Artist, Radical, Woman, Other

Artist, Radical, Woman, Other


A number of era-defining works by artists from the Middle East, Asia and the United States will be offered in the upcoming Contemporary Curated sale, online from 14-21 April. All of these artists were active throughout the male-dominated art world of 20th Century, but it is perhaps only now that their true value in the market is coming to light. Ahead of the sale, we explore five revolutionary artists whose contribution and legacy is more relevant than ever.

Fahrelnissa Zeid

Known as the ‘Painter Princess’, Fahrelnissa Zeid refused to be limited by the expectations of her gender, or her royal status. As a young woman, she was one of the first female students to attend the Imperial School of Art in Istanbul, before briefly studing at the Académie Ranson in Paris.

Fahrelnissa Zeid working on a large canvas in her studio
Fahrelnissa Zeid working on a large canvas in her studio.

By the 1930s, she had married Iraqi Prince Emir Zeid Al-Hussein, which meant balancing a life as both a diplomat’s wife and a radical artist. In the 1940s, she filled their ambassadorial residence in London with art and threw lavish parties attended by the cultural elite, while extensively exhibiting at the same time in London and from 1950s onwards, also in leading galleries and institutions in Paris. She was the first female artist and the only to exhibit at ICA in London for many years to come and a regular at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles exhibitions between 1951 and 1954 held at Musée d’art Moderne de la Ville in Paris alongside works by the leading contemporaries of the period including Jean Arp, Victor Vasarely and Fernand Léger.

Despite these affiliations, Zeid refused to align herself with any particular circle. She drew on broad influences such as Italian Renaissance architecture, Breughel paintings, Islamic geometry and Byzantine mosaics, perfecting her own unique style that moved into the realms of vibrant abstraction. This included vast canvases filled with complex interconnected blocks of colour, with a later return to bold, figurative portraiture which she had already done in the 1960s and very early on in her artistic career.

Despite critical acclaim and an impressive exhibition history, Zeid at times felt somewhat exoticised. She secured her legacy by founding the Fahrelnissa Zeid Institute of Fine Arts in Amman, Jordan, where she influenced a whole new generation of artists—specifically women with no academic training. Prior to her passing in 1991, her works were brought together in new retrospectives at the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris and the Neue Gallerie (Sammlung Ludwig) in Aachen in 1990. In 2017, Tate Modern held a major retrospective on the artist's work, while also acquiring a major work by the artist for their permanent collection and the retrospective then travelled onto Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle in Berlin.

Etel Adnan

Etel Adnan was already an acclaimed poet and writer by the time she looked to visual art as a form of voiceless language in the 1960s.

Etel Adnan photographed by James Mollison for the Wall Street Journal.

The itinerant multi-linguist was born in Beirut and forms part of a network of pioneering Lebanese abstractionists that includes Huguette Caland and Saloua Raouda Choucair, all of whom looked to visuality as an unadulterated form of communication related to spirituality.

Adnan refers to painting as, "the equivalent of poetic expression; I didn’t need to use words, but colors and lines" and has spoken of the metaphysical power of colour. Using a palette knife to apply succinct slabs of paint, or sparse yet confident pastel and pencil marks, she crafts scenes that allude to natural landscapes, most notably the Californian Mount Tamalpais, which is close to her adopted home of Sausalito.

She has continually documented the site, taking note of the changes that come with weather and seasons, and has most recently focused on memory impressions as opposed to observation, to build pictures that speak to the power and multiplicity of recollection, as much as the reality of geography. Both SFMoMA and the Serpentine Galleries have held recent exhibitions of Adnan's work, in 2018 and 2016 respectively, exposing new audiences to the importance of her visual language.

Yayoi Kusama

Few could argue Yayoi Kusama’s influence across not only on the art world, but broader pop culture. The prolific Japanese artist’s oeuvre spans sculpture, performance, fashion, immersive installation and painting, all of which are unified by an all-consuming obsession with dots. The artist refers to the motif as an opportunity to connect with the wider universe and grapple with mental illness, claiming that, “Our earth is only one polka dot among the million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity.”

While these dots often manifest themselves literally—on the surface of a gigantic pumpkin or emblazoned across her own body—they also serve as the base material for wondrously complex compositions, such as the one seen in Star. Kusama carves her spots out of negative space, creating brightly coloured networks of dots and lines that form psychedelic amorphous entities and allude to the expansiveness of our existence, whether it be the cosmos or the depths of the ocean.

Monir Farmanfarmaian

Mirrors were the primary medium of Iranian artist Monir Farmanfarmaian. She used their reflective surfaces to create optically fascinating tessellations that recall elaborate mosaics found in the mosque and palaces of her home country.

Monir Farmanfarmaian at work in her studio.

She referenced the dazzling interiors of Shah Cheragh as a defining site, which offered a moment of creative epiphany when she visited in 1975. Though she travelled extensively—residing for a time in New York, where she befriended the likes of Andy Warhol, Louise Nevelson and Willem de Kooning— Farmanfarmaian always maintained strong links to Iran, celebrating traditional craft and form within her work and infusing them with her own experimental geometries. Her time in New York was explored in the 2015 Guggenheim exhibition Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, the first survey of her work in America, and this followed on from the 2014 show Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Infinite Possibility. Mirror Works and Drawings 1974-2014 at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto, demonstrating a gathering momentum for the appreciation and study of the artist's practice

Her deft command of both two-and-three-dimensional surface saw her create exceptional hybrid objects, many of which are mathematical feats that show a dedication to the possibilities of repetition and pattern. In other instances, a love for the gaudy and excessive tendencies of 1970s kitsch come through in disco-ball style creations, which were understandably appreciated by Warhol. A few years before her death in 2019 Farmanfarmaian was honoured with an eponymous museum in Tehran, the first institution devoted to a solo female artist in the country.

Pat Steir

Pat Steir claims that she has been "forgotten and rediscovered many times", despite maintaining a practice spanning half a century. The New York-based artist first came to prominence in the 1970s as a member of the feminist Heresies collective, developing her own distinct visual language by marrying the influence of conceptual art with the teachings of John Cage and meditative practices such as the ancient Chinese art of Yi-pin (ink splashing).

The resulting theoretical approach sees Steir standing on top of a ladder and flinging a loaded brush across her immense canvases with calculated movement, thus producing works that embody a specific element of chance, where layered drips of pigment descend the surface. This serendipitous process places emphasis on the physicality of her materials, as the artist explains, ‘The paint itself makes the picture... gravity makes the image.’

The transcendental power of Steir’s ongoing Waterfall series, which encapsulate the action of falling water as opposed to mere representation, are the most well-known in her oeuvre, and include a commission by the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. The fact that she is the first artist to make site-specific work for the institution since Matisse is testament to her evocative canvases, and what should be a truly lasting legacy.

Contemporary Art

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