Simone Fattal: Works and Days
March 31 - September 2, 2019
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, August 2019
Every once in a while, a show in New York by an artist based elsewhere makes the point that New York’s art chauvinism needs to be challenged. Yet New York is not so very closed--indeed, it is a great international center for art--as to deny those exhibitions that would expand the geographical origins of art many people believe first occurred here. Twenty years ago, the Queens Museum made exactly that point in its fine “Global Conceptualism” show, which decisively proved that artists were making similar conceptual work all over the world! In the remarkable show by Simone Fattal, the Lebanese and American artist now on at MoMA PS1, an artist of truly international experience and gifts is showing some 200 works made over the last fifty years, many of which are ceramic sculptures both figurative and abstract, as well as remarkable paintings and works on paper, which are usually expressively non-objective.
Fattal’s education and history is peripatetic--born in Syria, raised in Lebanon, she studied philosophy in Beirut. She then went on to Paris to continue her studies, returning to Beirut in 1969. But Fattal left Lebanon for California in 1980, when the civil war broke out. In California, she founded the Post-Apollo Press, devoted to innovative authorial efforts, and then, in 1988, she enrolled in a course at the Art Institute in San Francisco, returning to art and to ceramic sculpture in particular. She now lives in Paris, and this show, “Simone Fattal” Works and Days,” offers American viewers a strong selection of her inspired vision, taken as it is with an eclectic contingency, as much the result of war and political unrest as it is the consequence of a very gifted, very determined artist. Her ceramic works are usually small, slightly inchoate, and move toward an impression of the animal or person being discussed. For example, Fattal’s Horse (2000) is small in size, being only ten inches tall. Its tan glaze covers a diminutive body supported by four large legs, while the head is delicately sculpted and is generally horse-like without adhering to the larger dimensions of the animal’s legs.
One wonders if the myriad sculptures on show might serve as a populace supporting the difficult life of the artist, who has set up studios in several countries. Her sculptures are evocative in the extreme--the horse is moving without our knowing why, maybe because of its mixture of raw and refined sensibilities. In her figurative studies, we don’t see actual persons so much as we see impressions of them--recognizable, to be sure, but more suggestive than accurate in their presentation. Why would Fattal do this? It is hard to say--displayed as the sculptures are in large groups, the general impression one feels is of anonymous masses--not least the result from antiquity, that is, the ancient cultures Fattal comes from. In a way, then, the show is a spirited demonstration of persistence in places where the memory of archaic beginnings is actively being destroyed. Indeed, the subtitle “Works and Days” refers to a poem on agricultural life, written by the Greek poet Hesiod in 700 BC. So there is a conscious effort by the curator Ruba Katrib to acknowledge the very, very old visual origins supporting Fattal’s efforts.
But Fattal is not only a scholar; she is also a partly American artist thoroughly conversant with our expressive abstraction. Many of her paintings and works on paper are highly knowledgeable, and skilled, examples of American non-objective painting idioms. Interior Spring (1974) makes her skill at lyric abstraction abundantly clear. Here her muse seems to be de Kooning, but that is actually not of so much consequence. Her rough strips of yellow, framed by more substantial areas of the same color, along with nodes of white and red aligning with a white spaces in the central interior of the painting, show more than a passing knowledge of the American love of lyric painting. In truth, Fattal seems to move back and forth between high refinement and a rough directness: witness the primal forms that constitute Fattal’s 2000 glazed stoneware sculpture entitled Man in the Desert. Here a truncated figure the color of yellow sand stands up on two strong legs, but without an upper torso, head or arms. It is a contemporary ode to the lost culture of the artist’s terrain, perhaps distant now that she is living in Paris but alive in her memory nonetheless.
To close with an image: a marvelous painting of a mountain--a black-and-white diptych, in which two halves of a black stone rise, colliding without meeting each other exactly. The image takes up only the lower third of the otherwise white space, but the drama resulting from so simple a form is large beyond what we expect. It is not a big painting--it looks like Fattal is dedicated to moderate size. Yet the effect overall of the show is epic, like some of the poems she is inspired by. This exhibition, put together extremely well by Katrib, makes it clear that New York’s internationalism, which tends to follow trends (think of our infatuation with Chinese art in the Nineties), needs to regularly place artists from geographies we hardly know into space here we do--not only for reasons of ethnic or religious catholicity, but also because the artists are so good. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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