in which spidery lines articulate plantlike forms, or soft-edged planes abut and overlap. The influence of Paul Klee and Henri Michaux, as well as of Indian painter V.S. Gaitonde, with whom she was close, is clear. In 1970 she began drawing vertical and diagonal lines across horizontal registers, creating complex illusions of spatial rhythms and perspectival shifts. In later works, parallel lines, often on the diagonal, appear to float in an indeter-minate pictorial space.

Mohamedi’s break into geometric abstraction was sudden and anomalous, especially in India, where modern art was mostly figurative. Her work is clearly self-referential and personal – with particular pathos, as she suffered from Huntington’s disease and struggled to draw with precision. Any resemblance to ‘Western’ minimalism seems to be coincidental.

Eschewing social and geographic clichés of centre and periphery, the Met survey presents the oeuvre in corridorlike spaces with wall texts emphasising its chronological and formal development, arguing, in effect, that it must be taken on its own terms. Those terms are set not only by the work’s physical presence but also by its context. While Mohamedi, according to several catalogue essays, spoke little about her art and left little archival material, she did keep diaries rich in clues as to her wide-ranging erudition and personal spirituality (she was widely read in European philosophy and Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic religious texts). Entries include mentions of the Zen gardens of Ryōan-ji in Kyoto, and of artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Irwin, as well as aphoristic snippets such as ‘full moon a perfect circle complete serenity’. She also took photographs of, among other subjects, desert landscapes and Mughal monuments that reveal an intense interest in light and shadow, perspective and line.

The catalogue explores some of this material, but aside from a brief reference to Sufism and Islamic aesthetics in an intro-ductory wall text, formalism drives the show. Mohamedi’s photographs are scattered through the galleries and appear more as modifiers for the drawings than as an aesthetically complete and complementary pursuit. Three diaries are also displayed, but in low cases, which makes them difficult to see. Their contents remain almost completely unexplored. These curatorial decisions evince an old-fashioned reading that limits understanding of the work to a small-bore, teleological pursuit of pure geometric abstraction.

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of ArtReview.