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found in translation The Art of Steven Naifeh Will South

Editorial Photography: Charles Ezell, Robert Clark, and Jonathan Goley Studio Director: Charles Ezell Editors: Elizabeth Petit and Gregory White Smith Cover and Book Design: Melissa Spivey

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA South, Will Found in Translation: The Art of Steven Naifeh ISBN 978-0-9800253-2-3 1. Naifeh, Steven, 1952-. Artists – United States – Exhibition Catalogue. Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper FIRST U.S. EDITION

Columbia Museum of Art Curatorial Dr. Will South, Chief Curator Victoria Cooke, Curator Cindy Connor, Head Registrar Michael Dwyer, Chief Preparator and Exhibition Designer Noelle Rice, Curatorial Assistant Jimmy Hiller, Assistant Preparator

Administration Karen Brosius, Executive Director Joelle Ryan-Cook, Deputy Director & Director of External Affairs

Marketing & Communications Allison Horne, Public Relations Manager Jonathan Goley, Digital Media Manager Jessica Derr, Graphic Designer Jordan Morris, Marketing/Public Relations Assistant

Development Lowndes Macdonald, Director of Development Todd Buehrig, Assistant Director of Development Brittany Gridine, Senior Development Coordinator Kit Porter, Development Manager Becky Wych, Development Coordinator Sarah Young, Membership Coordinator

C ONT E NTS preface Karen Brosius Director of the Columbia Museum of Art

12 - 13

conversation with the artist Will South Chief Curator of the Columbia Museum of Art

16 - 25

SAIDA 27 - 37 CYRENE 39 - 47 TOPKAPI 49 - 57 AJLUN 59 - 63 MUGHAL 65 - 69 MIZAN 71 - 79 MAMLUK 81 - 85 PETRA 87 - 95 JALI 97 - 105 JERASH 107 - 115 UZBEK 117 - 123 life of the artist photographic credits

Beginning a thousand years ago, artists from Moorish Spain to Northern India have used geometric art to represent universal harmony. It all begins with a circle. By dividing the circumference of any circle into three, four, or five equal parts, or their multiples, an artist can generate polygons of infinite shape and variety. Repeated systematically across a surface, these essential geometric units create not only a marvelous wealth of patterns, but also a worldly reflection of the order in God’s creation — the original, perfect circle representing unity with God. The spirituality of Middle Eastern art became a fundamental principle of abstraction in the West. Kazimir Malevich – perhaps the first Western artist to create completely abstract paintings – thought of his stark images as spiritual icons that reached beyond the insistent materiality of their means to assume a place in the great Orthodox tradition of religious icons. The abstract art of the West and the geometric art of the Arab and Islamic worlds share not only an appreciation for the beauty of the physical world, but also, even more fundamentally, an understanding of the spiritual origin and purpose of beauty. The great Western philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell wrote that geometry and mathematics “possess not only truth, but supreme beauty . . . sublimely pure and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show.” Over a career spanning more than four decades, Steven Naifeh’s work has evoked this sense of order and clarity at the heart of both Middle Eastern art and Western geometric abstraction.


Found in Translation | 12

Preface Karen Brosius, Director of the Columbia Museum of Art

The Columbia Museum of Art is honored to present the first

form the basis of Naifeh’s art. This joyful, mathematical

retrospective exhibition of the art of Steven Naifeh, the latest

alignment of color, material, shape, and line brings to light an

in our continuing series of exhibitions of works by

intricate and versatile body of work that is visually compelling

contemporary masters.

and worthy of profound contemplation. Unlike so much recent Middle Eastern art, which focuses on political and social issues

Naifeh’s artistic sensibility developed while growing up in the

(the work of Shirin Neshat comes particularly to mind), Naifeh’s

Middle East. The artist was born in Iran, the son of American

art focuses on formalist issues.

diplomats. He spent his childhood in a succession of Foreign Service postings spread across three continents in the Islamic

My most sincere appreciation and gratitude go to Steven Naifeh,

world. Enriched by his Lebanese heritage and his time living in

who has been a magnanimous participant in the creation of the

the Islamic and Arab worlds, Naifeh has shown an extraordinary

exhibition and catalogue and who so generously agreed to share

ability to integrate the influences of these distant and timeless

his work with our public. We are greatly indebted to him for his

cultures into the global culture of today. This exhibition will

time and dedication to this project.

no doubt inspire a deeper understanding of the art of the Middle East, Northern India, and Northern Africa, and provide

I would like to thank our board of trustees and commissioners

an opportunity to reflect on its synergy with contemporary

for their continued legacy of support, including our board

Western art.

president Luther J. Battiste III and commission chair C. Carroll Heyward. I am most grateful for a superb and talented staff at

His development as an artist was equally influenced by cross-

the Museum and thank everyone who has worked in some

continental expertise and thought. Naifeh studied painting

capacity to bring this exhibition to fruition. Special thanks

and sculpture with the Nigerian artist Bruce Onobrakpeya;

are due to Will South, chief curator, who has conceived the

contemporary art with Sam Hunter, former curator at the

exhibition design with the artist and has taken great care to

Museum of Modern Art and the Jewish Museum; and Islamic

present the work in a spare and elegant manner. His lively

art with Harvard scholars Oleg Grabar and Cary Welch. From

conversation with the artist is the heart of this publication.

these diverse experiences, he has woven together in his work

Also, my thanks go to our excellent chief exhibition designer

the varied components of his artistic influences along with a

and preparator Michael Dwyer and the curatorial staff; to

deep respect for math and materials. His art has been known to

Kerry Kuhlkin-Hornsby and Leslie Pierce, who have created a

Middle Eastern audiences but is shown here in this retrospective

wealth of education programs for this exhibition to inspire the

as his first major American museum exhibition.

imaginations of children and adults alike; to Joelle Ryan-Cook for leading our external affairs efforts to engage the public; and to

The art of the Islamic culture is deeply beautiful and reflects a

Lowndes Macdonald and Todd Buehrig, who have brought to this

sensual delight in the precision of geometric formulas. Islamic

project our presenting sponsor, Mrs. Joyce Martin Hampton, and

culture has been so essential to the development of mathematics

our supporting sponsors, The Hilliard Family Foundation and Dr.

worldwide that many mathematical terms – algebra and

Gregory J. Wych. We are continually grateful for the sustained

algorithms, for example – entered English from the Arabic. The

leadership support shown to us by council members of the City

geometries of Islamic art, with their ornamental counterpoint,

of Columbia and Richland County.

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 13

This exhibition is representative of the Museum’s mission to celebrate artistic creativity as expressed by diverse cultures both here and abroad and to introduce exciting work to our community, state, and region. We hope that this work may stir in the viewer a sense of harmony, eternity, and cultural transcendence. Karen Brosius Executive Director, Columbia Museum of Art March 2013

Found in Translation | 14

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 15


Found in Translation | 18

Conversation with the Artist Will South, Chief Curator of the Columbia Museum of Art

SOUTH: Steve, you live in the West and you’ve written about

traveled throughout the regions where he was stationed. We

Western artists – Van Gogh most recently and Pollock before

weren’t holed up in guarded enclaves. There were no “Green

that, and won a Pulitzer Prize for that – but your art is rooted in

Zones.” So indigenous art was everywhere around me all

a different artistic tradition: that is, the geometric abstractions of

the time.

the Arab and Islamic worlds. How do you explain that? 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-17s 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

Kharraqan Towers, Façade.

experience the entire breadth of the Islamic world: from Iran, Iraq, Libya, and the Arabian Peninsula (the core of Islam); east

I visited Cairo for the first time at a young age and saw the Ibn

to Pakistan, where the population is Islamic but the culture is

Tulun Mosque, a thousand-year-old building that looks as daring

a synthesis of Islamic and Asian traditions; and even south to

and modern as anything built in the twenty-first century. I was

Nigeria, where Islamic art encountered the rich veldt of

born in Tehran when my parents were serving there. Later,

African traditions.

before the revolution that brought the current regime to power, my father took us on a family vacation to Isfahan to see the great

I grew up in all of these places. I was very much an American

mosques and palaces of that fabled city.

kid. I went to American-run schools. At every embassy where my father was posted, we celebrated the Fourth of July,

At the same time I grew up surrounded by all that, I was also

Thanksgiving, and Christmas. I was the single member of the

exploring Western art in books and magazines and museums. I

first official Boy Scout troop in Baida, Libya. But I still lived in

started painting when I was ten by making still lifes in the style

those cultures, not apart from them. It was the 1950s, and these

of Picasso. It wasn’t until I was fifteen that I painted my first

were not tourist spots. And because of my father’s work, we

geometric abstractions. Looking back, I can see that the faceting

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 19

of Cubism related to the modularity of Islamic art, but when

can’t be right!” “How does it work?”

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

SOUTH: It also references important works of Western art

when I was twenty-one.

going back to Michelangelo and the Piazza de Campidoglio in Rome, the plaza that he designed with a spiral that bears some

SOUTH: Your mature work is heavily modular – it’s made up

similarity to early Islamic work.

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

NAIFEH: …and jumps all the way forward to the Op Art

yellowish gold. It has a very light color value, but the rhythm

movement of the nineteen-sixties. Op Art was really important

and the precision of the elements – the way the shapes emanate

to me – especially the work of the British artist Bridget Riley.

out from the center and get larger left and right, downward

When I was twenty-one, I interned at the National Gallery of Art.

and upward, all at the same time. I mean, it’s quite expansive,

The Director’s office there had one painting by Riley and one

rhythmic, and it has a very positive feeling.

by Rubens. I fell in love with both works, and their proximity vindicated my interest in geometric abstraction. It was about

NAIFEH: Yes. Saida is an Arabic word meaning “happiness.”

that time when I began to study Islamic and Arab precedents

When I found the geometric basis for this series, it was

more systematically for possible ways to integrate them with

incredibly exciting. And I think most people who see it have

contemporary Western art.

the same feeling. It is so surprising and delightful the way the pattern works out – how these boxes of different sizes stack

That meant confronting all the questions asked by twentieth-

into a spiral. It combines the satisfying resolution of geometry

century Western artists: How do you expand the definition of

with the playfulness of Op Art. The contradiction of these two

what constitutes a painting? What materials do you use? Do

pleasures affects the way you see the image. Your eye oscillates

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

Bridget Riley. Drift No. 2, 1966. Acrylic on canvas.

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

constantly between the stable overall design and the shape-

relationship that has been another central concern of Western

shifting separate elements. The result is a kind of visual laughter.

contemporary art. With the Saida series, the spaces between

It’s the same reaction you might have to a magic trick: “That

the square elements become essential parts of the work. In the

Found in Translation | 20

inverse Saida, I tried to explore this relationship by flipping the

was the grandson of one of the greatest nineteenth-century

positive and negative elements. The squares recede and the

Yoruba carvers and was himself the leading Yoruba carver of

arrowhead-like spaces between them dominate – all without

his generation. Probably the pre-eminent Nigerian artist of the

losing the dynamism and geometric unity of the whole.

period, Bruce Onobrakpeya, became my teacher at age fifteen.

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. 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 Jali Screen, Mughal India.

visual arts. Of course, Nigeria had an incredibly vibrant arts scene long

SOUTH: Those kinds of early, formative encounters are very rare

before the colonial era. The Nok culture, which flourished there

among Western contemporary artists. What did you learn from

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

NAIFEH: I watched all of these artists struggle with the question

the great works of art in world culture. Nigeria’s Yoruba and Ife

of how to stay connected to their own rich artistic heritage while

tribes produced glorious woodcarvings.

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.

Those traditions were still very much alive when I lived there.

Ben Osawe was doing versions of Henry Moore, with whom he

Because my father was the Cultural Attaché, I got to meet all

had studied. They were quite good variations on Moore, but they

the great artists: Ben Osawe, Yusuf Grillo, Emokpae. I had the

didn’t really engage any African traditions. He had so much to

good fortune to become acquainted with Lamidi Fakeye, who

bring to that interaction, yet he didn’t. The same can be said

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 21

about Emokpae, who did paintings in the manner of Franz

NAIFEH: Yes, and what has been particularly exciting for me is

Kline. It’s true that he used colors derived from Nigerian fabrics,

to see what’s happened in the last twenty-five years as world

but otherwise the two traditions hover over his canvases like

culture has more completely – how should I say it? – coalesced.

strangers locked together in the same room.

For example, there are Japanese artists who have managed to bring the traditional art of screen painting into the ongoing

There was also a printmaker with the wonderful name Twins

dialogue of modern global abstraction.

Seven-Seven. (He was from a family with seven sets of twins; 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 Malatya, Great Mosque Interior.

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

he belonged to the seventh set.) Like Bruce Onobrakpeya, he

in the center is a spiral whirling its way towards the edges

had studied in Ibadan, a city north of Lagos where a colony

– an intimation of depth that would have been anathema to

of German artists had established a printmaking school,

Greenberg and the Formalist critics. There is even a hint of

bringing with them their knowledge of German Expressionist

representational narrative with the sun-like shape at the middle

printmaking. Of course, everyone knows how important

surrounded by radiating stars.

African art was to German Expressionism. Kirchner, Pechstein, and others collected African art and employed African

NAIFEH: The process I went through in developing the Uzbek

elements in their work. But not many people know that that

series is especially instructive in understanding my work. It

influence ran both ways. I watched as these youngish African

is based on a specific dome in a thousand-year-old Uzbek

artists re-learned their own heritage through the prism of

mosque. Because that mosque was built in one of the more

German Expressionism.

desolate towns along the Silk Road, not in a great urban center like Damascus or Cairo, it is relatively primitive. The material

SOUTH: The German Expressionists weren’t the only Western

is sunbaked brick and the craftsmanship is crude. The dome is

artists who were looking at African art at the beginning of the

rough and slightly misshapen, like a piece of handmade pottery

twentieth century. Picasso famously used African masks in his

– which it is, in a way.

early Cubist works, notably in Les démoiselles d’Avignon; and other major Western artists have been struck by the beauty and

But even the builders of that simple mosque felt the same

power and “modernity” of traditional Africa art.

urges to formal perfection and decorative splendor that

Found in Translation | 22

inspired wealthier clients and more skilled artisans to create

neon, although he was using it in a more representational, not to

masterpieces of world culture like the Ibn Tulun Mosque or the

say literal way. The Uzbek images were inspired by the East, but

Taj Mahal. The Uzbek builders took squares of glazed turquoise

the materials are completely Western.

and placed them in a rough spiral pattern on the dome’s brick interior. The result was both abstractly simple and spectacularly

SOUTH: That’s another reason why, when I look at these works,

beautiful – and undoubtedly seemed celestial to the people who

I feel like I’m going back and forth between very distant,

worshipped under it.

disparate worlds, and yet those worlds get unified in the context of your work.

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

NAIFEH: That’s one of the characteristics of art that is always so

used light boxes. Were you trying to evoke the celestial hints that

gratifying to people who know art history. It’s one reason why

those turquoise tiles represented?

knowing art history is incredibly valuable to having an enriched experience of any single work of art. It’s very exciting to look at

NAIFEH: I never thought of it quite that way, but I guess

a work and see the influences that went into it, the parallels with

the answer is probably yes. I saw my challenge as making

contemporaneous works by other artists, and its influence on

the perfect spiral that the rustic Uzbek craftsmen aspired to

works that came after it and out of it.

make but didn’t have the means to make. I used a computer application to identify the underlying geometry of the Uzbek

SOUTH: You said earlier that Frank Stella drew the inspiration

dome, to distill its mathematical formula, and then to express

for some of his work from Celtic art. So some influences go

that formula as precisely as possible – just as those country

way back.

craftsmen would have done if they could have. NAIFEH: In that case, the influence was channeled through the I chose the media – colored acrylic light boxes, LED lights –

early encaustic works of Jasper Johns, especially his Target and

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.

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

NAIFEH: Certainly Dan Flavin was a very major presence in the

American Flag series, as mediated by Clement Greenberg and

art world at the time and continues to be to this day. So you’re

Michael Fried. But Stella was clearly alert to the relationship

absolutely right. This sculpture is not just of the moment but

between his geometric abstraction and the geometric abstraction

goes all the way back to the sixties, when quite a few artists

of the Arab and Islamic worlds, which is why he called one of

were sculpting in light. Bruce Nauman was also working with

the paintings in his Protractor series Damascus Gate.

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 23

SOUTH: All these associations enrich the experience of a work

for thirty years – think of abstract art – circles, squares, splashes

of art. In a painting or sculpture, you see not just the formal

of paint – as distinct from, even distant from, reality. They think

properties of the work – the colors, the shapes, the subject –

of representational art – landscapes, portraits, still lifes, etc. – as

but also the resonances with other works of art, with literature,

reality-based art. But isn’t that a false dichotomy?

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.

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

NAIFEH: Exactly. A good example is the Sultan series, which takes its crescent and tiger-ribbon motifs from the most

For example, a pyramid is a solid, mathematically constructed,

iconic example of Ottoman textile design. But those are two-

real thing: a four-sided solid with a square bottom and four

dimensional designs; my works are three-dimensional wall

triangular sides that rise to a point. But to the ancient Egyptians,

sculptures. I was inspired by something called “sand roses,”

it could be far more than that. Enlarged to gigantic proportions,

which are small crescent-shaped sand dunes created when gusts

it was a tomb for kings, a symbol of immortality, an aspiration

of wind hit an obstacle, like an outcropping of rock. Over time,

in stone – an abstract thing replete with cultural, political, and

the sand behind the rock forms into a crescent shape.

religious meaning. In fact, don’t most societies live with some kinds of abstraction? Words are abstract, numbers are abstract,

I first observed this natural phenomenon in the Empty Quarter

nationalities are abstract, religion is abstract, and, of course,

of the Arabian Peninsula. Years later, I made my first Sultan

music is abstract.

sculpture. Years after that, I saw that one of Anish Kapoor’s early pigment sculptures used a similar, single crescent shape placed

NAIFEH: Love is abstract. The past is abstract.

on the floor. I have not asked him where his inspiration came from, but I doubt it was sand roses.

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

SOUTH: It’s interesting to me that you decided not to paint

updated for the present.

the desert as you saw it, but to express your memories of it in abstraction, in abstract sculptures. Most people – and I’m

NAIFEH: If you look at the earliest human and even pre-human

basing this not on science, but on being in the museum world

visual artistic expressions, you find representations of both seen

Found in Translation | 24

reality and abstraction. Cave men used their bodies as stencils

Deposition from the Cross, which uses not only artistic means,

– they filled their mouths with pigment then put their hands

but also shared human experience – the death of a loved one

on cave walls and blew the pigment against them – creating

– and a powerful shared narrative – the Passion of Christ – to

silhouettes of handprints that are the first “self-portraits” we

create an image with such emotional impact that it knocks you

have. There are other examples, equally ancient, of early

to your knees?

humans using lines and other geometric shapes to adorn objects. They did this, presumably, both to decorate those objects and

I would argue that some abstract art does have more than a

to give them more complex, abstract meaning. So I think that

visual impact. Including the example you used, an Egyptian

both the portrayal of the seen reality and the representation of

pyramid, because of the perfection of the concept, because of

an unseen universe are present in human visual expression from

the scale, and because of the site. It’s not hard to imagine what

the very beginning.

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,

SOUTH: Oh, absolutely they are.

degraded blocks we see today, but in perfectly polished sheets NAIFEH: If you make abstract art, as I do, you are constantly

of limestone. The sides were absolutely flat and white and

wondering about the differences between abstraction and

shone like diamonds. It must have been both other-worldly and

representation. You wonder if abstraction can provide the same

unbelievably exciting.

sort of meaning – the same emotional and spiritual solace – that SOUTH: Every bit as exciting, I think, are the incredibly

representational art does.

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. 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 LEFT: Kazimir Malevich, Painterly Realism of a Boy with a Knapsack – Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension, 1915. Oil on canvas. ABOVE: Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, c. 1923-1930. Oil on plaster.

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

That has been one of the principal challenges for abstraction

great medieval mathematicians saw the innate perfection of

since its beginnings in the early twentieth century. Can

their geometries as a reflection of God’s perfection. Inherent

an abstract painting have the same emotional impact as a

in the models from which I’m working is this striving after

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 25

transcendent truth, and I hope that gives my work a deeper

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

meaning than just abstraction for abstraction’s sake.

the day.

SOUTH: Well absolutely, it does.

NAIFEH: And I think that’s a perfectly legitimate purpose for art – to provide the solace of delight. Take someone like Ellsworth

NAIFEH: Even the process of conceiving an abstract work

Kelly, for example. His great work at the Metropolitan, which

can give it a meaning beyond its surface appeal. When I saw

is a series of large vertical panels of color arrayed from yellow

Frank Stella’s early work for the first time, I was overwhelmed

through yellow-green all the way across the spectrum to orange

not just by their formal simplicity and perfection, but also

and yellow again. The sensual delight of those beautiful pastel

by their intellectual rigor. Stella’s effort to create an image

colors is overwhelming. You can’t walk past that Kelly without

from the shape of the canvas – to build an image from the

experiencing the same delight that you experience in listening

process of creating it – had an intellectual clarity that was

to a great work of music. It’s abstract, but it’s also sensually

unbelievably exciting to me even as a teenager, years before it

pleasing and calming and comforting. Even though I hope that

was “explained” to me in the articles of Clement Greenberg and

much of what I do has a deeper spiritual resonance for the

Michael Fried, who helped bring Stella to public attention.

viewer, I also hope to achieve this same sort of visual delight.

SOUTH: I was interested to find out in a previous conversation

There is nothing wrong with surface beauty. The sensuous

that you went to Princeton but you arrived just after Frank Stella

brushwork of a John Singer Sargent portrait, the jewel-like colors

was a student there. Did you know Michael Fried, as well?

of a Northern Renaissance altarpiece, all of that milky white

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.

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

This is the other great role of art – and the most important

marble and semiprecious stone inlay in the Taj Mahal – there is

one to Vincent van Gogh – namely, the ability to comfort

something deep in the human soul that craves surface beauty.

and console. One of my favorite quotes from a great artist is

Just because I hope my work provides an experience beyond

Matisse’s wonderful line that he wanted his paintings to be like a

the decorative doesn’t, in any way, suggest that I don’t have

comfortable armchair.

supreme admiration for works of art that overpower us with sheer sensory delight.

Found in Translation | 26

In my opinion, the very best works of abstraction combine

only been an artist, but also an art historian, writing several

exquisite abstract elements – color, material, shape, line – with

important biographies of artists. To mention only two, your

a meaning that goes beyond those formal elements. The very

Pulitzer Prize-winning Jackson Pollock and, just last year, the

best combine elements of the abstract with the more soulful

critically-acclaimed Van Gogh: The Life. Do you think your career

elements of meaning. Take Brancusi’s Bird in Space, for example,

as an art historian has had an impact on your career as an artist?

in which the abstract elements – the iconic soaring shape, the sensuous polished brass – are inextricably part of the bird, and

NAIFEH: Without doubt. Most artists work in a community

the spirit, taking flight.

of other artists and draw inspiration and strength from that community. That is what helps explain several of the

SOUTH: I notice that your work uses many different materials.

concentrations of artistic activity in specific cities at specific

Why do you choose one material over another? Is there a

times in history: Florence during the Renaissance, Antwerp

relationship there, too, with Islamic art?

during the following century, Paris in the nineteenth century, New York in the 1950s and ’60s.

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

I have spent decades of my life deeply involved in the artistic life

– the mother-of-pearl inlay in Damascene furniture and the

of France during the last half of the nineteenth century and New

painted glass of Damascene lamps, the semiprecious stones

York in the middle of the twentieth century; it’s been almost

set in white marble of Mughal architecture and the rubies and

like living there. Instead of constantly looking over my shoulder

emeralds of Mughal jewelry, the glazed ceramic tiles in domes

at what’s happening in Chelsea that day, I have been deeply

and minarets all along the entire length of the Silk Road, the

engaged in studying and thinking about much of the greatest art

ground lapis and malachite used to paint Persian miniatures, the

of the last thousand years.

lustrous silks of Ottoman textiles. So much of the Islamic world stretches across such arid geography that the indigenous artists

As a result, when I think about the work of other artists, they

naturally turned to rich color, and rich material, to enrich their

are the artists of past generations, artists going back as far as a

own, often ascetic lives.

millennium, not just the artists of the present day or present fashion.

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 1,000 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, with its limestoneclad shapes of elegant simplicity. SOUTH: Your career has been unusual in that you have not

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 27


Saida V: Iridescent Gold 1998. Acrylic on 60 canvases, 120 Ă— 120".

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 31

Saida XXX: Venetian Blue 2012. Acrylic on 60 canvases, 120 Ă— 120".

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Saida XXIX: Sashay Red 2013. Acrylic on 60 canvases, 120 Ă— 120".

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 33

Saida II: White 1998. Enamel on 60 canvases, 120 Ă— 120".

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Saida I: Black 1998. Enamel on 60 canvases, 120 Ă— 120".

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 35

Saida XV: Limestone 2011. Limestone, 4" × 20 × 20'.

Found in Translation | 36

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 37

Saida X: Chrome 2010. Chrome on 60 steel boxes, 120 Ă— 120".

Found in Translation | 38


Cyrene VIII: Sashay Red 2010. Acrylic on 24 canvases, 53 Ă— 53".

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 43

Cyrene XV: Venetian Blue 2012. Acrylic on 110 canvases, 89 Ă— 115".

Found in Translation | 44

Cyrene XVI: Gold 2012. Acrylic on 110 canvases, 89 Ă— 115".

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 45

Cyrene IX: Shimmering Sky 2010. Acrylic on 24 canvases, 53 × 53".

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Cyrene IV: Copper 2010. Acrylic on 24 canvases, 53 × 53".

Cyrene VI: Lilac 2010. Acrylic on 24 canvases, 53 × 53".

Cyrene II: Silver 2010. Acrylic on 24 canvases, 53 × 53".

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 47

Cyrene XI: Mystical Green 2011. Acrylic on 40 canvases, 64 Ă— 64".

Found in Translation | 48


Topkapi XII 2011. Acrylic on canvas, 60 × 43".

Topkapi II 1992. Acrylic on canvas, 60 × 43".

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 53

Topkapi XXII 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 60 Ă— 60".

Found in Translation | 54

Topkapi XX 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 72 Ă— 98".

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 55

Topkapi IV 1992, Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 25".

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Topkapi XIV 2011. Acrylic on canvas, 60 Ă— 25".

Topkapi XXI 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 72 Ă— 72".

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 57

Topkapi XVI 2011. Acrylic on canvas, 48 Ă— 48".

Found in Translation | 58


Ajlun XII: Venetian Blue and White 2011. Acrylic on 32 canvases, 80 Ă— 168".

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Ajlun I: Black Pearl and White 2002. Acrylic on 32 canvases, 80 Ă— 168".

Found in Translation | 64

Ajlun IV: Silver and White 2002. Acrylic on 32 canvases, 80 Ă— 168".

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 65


Mughal IV: Copper and White 1984. Acrylic on 2 canvases, 96 Ă— 192".

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Found in Translation | 70

Mughal V: Silver and White 1984. Acrylic on 2 canvases, 96 Ă— 192".

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 71


Mizan X: Sashay Red 2011. Acrylic on 72 interconnected canvases, 72 Ă— 72".

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Mizan XII: Venetian Blue 2011. Acrylic on 72 interconnected canvases, 72 Ă— 72".

Found in Translation | 76

Mizan XII detail 4a

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Mizan VI: Black Cherry 2011. Acrylic on 18 interconnected canvases, 60 Ă— 60".

Found in Translation | 78

Mizan XIV: Mystical Green 2011. Acrylic on 18 interconnected canvases, 60 Ă— 60".

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 79

Mizan VIII: Copper 2011. Acrylic on 18 interconnected canvases, 60 Ă— 60".

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Mizan XIII: Hunter Green 2011. Acrylic on 18 interconnected canvases, 60 Ă— 60".

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 81


Mamluk II: Black Pearl 2010. Acrylic on 12 canvases, 62 Ă— 72".

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 85

Mamluk I: Black Cherry 2010. Acrylic on 12 canvases, 62 Ă— 72".

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Mamluk IV: Sapphire 2011. Acrylic on 12 canvases, 62 Ă— 72".

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Petra IV: Steel Gray 2011. Acrylic on 30 canvases, 68 Ă— 73".

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Petra I: Copper 2011. Acrylic on 30 canvases, 68 Ă— 73".

Found in Translation | 92

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Petra VII: Venetian Blue 2011. Acrylic on 30 canvases, 68 Ă— 73".

Found in Translation | 94

Petra XII: Antique Copper 2011. Acrylic on 30 canvases, 68 Ă— 73".

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Petra II: Gold 2011. Acrylic on 30 canvases, 68 Ă— 73".

Found in Translation | 96


Jali XXVI: Sashay Red and White 2011. Acrylic on 2 canvases, 72 Ă— 144".

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 101

Jali XXVII: Venetian Blue and White 2011. Acrylic on 2 canvases, 72 Ă— 144".

Found in Translation | 102

Jali XXV: Gold and White 2011. Acrylic on 2 canvases, 72 Ă— 144".

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Jali XXXII: Sashay Red 2012. Acrylic on wood, 96 × 48 × 48".

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Jali XXI: Silver and White 2010. Acrylic on 2 canvases, 72 Ă— 144".

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 105

Jali XXXV: Venetian Blue 2012. Acrylic on wood, 80 x 32 x 32".

Found in Translation | 106

Jali XXXVII 2013. Anodized steel with acrylic paints and sealers, 144 x 72 x 72".

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Jerash XXI: Teal 2012. Acrylic on 24 canvases, 120 Ă— 120".

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Jerash XI: Black Cherry 2011. Acrylic on 24 canvases, 84 Ă— 84".

Found in Translation | 112

Jerash XIII: Shimmering Sky 2011. Acrylic on 24 canvases, 84 Ă— 84".

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 113

Jerash VII: Copper 2010. Acrylic on 24 canvases, 84 Ă— 84".

Found in Translation | 114

Jerash XXII: Mystical Green 2012. Acrylic on 24 canvases, 84 Ă— 84".

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 115

Jerash XX: Gold 2012. Acrylic on 24 canvases, 84 Ă— 84".

Found in Translation | 116


Uzbek III 2013. Acrylic with LED lights, 100 Ă— 100".

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 121

Uzbek VI 2013. Acrylic with LED lights, 72 Ă— 72".

Found in Translation | 122

Uzbek II 2012. Acrylic with LED lights, 48 Ă— 48".

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 123

Uzbek V 2012. Stainless steel and acrylic with fiber optic and LED lights, 48 Ă— 48".

Found in Translation | 124

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 125

life of the artist

Found in Translation | 128

Life of the Artist

Steven Naifeh’s work, created over a period of more than four

the artist to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Kuwait, Riyadh, Jeddah,

decades, has always explored the relationship between Western

Cairo, Damascus, Amman, Tunis, Algiers, Fez, New Delhi,

art and the art of other cultures.

and Agra.

As the child of U.S. diplomats, Naifeh’s youth was spread across

In his own work, which includes both painting and sculpture,

the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. He lived in Iran, Iraq,

Naifeh takes precedents from millennium-old Islamic and Arab

Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and

prototypes that were inspired by fundamental mathematical

Jordan as well as in the United States.

principles, removes them from their temporal and material context, and reimagines them in the world of twentieth-century

Naifeh began painting and sculpting in 1967 at the age of

Western art. He uses scale, dimension, and media in a way

fifteen. His first teacher was the eminent Nigerian artist Bruce

that addresses both the ongoing redefinition of painting and

Onobrakpeya. It was from him that Naifeh first understood the

sculpture in the West and the spirituality of Islamic and Arab art.

challenge of bringing together the arts of East and West. Naifeh, who has written extensively on art, published his first article on

Following in the footsteps of American geometric abstractionists

the struggle of mid-twentieth-century African artists to reconcile

like Stella and Ken Noland, who derived the image of a painting

their dual artistic ancestries in traditional indigenous art and in

from the formal properties of the underlying surface – in

Western art – notably German Expressionism.

particular, the shape of the canvas – Naifeh has continued to explore the uncertain status of the traditional Western easel

The artistic nexus that had the most important effect on Naifeh’s

painting by taking Islamic geometric formulas and using them

work, however, was the relationship between the art of the West

to create three-dimensional wall sculptures. By transforming

and the arts of the Islamic and Arab worlds. His early work

common ornamental motifs used centuries ago in the Ottoman

was influenced by numerous Western artists – Frank Stella,

Empire or in Central Asia or in Mamluk Egypt into abstract

in particular – but these influences were always subjected to

art, Naifeh has created bridges between different cultures

a specific geometric rigor that came from his deep and early

and different eras. He has also revealed links between the

immersion in the arts and cultures of the Islamic world.

decorative arts and the fine arts, between the commonplace and the extraordinary, in much the same way that Andy Warhol

At Princeton and Harvard universities, Naifeh studied

transformed soup cans and soap boxes into high art.

contemporary art with Sam Hunter – former curator of the Museum of Modern Art and the Jewish Museum – and also

Naifeh’s process of making art also finds common ground in

Islamic Art, with Oleg Grabar and Cary Welch.

both of the traditions he celebrates. By creating plans for works of art and then having them executed by teams of craftspeople,

At Harvard University, Naifeh collaborated with Glenn Lowry,

Naifeh has connected the process used by Western artists

now Director of the Museum of Modern Art, on a study of the

such as Sol Lewitt and Andy Warhol, who separated the act of

influence of traditional Islamic architecture on the wave of new

imagination from the act of execution, to the art of the Islamic

construction that swept across the region between northern

and Arab worlds, where ancient mathematicians devised magical

India and Morocco in the 1970s and 1980s. That project took

geometries that were brought to life by nameless craftsmen.

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 129

Naifeh has lived in South Carolina for the past twenty years.

(co-authored with Gregory White Smith). The book was the basis

Much of his recent work has been executed with the help of local

of an Academy-Award-winning film starring Ed Harris and the

craftsmen – not only carpenters and painters, but also metal

inspiration for John Updike’s novel Seek My Face.

fabricators and metal plating experts, fiberglass manufacturers and industrial painters – a host of people who know little about

Along with Smith, Naifeh recently completed a biography of the

the Middle East, and some of whom may never have visited an

iconic Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. Hailed as “magisterial”

art museum. These collaborators have discovered a new kind of

by Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times and “definitive”

pride in using their extraordinary skills to reanimate millennium-

by Leo Jansen, Chief Curator of the Van Gogh Museum in

old Middle Eastern artistic concepts, thus opening a dialogue of

Amsterdam, Van Gogh: The Life became a New York Times

creativity and proficiency between cultures widely separated in

bestseller, was featured on “60 Minutes,” and won international

place and time.

praise. International editions are already available in The Netherlands, The United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, and Brazil.

Naifeh has chosen to name his works after people and places

Editions are also being published in China, France, Italy, Japan,

from his past: names that have personal meaning for him. He

Poland, and South Korea.

first experienced the elation of the visual arts at age ten, when living in Baida, Libya. “Saida” (Sa-EE-duh) was his paternal

As an artist and author, Naifeh has been profiled in many

grandmother’s first name. It is Arabic for “happy.” His great-

publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times,

aunt’s first name was “Wadia” (Wah-DEE-yuh); she was ninety-

The Washington Post, USA Today, Harvard Magazine, and The

two when he met her for the first and only time, in 1979.

International Herald Tribune.

She was still living in Ajlun, the village in Jordan where his grandfather was born, in the shadows of the ruined fortress of Saladin the Great. Naifeh has exhibited his work on three continents – including the first exhibition of contemporary art in the history of the United Arab Emirates, which took place in 1975. The reviews of Naifeh’s shows each recognized the relationship between his work and the geometric abstraction at the heart of Arab and Islamic art. They applauded what Abu Dhabi reviewer Barbara Hughes called its “subtle beauty and simplicity,” the serenity and inevitability of its “symmetrical patterns and geometrical designs,” its “lyricism” and its “pristine pitch.” One reviewer, Fayza Haq, writing in Dawn, the leading English-language paper in Pakistan, saw in Naifeh’s art “a remarkable mingling of the art of the West with the inspiration of the East.” While studying art at Harvard University, Naifeh also attended law school and launched a parallel career as a writer and publisher. In 1991, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of the American Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock

Found in Translation | 130



photographic credits

Kharraqan Towers, Façade. Digital Image: © R. & S. Michaud / akg-images Bridget Riley. Drift No. 2, 1966. Acrylic on canvas. Digital Image: Albright-Knox Art Gallery / Art Resource, NY; © Bridget Riley 2013. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London. Jali Screen, Mughal, India Digital Image: © Amit Pasricha Malatya, Great Mosque Interior. Digital Image: © R. & S. Michaud / akg-images Frank Stella. Quathlamba, 1964. Metallic powder in polymer emulsion. Digital Image: Art Resource, NY; © 2013 The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Robert Mangold, ½ W Series. 1968. Synthetic polymer paint on composition board in two parts. Digital Image: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY. Kazimir Malevich, Painterly Realism of a Boy with a Knapsack – Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension, 1915. Oil on canvas. Digital Image: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY. Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, c. 1923-1930. Oil on plaster. Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY. Sol LeWitt, Serial Project, I (ABCD), 1966. Baked enamel on steel units over baked enamel on aluminum. Digital Image: © 2013 The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; © 2013 Robert Mangold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Art of Steven Naifeh | 133

Found in Translation: The Art of Steven Naifeh  

Found in Translation: The Art of Steven Naifeh

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