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 www.columbiamuseum.org 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.
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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
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
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 Museumâ€™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 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,
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
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
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
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.
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
supreme admiration for works of art that overpower us with sheer sensory delight.
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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
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Saida V: Iridescent Gold 1998. Acrylic on 60 canvases, 120 Ă— 120".
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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".
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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".
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Saida XV: Limestone 2011. Limestone, 4" × 20 × 20'.
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Saida X: Chrome 2010. Chrome on 60 steel boxes, 120 Ă— 120".
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Cyrene VIII: Sashay Red 2010. Acrylic on 24 canvases, 53 Ă— 53".
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Cyrene XV: Venetian Blue 2012. Acrylic on 110 canvases, 89 Ă— 115".
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Cyrene XVI: Gold 2012. Acrylic on 110 canvases, 89 Ă— 115".
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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".
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Cyrene XI: Mystical Green 2011. Acrylic on 40 canvases, 64 Ă— 64".
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Topkapi XII 2011. Acrylic on canvas, 60 × 43".
Topkapi II 1992. Acrylic on canvas, 60 × 43".
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Topkapi XXII 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 60 Ă— 60".
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Topkapi XX 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 72 Ă— 98".
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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".
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Topkapi XVI 2011. Acrylic on canvas, 48 Ă— 48".
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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".
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Ajlun IV: Silver and White 2002. Acrylic on 32 canvases, 80 Ă— 168".
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Mughal IV: Copper and White 1984. Acrylic on 2 canvases, 96 Ă— 192".
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Mughal V: Silver and White 1984. Acrylic on 2 canvases, 96 Ă— 192".
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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".
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Mizan XII detail 4a
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Mizan VI: Black Cherry 2011. Acrylic on 18 interconnected canvases, 60 Ă— 60".
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Mizan XIV: Mystical Green 2011. Acrylic on 18 interconnected canvases, 60 Ă— 60".
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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".
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Mamluk II: Black Pearl 2010. Acrylic on 12 canvases, 62 Ă— 72".
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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".
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Petra VII: Venetian Blue 2011. Acrylic on 30 canvases, 68 Ă— 73".
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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".
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Jali XXVI: Sashay Red and White 2011. Acrylic on 2 canvases, 72 Ă— 144".
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Jali XXVII: Venetian Blue and White 2011. Acrylic on 2 canvases, 72 Ă— 144".
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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".
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Jali XXXV: Venetian Blue 2012. Acrylic on wood, 80 x 32 x 32".
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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".
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Jerash XIII: Shimmering Sky 2011. Acrylic on 24 canvases, 84 Ă— 84".
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Jerash VII: Copper 2010. Acrylic on 24 canvases, 84 Ă— 84".
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Jerash XXII: Mystical Green 2012. Acrylic on 24 canvases, 84 Ă— 84".
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Jerash XX: Gold 2012. Acrylic on 24 canvases, 84 Ă— 84".
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Uzbek III 2013. Acrylic with LED lights, 100 Ă— 100".
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Uzbek VI 2013. Acrylic with LED lights, 72 Ă— 72".
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Uzbek II 2012. Acrylic with LED lights, 48 Ă— 48".
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Uzbek V 2012. Stainless steel and acrylic with fiber optic and LED lights, 48 Ă— 48".
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life of the artist
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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.
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.
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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
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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
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