Anneka Lenssen: The Developing Surface: Abstraction in Syria, Algeria, and Morocco circa 1965
What if no painting were flat? What if artists developed works around formlessness as well as form? This lecture explores the multidimensional models of abstract painting proposed in the mid-1960s, a moment defined by liberation struggles and an international art world slowly turning away from object-specific practices of making toward ephemeral, conceptualist work. Focusing first on painter Mahmoud Hammad, the lecture examines his critique of the fixed dimensions of painting and positions it in an intellectual lineage encompassing Arab-Muslim theories of atomistic creation, Bergsonian vitalist philosophy, and international enthusiasm for art informel. In the second half of the talk, Lenssen shows links between Hammad’s work and the pedagogical experiments of artists elsewhere in the revolutionary Eastern Mediterranean shore, united by a postcolonial impulse to dispute the European academy’s self-centered narrative of innovation and position abstraction outside the parameters of ideological developmentalism. The results, which claim an element of social responsiveness for painting in Syria, Algeria, and Morocco at a juncture when other artists were abandoning the brush for direct political action, constitute a key case for the writing of a decentered history of modernist practice.
Anneka Lenssen is an Associate Professor in the History of Art Department at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Beautiful Agitation: Modern Painting and Politics in Syria (UC Press, 2020) and co-editor of Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents (MoMA, 2018).
Register here to attend the lecture through Zoom webinar. Live audience Q&A session over Zoom to follow.
Presented by the Department of Art History as part of the 2020/21 Smart Lecture series supported by the Smart Family Foundation.
Image: Mahmoud Hammad, working in studio, Damascus, Syria, c. 1965