Tate Modern March 2023
Rasheed Araeen, 3Y 3B 1969
Saloua Raouda Choucair, Poem Wall 1963–5
Nabil Nahas, Eclypse 1978
Saleem Arif Quadri, Landscape of Longing 1997–9
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian Something Old Something New 1974
Beyond Boundaries: Exploring the Multifaceted World of Geometric Art in 'Infinite Geometry' Exhibition at Tate Modern
The Infinite Geometry exhibition at Tate Modern showcases contemporary artists who have transformed traditional geometry into a medium for artistic expression. The artists' use of colour, texture, and form challenges viewers to decipher the intricate geometric patterns and motifs in their works. This essay provides a critical analysis of Saleem Arif Quadri and Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian's works and explores the historical significance of geometry in art. Moreover, it examines how the artists' Islamic heritage influences their work and contributes to a sense of balance and harmony. Finally, the essay explores the importance of geometric art in contemporary art and how curatorial decisions impact visitors' interactions with the artwork.
The two artists both stem from an Islamic background and operate within that cultural framework. Islamic art is a diverse art form that encompasses a wide range of styles and mediums, including calligraphy, ceramics, textiles, and architecture. It is created by a community for a community, reflecting the shared experiences, beliefs, and values of the people who produce it. Islamic art is often characterized by its intricate patterns, vibrant colours, and decorative elements, which are used to convey a sense of unity, harmony, and beauty.1
This art form celebrates the collective history and identity of the Islamic community, transcending time and space to foster a sense of communal belonging.2 Later, I will discuss the parallels that can be drawn between the geometric pieces found in Tate's permanent collection and the artwork displayed at Tate Modern, a prominent institution of Western art.
The ‘In the Studio: Infinite Geometry’ exhibition is a thematic exhibition that focuses on geometric abstraction and its influence on contemporary art. The exhibition comprises various artists, mediums, and periods, showcasing diverse artistic and cultural backgrounds and capabilities. The exhibition is a group show, and each artwork is placed strategically to create a coherent narrative that explores the themes, repetition, and colour.
In the ‘Issues in Curating Contemporary Art and Performance’ Judith Rugg contends that starting from the late 1980s, group exhibits have emerged as the principal arena for curatorial innovation, consequently establishing a discourse-rich environment surrounding artistic endeavour.
Furthermore, group exhibitions allow for the engagement of different people and interests, often in a transcultural context. The author also suggests that temporary art exhibitions have become the principal medium for distributing and receiving art, and that exhibitions are the primary means through which contemporary art is mediated, experienced, and historically registered. (Rugg, 2007,p.14)
My main objective is to thoroughly evaluate the exhibited artworks by exploring the significance of geometry in contemporary art.
The Evolution of Geometric Art in the 20th Century: From Cubism to Minimalism
The use of geometric shapes in art can be traced back to ancient civilizations such as the Greeks and the Egyptians, who used geometry in their architectural designs and decorative arts 3. However, it wasn't until the 20th century that geometric art emerged as a distinct movement in the Western world.
In the 20th century, a major movement that incorporated geometric elements was Cubism, which emerged in the early 20th century and had a significant impact on the development of modern art.
Cubism significantly impacted subsequent notable movements, particularly Italian Futurism, as well as Rayonism and Suprematism in Russia. (Anne Ganteführer-Trier,2006, p.25 )
One of the earliest examples of geometric art in the 20th century was the Russian Suprematist movement, which began in 1915. Led by Kazimir Malevich (Figure 1), the Suprematists believed that a conceptual visual dialect, grounded in the most basic geometric shapes, could surpass reason and accomplish the visual counterpart of absolute zero: a complete aesthetic refinement. (Douglas, 1975)
(Kazimir Malevich - Suprematist paintings at 1915’s Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10, in Petrograd, Russia)
Cubist artists such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque broke down objects into their constituent geometric shapes and then reassembled them in complex, fragmented compositions 4. In Italy, the Futurists also used geometric shapes in their art, particularly in their exploration of movement and speed. (Compton, 1981, p.345)
The Futurists were interested in the ways in which modern technology and industrialization were changing the world, and they used geometric shapes to convey a sense of dynamism and motion.(Tisdall,Bozzola, 1978, p.7-29)
In the United States, the Minimalist movement of the 1960s and 70s also incorporated geometric elements into its work.5 Minimalist artists Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. (Marzona, Carlini, 2006, p.19 & p.50)
The minimalist art movement of the 1960s used geometric shapes and industrial materials to emphasize the physical aspects of art and the connection between the artwork and the viewer. Michael Fried's essay "Art and Objecthood"(1967) criticized this movement and emphasized the importance of the artwork blending into its surroundings. (Grubbs, D. 1998, p.193-195)
Geometry, Art, and Technology: A Resurgence in Modern Art
Geometry and art have a long history together, and this relationship has seen a resurgence in modern times, particularly from the 20th century onwards. This connection has been shaped by math, science, and technology, influencing artistic movements like Geometric Abstractism 6 , Constructivism 7, Kinetic Art 8, and Optical Art 9. These movements have inspired unique and visually striking works that still impact contemporary art.
‘The concept of “geometric form” did in fact slowly arise from the observation of forms already existing in Nature and more or less hidden in the structures through which the human mind tends to perceive the “Order of Nature”.(Lorenzi and Francaviglia, 2011, p.365-372)
The artists in this exhibition challenge traditional views of geometry and artistic expression using different forms, shapes, colours, and techniques. For instance, Rasheed Araeen's minimalist 10 piece '3Y 3B' (Figure 2) on display is an example of this.
The captivating 3D aspect of the piece is balanced by its symmetry, achieved through minimalism and geometric consistency. Symmetry in geometry involves harmonious arrangement of shapes and patterns. Minimalism and geometric consistency achieve this balance by using necessary elements and established standards for arranging shapes and patterns. By striking a balance between these two principles, a geometric structure can achieve a pleasing and balanced overall appearance.(Stewart.I, 2013, p.45)
Araeen eliminates horizontal symmetry and welcomes vertical alignments in an "inverted world.
Rasheed Araeen '3Y 3B'
From a scientific perspective, abstract patterns often require more cognitive processing (Goldhagen, 2005, p.144-167) and interpretation than symmetry. This is because abstract patterns are typically less structured and more complex than symmetric patterns, which can make them more challenging to interpret and understand. Research has shown that the brain processes symmetry differently than it does more abstract patterns.11
Many modernist artists were inspired by the ideas of the mathematician and philosopher Henri Poincaré who argued that mathematical concepts such as symmetry, proportion, and geometry could provide a framework for art. Modernist artists sought to break away from traditional artistic conventions and explore new forms of expression that were more reflective of the rapidly changing world around them. One way that modernist artists accomplished this was by incorporating mathematical principles into their work. (Holton, 2001,p.127-134)
Exploring the Intersection of Traditional Islamic Art and Contemporary Art: Saleem Arif Quadri's 'Landscape of Longing
Saleem Arif Quadri is a contemporary artist from Pakistan who explores themes of identity, culture, and society in his thought-provoking mixed media installations. His works have been exhibited in various art shows and galleries around the world. Quadri attributes his creativity to his parents: he inherited his desire to communicate through visual language from his mother, an amateur painter, and gained a sense of curiosity, self-control, and persistence to observe and investigate the visible world from his father, a surgeon with a keen interest in poetry, music, and literature.12
According to the Tate website 13, Arif Quadri conceptualizes his artwork within the framework of the art piece called 'Landscape of Longing', as a tribute to life, encapsulating its mysterious and inexplicable facets.
Saleem Arif Quadri's art is often characterized by his use of intricate geometric patterns, rich colours, and meticulous attention to detail. The theme and conceptual framework of his art revolve around the exploration of Islamic geometry and the intersection between traditional Islamic art and contemporary art practices.
Quadri draws inspiration from Islamic architecture and design, as well as traditional Islamic art forms such as calligraphy 14 (Figure 3) and miniature painting. He explores the relationship between geometry and spirituality, using intricate geometric patterns to create a sense of order, harmony, and balance in his work. His art is a fusion of traditional Islamic motifs and contemporary art practices, combining ancient techniques with modern materials and methods.
The rhombic dot as a guide to proportions [Image source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art]
For example, Saleem Arif Quadri's 'Landscape of Longing' is a large-scale installation that depicts Seven cut out shapes of large proportions. (Figure 4)
Saleem Arif Quadri's 'Landscape of Longing'
Arthur Danto, a theorist who has written extensively on the topic of art and its relationship to the mysteries of existence, argued that art helps us make sense of the world and provides a means of interpreting our experiences. In his book "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace," Danto suggests that art has the power to reveal hidden meanings and complexities of ordinary objects and events, thereby helping us connect with the mystery and wonder of existence. (Danto, 1981)
This idea is relevant to Saleem's work, which often consists of geometric shapes that exhibit a strong sense of structure and form that can be described mathematically. Unlike Saleem’s earlier works, which featured recognizable figurative symbols, such as ‘Spiritual Itch’(Figure 5), ‘Space Lattice’(Figure 6) or ‘Untitled 1’ (Figure 7) his artpiece "Landscape of Longing," consists of seemingly abstract cut-out forms that can be considered "geometric." Saleem's work employs form, structure, and mathematical description to uncover concealed meanings and intricacies.
‘Spiritual Itch’, (1970)
‘Space Lattice’, (1970)
‘Untitled 1’, (Year Unknown)
Saleem’s works are inspired by the rich cultural heritage of Islamic art, and he frequently employs traditional Islamic geometry techniques 15. Islamic geometry techniques are based on geometric and vegetative motifs 16 that are popular in the lands where Islam was once or still is a major religion.
The most famous Islamic geometric pattern is the tessellation, which is a repeating pattern of interlocking shapes. Other Islamic geometric techniques include muqarnas, a type of three-dimensional ornamentation, and girih, a decorative Islamic art form that uses complex geometric patterns. (Gulru, 1995, p.69)
Upon examining Saleem Arif Quadri's 'Landscape of Longing', I found its lack of refinement and organization to be a jarring contrast to the traditional geometric art on display. This tension prompted me to reflect on the role of structure and form in art. While other pieces exhibited precision and order, 'Landscape of Longing' embraced a more natural and organic aesthetic. The absence of linear straight lines gave it a topographical feel, resembling shapes found in canyons and formations. This evoked harmony with the environment, a concept opposed to the rigid and structured geometric art in the exhibition. Quadri's work invited me to consider the relationship between art and nature, and how different forms of structure and form evoke emotions and meanings.
Exploring the Mesmerizing Light Reflection of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian's Mirrored Mosaic Art
The second section of the exhibition showcases the works of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, which contrast with the surrounding space due to their innovative use of light and shadow. Her works feature mirrored mosaics consisting of small geometric shapes arranged in larger shapes like angles and curves. (Figure 9), creating intricate patterns (Figure 8).
(Abstract symbols in ornamental Arabic style)
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Hexagon (Fourth Family), 2013. Photo courtesy the Third Line
The patterns were created using a combination of mirrored and coloured glass, which reflected and refracted light in different ways 17.
The charm of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian's art is rooted in its mesmerizing light reflection. Through the adjustment of mirrors' angles and positions, Farmanfarmaian designed complex patterns of light and shadow that shifted based on the observer's location and the light source's direction. This resulted in an endlessly dynamic, interactive experience for the audience, as the artwork seemed to transform and evolve as they moved around it.
Many contemporary artists use mirrors in their work, such as Lichtenstein, Pistoletto, Kusama, and McElheny. They explore perception, the self, and wider society. For example, Pistoletto uses smashed mirrors to show society's interconnectedness, while Lichtenstein's Mirror series invites the viewer to become an active participant in the work. 21
Throughout art history, mirrors have been utilized to create various effects in artworks, such as illusions, depth, and symmetry. However, contemporary artists like Louise Bourgeois (Figure 10) and Yayoi Kusama (Figure 11) have employed mirrors in a more interactive and immersive manner. Bourgeois incorporated mirrors in her sculptures to offer the viewer a chance to engage with the piece, while Kusama uses mirrors in her installations to make the audience feel like an integral part of her artistic expression.18
Mirrors in paintings have been a tradition since the Renaissance, and they continue to puzzle historians and viewers due to their ambiguity and multiple interpretations 19. Contemporary artists also use mirrors to explore identity and the gaze, with Zanele Muholi's Somnyama Ngonyama series and Tokyo Rumando's self-portraiture using mirrors to reflect on fetishistic portrayals of women 20.
Louise Bourgeois Cell (Twelve Oval Mirrors)
Yayoi Kusama, Chandelier of Grief, Presented by a private collector in New York, 2019.
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Infinite Possibility. Mirror Works and Drawings, 1974–2014
The majority of Monir's art pieces give the impression of exquisite jewellery (Figure 12).
Farmanfarmaian's use of light and shadow was not limited to her mirrored mosaics, however. She also explored the interplay between light and shadow in her drawings and paintings, using techniques such as shading and layering to create the effect of movement on a two-dimensional surface 22. In an interview with art net News, Farmanfarmaian said she her art is 'everything I do is for the observation of my eye'. She added about her work: 'It’s a mix of an optical illusion to me.'23
Exploring the Interplay of Optical Illusions, Reflections, and Colour in Saleem Arif Quadri's 'Landscape of Longing' and Traditional Islamic Art
Upon analyzing the artwork, I found that the optical illusions used in it played tricks on my brain, causing it to either perceive something that was not actually present or misinterpret my own reflection. In the effort to break free from the labyrinth of distortion illusions that confused my eye, my gaze is compelled to navigate throughout the composition and reflected colour.
Inquiring whether colour is a component of geometry, especially in this artwork where the silvery reflective mirror surface plays a pivotal role in the overall design. In other words, the clothing I choose to wear may have an impact on how the artwork is perceived. When viewed from different angles, my reflection is transformed, revealing a multidimensional aspect of the space surrounding me.
The artwork's design is affected by its reflective surface and can change based on the color of the viewer's clothing. The reflective surface creates a multidimensional effect, offering different perspectives when viewed from different angles. Color, considered as a part of geometry, can influence the perception of the artwork's shape and structure. The artwork's meaning and experience are shaped by the interplay of the reflective surface, color, and perception.
Quadri uses complex patterns and shapes to create intricate designs that convey depth and movement within his artworks. (Figure 12)
Close up detail of Saleem Arif Quadri's 'Landscape of Longing'
In addition to his use of traditional materials and techniques, Quadri also uses colour in a bold and dynamic way, often using a vibrant colour palette to create contrast and impact. His use of colour is often informed by the natural environment.
The Power of Geometric Abstraction and Reflection in Islamic Art: Exploring the Works of Saleem Arif Quadri and Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian
Both artists take inspiration from this rich Islamic cultural heritage and create their works using traditional Islamic techniques. The Islamic calligraphic tradition has a strong influence on Quadri’s work. His use of Arabic calligraphy texts in his works provides an additional layer of meaning to the pieces. Islamic Calligraphy (Figure 13) is considered a type of art form where artists strive to create aesthetically pleasing letters that not only carry a sense of rhythm 24 but also convey significant meaning to the viewer.
Islamic calligraphy emphasizes the significance of communication and language in Islamic culture by deeply analyzing letter forms, their visual appeal, and emotional impact on the viewer.
Nevertheless, the viewing experience comes from the use of space. The patterns of irregular shapes in Saleem Arif Quadri’s works create the illusion of depth and negative space. In artwork, the positive space denotes the primary focus or subject, while negative space pertains to the background or the space surrounding the subject 25. On the other hand, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s works feature large mirrored sculptures that reflect the natural area and create a sense of positive space.
Is it worth noting that Saleem Arif Quadri's works displayed in the exhibition's first segment are characterized by their commanding presence, large scale, and carefully arranged forms in vivid hues? The curator's decision to provide generous space between the art pieces on the walls allows visitors to fully appreciate the impact of the works and appreciate their significance.
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s work exemplifies the power of geometric abstraction which lies in its ability to communicate a wide range of ideas and emotions in a way that is both visually striking and intellectually engaging 26. Her mirrored sculpture represents the surrounding environment, giving the impression of infinite space that echoes the Tate Modern’s architectural context. ‘Something Old Something New,’ 27 one of her works in the exhibition, is a good example of her use of mirrored surfaces. The artistry behind this art piece draws inspiration from the ornamental techniques of the seventeenth century, harnessed to adorn the interiors of shrines and monuments.
This intricately crafted artwork skilfully weaves together two reverse glass paintings: an accidental discovery from the Qajar 28 period and a bold abstract expressionist piece painted by none other than the artist herself.
The mirror's dual nature as a reflective and refractive object has long captured the imagination of artists and writers alike 29. While it has traditionally been associated with the mimetic function of literature and film, its refractive quality has empowered artists to subvert and challenge notions of perspective and faithful representation in art.
Mirrors captivate artists and writers with their reflective and refractive characteristics. Though commonly used for accurate representation, some artists employ mirrors to bend and distort images, subverting conventional notions of reality in art. Artists venture into uncharted realms of creativity with mirrors, pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the visual arts.
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian challenges the norm by skillfully using the reflective and refractive properties of mirrors in her works, inviting viewers to perceive the world from a different perspective. 30. This technique allows for a critical analysis of the viewer's perception of reality.
Geometric Abstraction: Connecting Tate's Permanent Collection to Contemporary Art at Tate Modern
The parallels between the geometric pieces found in Tate's permanent collection and the artwork displayed at Tate Modern can be drawn due to the presence of geometric forms and patterns in both. Many artists featured in the permanent collection of Tate, such as William Gear 31 (Figure 14) and Victor Pasmore 32 (Figure 15), were pioneers of abstraction and produced artwork that featured fundamental shapes and colours arranged in a non-representational manner.
Similarly, many contemporary artists whose works are displayed at Tate Modern also incorporate geometric forms and patterns into their pieces. For instance, the works of Bridget Riley 33 (Figure 16) and Sol LeWitt 34 (Figure 17) are known for their use of repetitive geometric patterns and shapes. Moreover, geometric abstraction remains a significant influence on contemporary art, and many artists continue to experiment with geometric forms and patterns in their works.
William Gear, ‘The Sculptor’ 1953
Victor Pasmore, [title not known] 1979
Bridget Riley, Elongated Triangles, 1971
Sol LeWitt, Five Open Geometric Structures, 1979
To summarize, geometric art has been a significant trend in Western art, used by artists across different movements and time periods to explore various themes and ideas. However, it is subjective, and not everyone resonates with all the artworks. While some works showcase movement and rhythm through textured and fractured surfaces, others suggest dynamic potential through interlocking elements or forms composed along different planes of light and color. For some, precision and perspective are an inherent feature of geometric art forms.
Overall, this exhibition is a challenging collection to digest and decipher.
This exhibition is a compact scenery that provides an impression of boundlessness.
Nevertheless, the exhibition is a gateway to the power of art to engage and inspire people of all ages and backgrounds. I have discovered a new perspective on geometry through researching the portfolios of the featured artists and the collection is an important reminder of the diversity of how art pieces can be interpreted. Never judge a book by its cover would be one way to describe this particular display. The exhibition investigates geometry as a concept and a visual language - encouraging the viewer to explore deeper into the artists themselves rather than only judge the exhibition at face value.
Tate Modern's exhibitions often explore the historical and cultural contexts of art, including Islamic and African art, which also feature intricate geometric patterns and shapes. Hence, the parallels between the geometric pieces found in Tate's permanent collection and the artwork displayed at Tate Modern can be observed in terms of the shared use of geometric forms and patterns, as well as the exploration of geometric abstraction across different periods and cultural contexts.
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