By KURT MCVEY December 7, 2023
“My day goes like this:” the artist Nessim Bassan begins shortly after materializing by way of video call, taken and conducted within his modern, multifloor home and studio in Panamá, which boasts panoramic views of the vast, livid Pacific and the narrow isthmus’ famed canal. “I get up in the morning, I exercise until six, I have breakfast, I go to my studio, I get interrupted for one hour with business things, and then from 7:30am on, when I’m really there, I work, until I start to feel really hungry and realize it’s five o’clock.”
Nessim (pronounced like seam) Bassan (Panama City, Panama, b. 1950) has a solo exhibition currently inhabiting Nohra Haime Gallery on West 21st Street in Chelsea. Nessim Bassan: The Unimaginable Worlds of Perfection features over a dozen works, which Bassan calls paintings, but are sometimes referred to as kinetic art or mixed media geometric abstraction. But “paintings” isn’t totally right, nor is the term abstraction, as the works come to the artist’s mind’s eye fully formed-the dimensions, cuts, shapes, and colors-down to the most exacting detail. There is also a deep significance to the works, even if it’s difficult to pin down their message.
Most of the paintings (to happily borrow from Bassan) are laboriously constructed using acrylic-usually minimal in color and often applied in countless layers to create the perception of a color gradient. They also ingeniously utilize linen, pencil, rag paper, cotton thread, and various species of wood. In The Unimaginable Worlds of Perfection, rich, durable mahogany stands out.
“Everything we send that creates dust, we do outside,” Bassan says, stepping out onto his open air patio after quickly pointing out the canal, potent and lithe behind glimmering Atlantic salt water and balmy Panamanian quicksilver. “I’m working on six paintings right now.” Bassan steps back into his studio and asks an assistant (in Spanish) to help him lift a new work. “This thing I just finished is one of the best things I’ve ever done.” The new work features over 50 layers of modeling paste, again, designed to create a subtle ombre, and dozens of small, super-smooth wood spheres, each nestled within tiny paper ringlets that have small holes to let the light in.
The late (2019) Venezuelan artist, the wildly innovative Carlos Cruz-Diez, was a friend of Bassan’s. It was Cruz-Diez that advised Nessim to use a particularly durable and transparent German superglue. He also helped provide answers to questions such as, How do you make a perfect circle out of paper? How do you make it stick onto the surface and defy gravity? Beyond technical advice, there seems to be an ongoing conversation-spoken and unspoken-between what could be called conceptual painters; these art-alchemists, all clearly after something resembling the untenable Philosopher’s Stone of highly-refined spirit and aesthetics.
“You talk about control,” Bassan says, volleying back a query about whether there’s any room at all for happy accidents. “The ideas for my paintings do not evolve. I get an image in my mind; the image is a flash and it’s resolved technically-size, color, whatever-completely resolved in every detail first. I’m telling you, there’s no improvisation. It’s all mathematics.”
The title of the exhibition is at once cheeky and brazen, but also, a humble oxymoron in its executional certitude. These works are perfect. At least they are to the militantly exacting Bassan. They have to be. Bassan receives them (the completed image, aura, and form) from some unknown origin and then must (must!) get them down and out. The images come forth relentlessly. They’re demanding in their desire, their need to manifest with their inherently impossible precision. Bassan, sometimes to the dismay of his hard-working studio assistants, toiling diligently within the newly constructed top floor of his home studio, will throw out a work far into its execution, perhaps even after it’s “completed,” if it doesn’t meet the standard set by some divine or extraterrestrial muse. Bassan acknowledges how insanely frustrating this can be, assuring his staff is paid accordingly. On the call, Bassan seemed to relish the opportunity to reiterate, in deliberate earshot of his assistants (and with a temporary objective interloper or studio voyeur present), the importance of his unforgiving creative process and the depths of his convictions in this regard. It’s difficult, after attempting to scrutinize or poke any metaphorical holes in the finished works, to find any faults or critical wrong turns in the composition, the light and shadow play, the quiet beauty, the confounding layers, the inherent power, the sacred geometry, the secrets, and the almost monastic, sometimes maddeningly onerous execution.
MAGNIFYING GLASS IN SPACE DISCOVERS THE DJOSER PYRAMID IN EGYPT IN 2690 BCE; NUBE CUADRADA CUMULUS NIMBUS CON 2 RELAMPAGOS POR ESTALLAR; MEMORIES OF RAINDROPS FALLING ON THE KOI FISH POND OF KONKAMI - JI ON MY HONEYMOON; ALADDIN'S JEWELS; THE TASTE OF PARFAIT D'AMOUR, and BLACKBIRD SINGING AT NIGHT (“That’s the first one that sold!”), are just a few of the names of the various perfections in Bassan’s show at Nohra Haime Gallery. The titles come to the artist only when the works are finally up and hanging on the wall. They’re also clues into the history of the technique being utilized, or glimpses into Bassan’s own memory and personal history. It calls into question the nature of recall and projection, ditto Jungian notions about the collective unconscious.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m a cheater,” Bassan offers, further joking that his dealer might advise against this sentiment. “I have this little antennae on my head, catching these ideas as if I had nothing to do with them, but I know I do in some way. They arrive complete with all instructions.”
Nohra Haime, who opened her gallery in 1981 and has been serving international artists and audiences for even longer, confided that she first met Bassan when he walked into her gallery unsolicited, old-school-style, asking to share his work. She was impressed by Bassan’s gentle assertiveness and yes, his increasingly precise perfections, which he only began to execute in earnest once more after decades of artistic inactivity (only four years before this writing).
“I was excited to find a powerful visual artist who at the same time is conceptual, minimalistic, and elegant,” says Nohra Haime, who also boasts a gallery in Cartagena, Colombia, which opened in 2011. “His works are unique. They vibrate and have great character.”
“The way it works is like this:” Bassan says, framing then unfolding his art odyssey within a promised 60-second window. “When I was 19, there was a very important Biennale. Thomas Messer of the Guggenheim Museum (Messer was the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy, for 27 years) was the judge. I was awarded first prize. He wrote an article saying he would declare all the other pieces and award winners ‘boring.’ In his opinion, what I was doing was light-years away from most Latin American art, all bright colors and folkloric. We have wonderful art now. At that time, it wasn’t that way.”
Messer then invited the young Bassan to New York to open a studio, but Nessim, a capable scion within a family of businessmen, iterated that his intense father especially “was not having that,” as the artist put it. He learned and then ran the family business. In the process, he raised a loving family. Not until his late sixties would he return to, or answer rather, his deepest calling.
Four years ago in Venice, Italy, a city Bassan’s father first took him to when he was just 11 years-old, Bassan visited the floating city’s Guggenheim Museum at 69 years-young. “At that time, there was an exhibit of white paintings,” Bassan recalls. “There was one by Enrico Castellani. It was almost exactly like a painting I painted in 1971. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
After the video call ended, Bassan sent along a low-res image of his award-winning piece from 1971, which does bear an uncanny, almost eerie resemblance to the late Castellani’s work, which was featured in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection’s exhibition in Venice in 2019. “There was no internet, so there was no way he could have known about me,” says Bassan, who does share some creative DNA with the late Italian artist and his “paintings of light.” Bassan showed his original work, which decades ago had so impressed Messer, to Karole Vail, who has served as director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice since 2017. “We clicked immediately. She let me into the back room every day and eventually, let me inspect that painting. I looked at it from behind. What are the chances of two people creating almost the same artwork and going through the same technical process? I told my wife after seven days there, that it was time for me to start making work again.”
In just four years, Bassan has garnered quite a bit of attention from museums and other institutions. An extensive formal retrospective of Bassan’s works is currently traveling across (what some still refer to as) Central America, having begun at the Contemporary Art Museum in Panamá in November 2022, before moving to the National Identity Museum of Honduras, The Museum of Art of El Salvador and the Museum of Modern Art Carlos Mérida in Guatemala. “I said to my wife, ‘If I can’t paint, I don’t think I could live.’ For the last four years, it’s been the most wonderful period of my life. I realized something I knew all along, maybe unconsciously; all my thoughts, no matter what they are, start with a visual image, then words come later.”
Bassan learned how to paint in the classical, representative tradition starting at seven-years-old. Just four months before submitting his work in the ‘71 Guggenheim Biennale show, after years of studying and practicing the classical painting method, Bassan came down with Mononucleosis for several weeks. It was during this period that he began “receiving” these images. “I am convinced that all these paintings are a necessary activity for me to survive,” he says. “They all try to resolve an emotionally unresolved issue in my life; the mother who loved me too much and the father who was too stern, sibling jealousy; all of this is the food.”
It wasn't easy for a young Nessim Bassan to field these visions, psychologically or emotionally. To cope, he explored Freudian psychoanalysis, often paired in conversation with the aforementioned Jung and his enduring archetypes. For artists like Bassan especially, reconciling the relationship between these two giants is an ongoing dance. “I can say it was a great experience,” he says. “I learned two things: To lose fear. Two: To not be submerged in an emotion that paralyzes me. Consequently, I was able to fall in love and create children.”
It isn’t surprising that both therapists and professional artists develop a “practice.” Bassan is attempting to make an image devoid of conflict, “as if I never had conflicts in my life.” Individual visions are resolved, but the larger narrative (micro/macro) remains eternally unresolved, it would appear for now. “That’s why I keep getting more and more ideas,” he adds. What’s important for Bassan is the recurring reality that working through them is how he survives. In psychoanalysis he further discovered that part of the greater “unresolved” was this intense love of his mother, and her love for Nessim, her son. “I tried to separate myself from her during adolescence,” he adds. “Yes, there’s notions of Oedipus, interdependence, etc. It is true. Perhaps all this fuss and all these images are about trying to continually resolve this one issue?”
Bassan has been married to his wife for 40 years. “I said to her, ‘Do you realize I’m a little crazy?’ She said, ‘I’ve known that for a very long time.’ ” In therapy, Bassan also discovered he was perhaps being a bit overwhelming in this same overbearing, effusively loving style to his four sons, all adults now. Outside of therapy, Bassan heads to his synagogue every Saturday morning. It’s here that the images roll in like an avalanche. As the weeks roll on, visions and the execution of those visions, lead to ongoing resolution across multiple life vectors. Just days before interviewing Bassan, he related that he recently worked with a professional hypnotist in order to enter a flow state to sketch the images that arrive, eyes-wide-open, in real time. Sometimes the visions can appear like a patterned sock turned inside out, replete with wild, chaotic threads, indecipherable, until they're flipped by Bassan, and the pattern becomes clear.
The notion that there might be something too clinical, sterile, or architectural about the process and the final product is presented to Bassan. Are these visions simply blueprints? Rigid recipes to be followed to the most minute measurement? He’s aware that much of the art world, in New York City especially, is largely still about paint being pushed around in a thin, haphazard frenzy of unskilled emotion. The stale trope of human faces being left out of the figurative specter, for instance, has crossed over into a place of absurd collective laziness, far past some kind of original, powerful statement of erasure. This trope needs to be called out. It doesn’t have to stop, but the gesture has lost its power and erased any collective notions of pure intention.
Bassan points back to his classical training: “I am sternly in the belief that without that [training], I couldn’t do this. It’s like wanting to be a doctor without going to medical school.” Moving to another room on a lower floor of his home, Bassan points out an uncanny reproduction, done in his own painterly hand, of The Coronation of Napoleon (Le Sacre de Napoléon) a painting executed in 1807 by Jacques-Louis David. Nessim replaces characters in his own 2018 tableau with members from his own life. Cheeky again. But Bassan’s skillset in this regard is confirmed.
Pushed further, an interesting analogy emerges. “There’s something beyond the image; beyond the technique” he says. “What’s the difference between a ballet dancer and a gymnast? When I watch a ballet, the technique is transcended by that person’s dancing. The end is the feeling that’s provoked. The athlete is there to make the most immaculate, perfect movement, not necessarily to provoke happiness or sadness.” But it is important, it’s offered, that Bassan, like the olympic gymnast, “sticks the landing.” Some artists, those who can’t or won’t paint faces, who leave much of the canvas untouched and unfinished, might say sticking the landing isn’t important at all, that skill is subservient to emotion, that quality of execution should take a backseat to the polemics of the day, that imperfection or incompletion is the name of the game, or at least their game. Bassan briefly related how laborious even the lighting process was for The Unimaginable Worlds of Perfection in Nohra Haime’s New York gallery. Lights were pushed back, press materials had to be re-shot, artificial (not from the sun) lighting itself was intensely interrogated. “I find that too much art is shocking and ugly and devoid of artistic value. If it’s not a perfect landing, it cannot transmit what it needs to transmit. If it’s not perfect, I destroy it, and believe me, sometimes it’s exhausting, very exhausting, because I’m never satisfied.” WM