New YorkMOMA PS1
March 3 – September 2, 2019
Do these works of art belong to our time? The sculptures in Simone Fattal’s exhibition Works and Days at MoMA PS1 appear freshly dusted off from an archaeological dig, artifacts or parts thereof wrested from history. Yet they are now on view in a Kunsthalle, a museum without a permanent collection, much less an ethnographic or historical one. In this decidedly contemporary context, Fattal presents her versions of humankind’s earliest structures—a Ziqqurat (2013) erected in clean, geometric slabs; a Wall in the Desert (2016) glazed in rusty brick-red—and the cast of figures who inhabited them, divine and mortal. In The Migrant Family (2005), one of several bronzes in the show, two weary parents tower vertiginously above their child, weather-worn and sun-faded as though arriving from a long journey. Totemic men and women with amorphous torsos dappled by Fattal’s nimble fingers stand on impossibly elongated legs that rival the strides of Giacometti’s wayfarers. With their raw edges and irregular forms, they are both precarious and imposing, inspiring the kind of solemn admiration we might feel for a lost civilization. Why bring the past to the fore in a contemporary context? “To make it alive again,” Fattal answered resolutely when we spoke. Far from an act of unwarranted nostalgia, her backward glance is a timely resistance to the absoluteness of the present.
The retrospective, curated by Ruba Katrib, is the artist’s first in the United States and presents more than 200 works including paintings, works on paper, and sculptures from the last five decades of Fattal’s production, in addition to her autobiographical film Autoportrait (1971/2012). With an insistence on the literary wellsprings of her art, the sculptural groupings in each room feature the protagonists of tales from the Odyssey to those of Fattal’s own imagination. While Katrib eschewed chronology, forging instead creative juxtapositions between the artist’s epochs, the biographical significance of Fattal’s passage from painting to sculpture is made particularly salient. It was only after fleeing Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) and finding a new home in California that Fattal took up ceramics. Her last painting prior to this juncture dates from 1980; her first sculpture, a found block of alabaster chiseled and titled Torso Found in Today’s Downtown Beirut, from 1988. Before war, before clay, there were no figures in Fattal’s art. Instead, she made luscious oil paintings like Submarine Landscape (1969) or Interior Spring (1974), where spiraling forms are suspended on boundless expanses of pigment. There was no need to evoke the past: “I was living in Lebanon, and we were making history by just being there,” explained Fattal.
Once abroad, however, she experienced a profound yearning for what was left behind. One way of dealing with displacement might be to replace old memories with new ones, with a blank canvas. Fattal’s strategy was the opposite: she conjured ancient culture, perhaps to ensure its survival. But the preponderance of the human form in her work—warriors, rulers, and everymen alike—also signals an impulse to populate her new life with sculpture. “Maybe it’s the combination of clay and being away that produced all these people,” she contemplated.
Still, even her most literal works thwart total figuration. Consider the ambiguous anatomy of Enkidu (2006), a stoneware statue so named after the wild being conceived by the gods—out of water and clay, no less—in the Ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh. Or the columnar body of Gilgamesh (2005) himself, more redolent of an obelisk than a king. If the Venus of Willendorf, who lacked feet, flaunted well-defined hips and breasts, Fattal’s figures are far more abstract. They are modeled with palpable respect for the medium’s rebellious nature (“It’s a miracle to make them stand,” she told me), a practice that embraces bumps, drips, and other inevitable acts of gravity.
Katrib has arranged Fattal’s sculptures on circular plinths and stepped platforms where they recede in space, suggesting theatrical stages where narratives unfold. One ladder-like construction surmounted with small ceramic works has been placed flush against the gallery wall, impeding us from walking around it—we must instead experience the staggered objects in their fixed hierarchies, like discrete moments in time. On an adjacent wall, a series of ink-on-paper studies depicts forests of brushy trees, their trunks as vertical as Fattal’s standing figures. Elsewhere in the exhibition, 14 black-and-white paintings titled Variation en noir et blanc, l'état du ciel (2013) surround an infantry of four large-scale Warriors (2011). This is one of the curator’s most puzzling but satisfying pairings: with their minimal, geometric compositions and monochromatic austerity, the canvases play up the soldiers’ stoic anonymity, yet both groups of works come alive under Fattal’s human touch.
In the final gallery of the rotunda, right before the exhibition begins again, a spherical ceramic work from 2011 is titled and inscribed with the phrase Wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit? (What Are Poets For in These Destitute Times?). The resounding query, first posed in German poet Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin’s elegy Bread and Wine (1801), was famously echoed in an essay written by Martin Heidegger in the aftermath of the Second World War. Grappling with art’s role in a difficult world, Fattal’s sculpture reminds us, remains an urgent pursuit. The timeless riddle’s resurgence at the end of Works and Days confronts us like a cheeky, self-referential rhetorical: why this art, why now? Fattal, with her thoughtful weavings of the personal and the universal, the intimate and the monumental, attempts an answer. Only art, she seems to say, can reach across time, extend the past into the present, and embody eternity.