Found in Translation


A conversation with Steven Naifeh and Will South, curator of the Columbia Museum of Art, conducted at the time of Naifeh's 2013 solo retrospective exhibition there.


SOUTH: Steve, you live in the West and you’ve written about Western artists – Van Gogh most recently and Pollock before that, and won a Pulitzer-Prize for that – but your art is rooted in a different artistic tradition: that is, the geometric abstractions of the Arab and Islamic worlds. How do you explain that?

Façade at Kharraqan Towers

Façade at Kharraqan Towers

NAIFEH: I’m hardly the first Western artist to find inspiration outside traditional mainstream Western art. Frank Stella borrowed from Celtic art, which he encountered for the first time in a museum or a library. Picasso employed motifs from African art and the Iberian Peninsula.

I grew up in the Arab and Islamic world. My father's family came from there – my grandparents immigrated to the United States from what is now Lebanon and Jordan. My father, who flew B-29s in World War II, went into the U.S. Foreign Service and became one of the few American diplomats of Arab origin to become an "Arabist," meaning a specialist in the Arab world.

Because of his work, I spent my entire childhood going from one Arab or Islamic country to another. It was that vagabond upbringing – that “military brat” thing – that allowed me to experience the entire breadth of the Islamic world: from Iran, Iraq, Libya, and the Arabian Peninsula (the core of Islam); east to Pakistan, where the population is Islamic but the culture is a synthesis of Islamic and Asian traditions; and even south to Nigeria, where Islamic art encountered the rich veldt of African traditions.

I grew up in all of these places. I was very much an American kid. I went to American-run schools. At every embassy where my father was posted, we celebrated the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. I was the single member of the first official Boy Scout troop in Baida, Libya. But I still lived in those cultures, not apart from them. It was the 1950s, and these were not tourist spots. And because of my father’s work, we travelled throughout the regions where he was stationed. We weren’t hole up in guarded enclaves. There were no “Green Zones.” So indigenous art was everywhere around me all the time.

I visited Cairo for the first time at a young age and saw the Ibn Tulun Mosque, a thousand-year-old building that looks as daring and modern as anything built in the twenty-first century. I was born in Tehran when my parents were serving there. Later, before the revolution that brought the current regime to power, my father took us on a family vacation to Isfahan to see the great mosques and palaces of that fabled city.

At the same time I grew up surrounded by all that, I was also exploring Western art in books and magazines and museums. I started painting when I was ten by making still lifes in the style of Picasso. It wasn’t until I was fifteen that I painted my first geometric abstractions. Looking back, I can see that the faceting of Cubism related to the modularity of Islamic art, but when you're fifteen, you’re not thinking like that – you’re just doing it. I used the word “modular” in an exhibition title for the first time when I was twenty-one.

SOUTH: Your mature work is heavily modular – it's made up of single units that combine to form a whole. Take a work like Saida, for example. I'm looking at one that happens to be a yellowish gold. It has a very light color value, but the rhythm and the precision of the elements – the way the shapes emanate out from the center and get larger left and right, downward and upward, all at the same time. I mean, it's quite expansive, rhythmic, and it has a very positive feeling.

NAIFEH: Yes. Saida is an Arabic word meaning "happiness.” When I found the geometric basis for this series, it was incredibly exciting. And I think most people who see it have the same feeling. It is so surprising and delightful the way the pattern works out – how these boxes of different sizes stack into a spiral. It combines the satisfying resolution of geometry with the playfulness of Op Art. The contradiction of these two pleasures affects the way you see the image. Your eye oscillates constantly between the stable overall design and the shape-shifting separate elements. The result is a kind of visual laughter. It’s the same reaction you might have to a magic trick: “That can’t be right!” “How does it work?”

Bridget Riley. Drift No. 2. 1966. Acrylic on Canvas.

Bridget Riley. Drift No. 2. 1966. Acrylic on Canvas.

SOUTH: It also references important works of Western art going back to Michelangelo and the Piazza de Campidoglio in Rome, the plaza that he designed with a spiral that bears some similarity to early Islamic work.

NAIFEH: And jump all the way forward to the Op Art movement of the 1960s. Op Art was really important to me – especially the work of the British artist, Bridget Riley. When I was twenty-one, I interned at the National Gallery of Art. The Director’s office there had one painting by Riley and one by Rubens. I fell in love with both works, and their proximity vindicated my interest in geometric abstraction. It was about that time when I began to study Islamic and Arab precedents more systematically for possible ways to integrate them with contemporary Western art.

That meant confronting all the questions asked by twentieth-century Western artists: How do you expand the definition of what constitutes a painting? What materials do you use? Do you create the painting on a single canvas? As to that last one, it struck me that I could use separate canvases to underscore the modular nature of the original: the strict mathematical progression that defines the relationship of the parts to the whole.

SOUTH: Your precedents were often two-dimensional. Yet your works, like the Saida series, are often conceived in three dimensions. How did you make that leap?

NAIFEH: I tend to work with a three-inch thickness, whether it’s with shaped canvas stretchers or with metal. Three inches was the thickness of Stella’s early canvases. The added thickness makes the work at the same time both a painting and a wall sculpture. That ambiguous status is reinforced by the relationship of the work’s elements to the wall on which it hangs – a relationship that has been another central concern of Western contemporary art. With the Saida series, the spaces between the square elements become essential parts of the work. In Inverse Saida, I tried to explore this relationship by flipping the positive and negative elements. The squares recede and the arrowhead-like spaces between them dominate – all without losing the dynamism and geometric unity of the whole.

SOUTH: Well, it's just an explosion. For a fixed image, it’s tremendously kinetic. It's got scale, it's got power. Without oversimplifying your biography, it seems to me that you're the ideal candidate to create an art of this complexity and balance because you really have such deep roots in both traditions.

NAIFEH: I guess there must have been some sort of unconscious set of internal conversations in which I thought about the process of merging my two life experiences, but I really don't recall it. The process was a natural one. Once the synthesis of the two artistic experiences began, it became inevitable.

Jali Screen, Mughal India

Jali Screen, Mughal India

SOUTH: But you also had an important artistic experience in a different part of the world: namely Africa.

NAIFEH: Yes. In 1967, when I was fifteen, my father was appointed Cultural Attaché of the U.S. Embassy in Lagos, Nigeria. Nigeria had a highly educated population, the result of generations of British education. Lagos was – and still is, I think – the artistic center of Africa, both in music and in the visual arts.

Of course, Nigeria had an incredibly vibrant arts scene long before the colonial era. The Nok culture, which flourished there between about 1000 B.C. and 500 A.D., produced stunning terracotta sculptures. The artists of Benin, which became a part of Nigeria, made magnificent bronzes, which are among the great works of art in world culture. Nigeria’s Yoruba and Ife tribes produced glorious woodcarvings.

Those traditions were still very much alive when I lived there. Because my father was the Cultural Attaché, I got to meet all the great artists: Ben Osawe, Yusuf Grillo, Emokpae. I had the good fortune to become acquainted with Lamidi Fakeye, who was the grandson of one of the greatest nineteenth-century Yoruba carvers and was himself the leading Yoruba carver of his generation. Probably the pre-eminent Nigerian artist of the period, Bruce Onobrakpeya, became my teacher at age fifteen.

SOUTH: Those kinds of early, formative encounters are very rare among Western contemporary artists. What did you learn from them?

NAIFEH: I watched all of these artists struggle with the question of how to stay connected to their own rich artistic heritage while also making a place for themselves in the larger world culture. It was not an easy thing to do; and not all of them succeeded. Ben Osawe was doing versions of Henry Moore, with whom he had studied. They were quite good variations on Moore, but they didn't really engage any African traditions. He had so much to bring to that interaction, yet he didn’t. The same can be said about Emokpae, who did paintings in the manner of Franz Kline. It’s true that he used colors derived from Nigerian fabrics, but otherwise the two traditions hover over his canvases like strangers locked together in the same room.

There was also a printmaker with the wonderful name Twins Seven-Seven. (He was from a family with seven sets of twins; he belonged to the seventh set.) Like Bruce Onobrakpeya, he had studied in Ibadan, a city north of Lagos where a colony of German artists had established a printmaking school, bringing with them their knowledge of German Expressionist printmaking. Of course, everyone knows how important African art was to German Expressionism. Kirchner, Pechstein, and others collected African art and employed African elements in their work. But not many people know that that influence ran both ways. I watched as these youngish African artists re-learned their own heritage through the prism of German Expressionism.

SOUTH: The German Expressionists weren’t the only Western artists who were looking at African art at the beginning of the twentieth century. Picasso famously used African masks in his early Cubist works, notably in Les démoiselles d'Avignon; and other major Western artists have been struck by the beauty and power and “modernity” of traditional Africa art.

NAIFEH: Yes, and what has been particularly exciting for me is to see what's happened in the last twenty-five years as world culture has more completely – how should I say it? – coalesced. For example, there are Japanese artists who have managed to bring the traditional art of screen painting into the ongoing dialogue of modern global abstraction.

And in Africa, El Anatsui has created sculptures that are clearly based on West African fabric art but also look absolutely at home on the walls of Western museums, where many of them now hang. He has taken a regional art form and fully integrated it into world visual culture.

I feel very fortunate that, as a teenager, I saw the intense struggle that made this triumph possible. And I'm sure that experience had a major impact on my own creative trajectory.

SOUTH: But in your work – especially the recent work – that “struggle,” as you call it, seems to have been resolved. I'm looking at a work in the Uzbek series, which manages the nifty trick of being both simple and complex at the same time. It has a square format, which brings Josef Albers to mind, but in the center is a spiral whirling its ways towards the edges – an intimation of depth that would have been anathema to Greenberg and the Formalist critics. There is even a hint of representational narrative with the sun-like shape at the middle surrounded by radiating stars.

Malatya, Great Mosque Interior

Malatya, Great Mosque Interior

NAIFEH: The process I went through in developing the Uzbek series is especially instructive in understanding my work. It is based on a specific dome in a thousand-year-old Uzbek mosque. Because that mosque was built in one of the more desolate towns along the Silk Road, not in a great urban center like Damascus or Cairo, it is relatively primitive. The material is sunbaked brick and the craftsmanship is crude. The dome is rough and slightly misshapen, like a piece of handmade pottery – which it is, in a way.

But even the builders of that simple mosque felt the same urges to formal perfection and decorative splendor that inspired wealthier clients and more skilled artisans to create masterpieces of world culture like the Ibn Tulun Mosque or the Taj Mahal. The Uzbek builders took squares of glazed turquoise and placed them in a rough spiral pattern on the dome’s brick interior. The result was both abstractly simple and spectacularly beautiful – and undoubtedly seemed celestial to the people who worshipped under it.

SOUTH: Is that the reason why you switched media so radically? As far as I know, the Uzbek series is the first one in which you used light boxes. Were you trying to evoke the celestial hints that those turquoise tiles represented?

NAIFEH: I never thought of it quite that way, but I guess the answer is probably yes. I saw my challenge as making the perfect spiral that the rustic craftsmen of Uzbek aspired to make but didn’t have the means to make. I used a computer application to identify the underlying geometry of the Uzbek dome, to distill its mathematical formula, and then to express that formula as precisely as possible – just as those country craftsmen would have done if they could have.

I chose the media – colored acrylic light boxes, LED lights – because they seemed best suited to achieving those goals. I have liked light sculptures since I was a teenager. I once met Chryssa – her name is not terribly current anymore; artists pass in and out of favor – and she made wonderful sculptures using shaped neon lights. She was a friend of Sam Hunter, who was my teacher at Princeton. That was another powerful moment in my evolution.

SOUTH: This Uzbek piece would look completely comfortable in a show of works made in the 1960s. It's another piece that is wholly of one world and wholly of another.

NAIFEH: Certainly Dan Flavin was a very major presence in the art world at the time and continues to be to this day. So you're absolutely right. This sculpture is not just of the moment but goes all the way back to the 60s, when quite a few artists were sculpting in light. Bruce Nauman was also working with neon, although he was using it in a more representational, not to say literal way. The Uzbek images were inspired by the East, but the materials are completely Western.

SOUTH: That’s another reason why, when I look at these works, I feel like I'm going back and forth between very distant, disparate worlds, and yet those worlds get unified in the context of your work.

NAIFEH: That's one of the characteristics of art that is always so gratifying to people who know art history. It's one reason why knowing art history is incredibly valuable to having an enriched experience of any single work of art. It's very exciting to look at a work and see the influences that went into it, the parallels with contemporaneous works by other artists, and its influence on works that came after it and out of it.

Frank Stella. Quathlamba. 1964. Metallic powder in polymer emulsion.

Frank Stella. Quathlamba. 1964. Metallic powder in polymer emulsion.

SOUTH: You said earlier that Frank Stella drew the inspiration for some of his work from Celtic art. So some influences go way back.

NAIFEH: In that case, the influence was channeled through the early encaustic works of Jasper Johns, especially his Target and American Flag series, as mediated by Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. But Stella was clearly alert to the relationship between his geometric abstraction and the geometric abstraction of the Arab and Islamic worlds, which is why he called one of the paintings in his Protractor series Damascus Gate.

SOUTH: All these associations enrich the experience of a work of art. In a painting or sculpture, you see not just the formal properties of the work – the colors, the shapes, the subject – but also the resonances with other works of art, with literature, music, religion, philosophy.

NAIFEH: With life, basically. That’s why, with a great work, no one viewer sees all of the resonances, and no two viewers see the same resonances, and some viewers see resonances not seen by the artist.

I would like to think that my art works that way, too: that it creates for each viewer a personalized set of resonances based on his or her own experience of the arts, experience of life, experience of the world, experience of different parts of the world.

SOUTH: Just as your work comes out of Islamic art but resonates beyond that place and that era.

NAIFEH: Exactly. A good example is the Sultan series, which takes its crescent and tiger-ribbon motifs from the most iconic example of Ottoman textile design. But those are two-dimensional designs; my works are three-dimensional wall sculptures. I was inspired by something called “sand roses,” which are small crescent-shaped sand dunes created when gusts of wind hit an obstacle, like an outcropping of rock. Over time, the sand behind the rock forms into a crescent shape.

I first observed this natural phenomenon in the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula. Years later, I made my first Sultan sculpture. Years after that, I saw that one of Anish Kapoor’s early pigment sculptures used a similar, single crescent shape placed on the floor. I have not asked him where his inspiration came from, but I doubt it was sand roses.

SOUTH: It’s interesting to me that you decided not to paint the desert as you saw it, but to express your memories of it in abstraction, in abstract sculptures. Most people – and I’m basing this not on science, but on being in the museum world for thirty years – think of abstract art – circles, squares, splashes of paint – as distinct from, even distant from, reality. They think of representational art – landscapes, portraits, still lifes, etc. – as reality-based art. But isn’t that a false dichotomy?

For example, a pyramid is a solid, mathematically constructed, real thing: a four-sided solid with a square bottom and four triangular sides that rise to a point. But to the ancient Egyptians, it could be far more than that. Enlarged to gigantic proportions, it was a tomb for kings, a symbol of immortality, an aspiration in stone – an abstract thing replete with cultural, political, and religious meaning.

In fact, don’t most societies live with some kinds of abstraction? Words are abstract, numbers are abstract, nationalities are abstract, religion is abstract, and, of course, music is abstract.

Robert Mangold, ½ W Series. 1968. Synthetic polymer paint on composition board in two parts.

Robert Mangold, ½ W Series. 1968. Synthetic polymer paint on composition board in two parts.

NAIFEH: Love is abstract. The past is abstract.

SOUTH: So abstraction is essential to an experience of reality, past and present, and your art is informed by the past and updated for the present.

NAIFEH: If you look at the earliest human and even pre-human visual artistic expressions, you find representations of both seen reality and abstraction. Cave men used their bodies as stencils – They filled their mouths with pigment then put their hands on cave walls and blew the pigment against them, creating silhouettes of handprints that are the first “self-portraits” we have. There are other examples, equally ancient, of early humans using lines and other geometric shapes to adorn objects. They did this, presumably, both to decorate those objects and to give them more complex, abstract meaning. So I think that both the portrayal of the seen reality and the representation of an unseen universe are present in human visual expression from the very beginning.

SOUTH: Oh absolutely they are.

NAIFEH: If you make abstract art, as I do, you are constantly wondering about the differences between abstraction and representation. You wonder if abstraction can provide the same sort of meaning – the same emotional and spiritual solace – that representational art does.

That has been one of the principal challenges for abstraction since its beginnings in the early twentieth century. Can an abstract painting have the same emotional impact as a Deposition from the Cross, which uses not only artistic means, but also shared human experience – the death of a loved one – and a powerful shared narrative – the Passion of Christ – to create an image with such emotional impact that it knocks you to your knees?

I would argue that some abstract art does have more than a visual impact. Including the example you used, an Egyptian pyramid, because of the perfection of the concept, because of the scale, and because of the site. It’s not hard to imagine what the pyramids must have looked like five thousand years ago to someone traveling across the desert and seeing those perfect geometric shapes thrust into the sky, clad not in the rough, degraded blocks we see today, but in perfectly polished sheets of limestone. The sides were absolutely flat and white and shone like diamonds. It must have been both other-worldly and unbelievably exciting.

SOUTH: Every bit as exciting, I think, are the incredibly touching Fayum mummy portraits that were made in Roman Egypt. They take the form of accurate representational portraits of specific people, but in them we can see the lives, the dreams, the fears, and the yearning for continued existence that we all still share.

Kazimir Malevich, Painterly Realism of a Boy with a Knapsack – Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension. 1915. Oil on canvas.

Kazimir Malevich, Painterly Realism of a Boy with a Knapsack – Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension. 1915. Oil on canvas.

NAIFEH: Exactly. They show one specific thing, but they represent so much more. What I find so powerful about the art of Kazimir Malevich, who helped set the West on this complex and fascinating path towards a modern abstract idiom, is that he was looking not just for decorative impact but also for spiritual significance. He wanted his small geometric paintings to have the emotional impact of a Russian icon.

And I would say the same thing about the Islamic and Arab precedents for most of my own work. The geometries that were created by Islamic mathematicians a thousand years ago are intricate and beautiful and visually compelling. But these great medieval mathematicians saw the innate perfection of their geometries as a reflection of God’s perfection. Inherent in the models from which I’m working is this striving after transcendent truth, and I hope that gives my work a deeper meaning than just abstraction for abstraction’s sake.

SOUTH: Well absolutely, it does.

NAIFEH: Even the process of conceiving an abstract work can give it a meaning beyond its surface appeal. When I saw Frank Stella’s early work for the first time, I was overwhelmed not just by their formal simplicity and perfection, but also by their intellectual rigor. Stella’s effort to create an image from the shape of the canvas – to build an image from the process of creating it – had an intellectual clarity that was unbelievably exciting to me even as a teenager, years before it was “explained” to me in the articles of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, who helped bring Stella to public attention.

SOUTH: I was interested to find out in a previous conversation that you went to Princeton but you arrived just after Frank Stella was a student there. Did you know Michael Fried as well?

NAIFEH: Actually, no. Fried was a student at Princeton before I got there, and he was teaching at Harvard before I got there. I missed him both places. Fried’s most influential article was for the catalogue of an exhibition called Three American Painters. The three painters were Jules Olitski, Ken Noland, and Frank Stella. That article was extremely important to me.

After the Second World War, painters like Fried’s troika were attracted to abstraction as a way of expressing universal truths in a world searching for stability – for peace and harmony after half a century of cataclysmic conflict. Interestingly, these are exactly the rewards that the Arab world, the Asian world, and Africa, had long since discovered in abstract art.

This is the other great role of art – and the most important one to Vincent van Gogh – namely, the ability to comfort and console. One of my favorite quotes from a great artist is Matisse's wonderful line that he wanted his paintings to be like a comfortable armchair.

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square. c. 1923-1930. Oil on plaster.

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square. c. 1923-1930. Oil on plaster.

SOUTH: For the businessman who comes home at the end of the day.

NAIFEH: And I think that's a perfectly legitimate purpose for art – to provide the solace of delight. Take someone like Ellsworth Kelly, for example. His great work at the Metropolitan, which is a series of large vertical panels of color arrayed from yellow through yellow-green all the way across the spectrum to orange and yellow again. The sensual delight of those beautiful pastel colors is overwhelming. You can't walk past that Kelly without experiencing the same delight that you experience in listening to a great work of music. It's abstract, but it's also sensually pleasing and calming and comforting. Even though I hope that much of what I do has a deeper spiritual resonance for the viewer, I also hope to achieve this same sort of visual delight.

There is nothing wrong with surface beauty. The sensuous brushwork of a John Singer Sargent portrait, the jewel-like colors of a Northern Renaissance altar piece, all of that milky white marble and semi-precious stone inlay in the Taj Mahal – there is something deep in the human soul that craves surface beauty. Just because I hope my work provides an experience beyond the decorative doesn’t, in any way, suggest that I don’t have supreme admiration for works of art that overpower us with sheer sensory delight.

In my opinion, the very best works of abstraction combine exquisite abstract elements – color, material, shape, line – with a meaning that goes beyond those formal elements. The very best combine elements of the abstract with the more soulful elements of meaning. Take Brancusi’s Bird in Space, for example, in which the abstract elements – the iconic soaring shape, the sensuous polished brass – are inextricably part of the bird, and the spirit, taking flight.

SOUTH: I notice that your work uses many different materials. Why do you choose one material over another? Is there a relationship there, too, with Islamic art?

NAIFEH: One of the most glorious aspects of Islamic art is that it is made using such a wealth of materials. Think of just a few – the mother-of-pearl inlay in Damascene furniture and the painted glass of Damascene lamps, the semi-precious stones set in white marble of Mughal architecture and the rubies and emeralds of Mughal jewelry, the glazed ceramic tiles in domes and minarets all along the entire length of the Silk Road, the ground lapis and malachite used to paint Persian miniatures, the lustrous silks of Ottoman textiles. So much of the Islamic world stretches across such arid geography that the indigenous artists naturally turned to rich color, and rich material, to enrich their own, often ascetic lives.

There are many ways to honor this celebration of rich materials: ways that don’t involve emeralds and rubies. In many of my paintings I use metallic paints, which I often oppose to strips of flat white paint to enhance their metallic effect. I have also used metallic paints on fiberglass or on welded steel, which produces an even more luminous surface. My LED light-boxes have an entirely modern luminosity that, I think, Islamic artists from one thousand years ago would have appreciated. I also use stone, particularly limestone, which has a wonderfully rich and permanent feel. But even this has a precedent in the wonderfully minimalist architecture of medieval Cairo, where limestone clad shapes of elegant simplicity.

Sol LeWitt, Serial Project, I (ABCD). 1966. Baked enamel on steel units over baked enamel on aluminum.

Sol LeWitt, Serial Project, I (ABCD). 1966. Baked enamel on steel units over baked enamel on aluminum.

SOUTH: Your career has been unusual in that you have not only been an artist, but also an art historian, writing several important biographies of artists. To mention only two, your Pulitzer Prize-winning Jackson Pollock and, in 2011, the critically-acclaimed Van Gogh: The Life. Do you think your career as an art historian has had an impact on your career as an artist?

NAIFEH: Without doubt. Most artists work in a community of other artists and draw inspiration and strength from that community. That is what helps explain several of the concentrations of artistic activity in specific cities at specific times in history: Florence during the Renaissance, Antwerp during the following century, Paris in the nineteenth century, New York in the 1950s and 60s.

I have spent decades of my life deeply involved in the artistic life of France during the last half of the nineteenth century and New York in the middle of the twentieth century; it’s been almost like living there. Instead of constantly looking over my shoulder at what’s happening in Chelsea that day, I have been deeply engaged in studying and thinking about much of the greatest art of the last thousand years.

As a result, when I think about the work of other artists, they are the artists of past generations, artists going back as far as a millennium, not just the artists of the present day or present fashion.